Oodles of oud

"We were attracting local Arabs as well as Jewish Israelis, many of whom had some experience of Oriental music,” Benaya told The Jerusalem Report.

Briane Keane and Omar Farouk Tekbilek (photo credit: KVON)
Briane Keane and Omar Farouk Tekbilek
(photo credit: KVON)

In preparing for the 20th Oud International Festival in Jerusalem next month, director Effie Benaya waxes enthusiastic at bringing together the increasingly divided community of Jerusalem and beyond.
“It was a difficult period to begin this project,” Benaya told The Jerusalem Report. “We began very modestly. But as the event continued each year we saw the audiences grow. We were attracting local Arabs as well as Jewish Israelis, many of whom had some experience of Oriental music.”
As the demand increased so too did the range of artists, not only from Israel but also from abroad.
This was even truer in 2006 when the festival was featured in Songlines, the premier magazine of World Music that comes out of England. It helped put the festival on the international map.
The planning of such an event is a long haul. “I’m really busy with the festival from September to April,” notes Benaya. “By May I’ll already have a full program. In September, I have an idea of some of the performances that will take place the following year. So while I am very involved in this year’s festival, I already have ideas for the next year.”
Benaya is a major force in the country for bringing unusual music to the stage including classical Indian, Greek and Turkish music, which until a few years ago was not heard in Israel. The festival was also a pioneer in bringing classical Arabic music to a wider Israeli audience.
“That was the impetus at the very beginning of the festival,” says Benaya. “Arab music had been considered for too long ‘the music of the enemy.’ But now we were able to expose the Israeli audience to the great masters of classical Arab music.”
Neither did Benaya neglect classical Hebrew texts, especially those which have been set to contemporary music. Over the years the festival has featured the poems of Yehuda Halevy and Ibn Gvirol, which had been turned into beautifully crafted contemporary songs. Going even further back, the festival has also featured the Biblical books of Ecclesiastes, Psalms and the Song of Songs. “What was special,” reflects Benaya, “was that they were interpreted by mainstream Israeli musicians and singers.”
This year Benaya has mixed some tried performers with some novel acts. Thus the opening performance will see Omar Farouk Tekbilek, a Turkish Sufi musician based in the US who is an old-timer at the festival, with Brian Keane, a guitarist who discovered him playing in night clubs. Together they produced two CDs on the strength of which Farouk became an internationally known artist. Farouk plays a multitude of instruments including the flute-like ney, the kaval, zurna, oud and baglama. Their guest singer is Zara, an important artist from Turkey who Farouk wanted to sing with them.
An ensemble that is appearing for the first time is called Estudiantina, from Greece. It reproduces the great Estudiantina orchestra that played at the end of the 19th century, and was composed of students – hence the name. Their music was played in Izmir and Istanbul, and this 18-strong ensemble continues in their tradition, adding some of its own innovations. The orchestra includes soloists who are well known by themselves both as musicians and vocalists. Among these is Alkistis Protopsalti, a singer who is well known in Israel where she has performed before.
From India comes a master of the sitar Shahid Parvez accompanied by singer Parvin Sultana, who together represent the classical music of northern India. This is the first time that both are appearing on the same program. The first part will be with instrumentalist Parvez and the second with vocalist Sultana.
Another artist who appears again is American-based Ara Dinkjian, who will play Armenian music with Turkish singer Burcu Yildiz, who sings in Armenian and who will be accompanied by Turkish and Armenian musicians. A further performance involving Turkish music will be with Okan Murat Ozturk, who plays the Turkish Saz (a long-necked stringed instrument) with his group.
Other locals who have appeared here before include Mark Eliyahu, a maestro of the kemanche – a violin-like instrument played vertically on the musician’s lap – who is teaming up with Rav Menachem, another favorite of Jewish religious music, and Ilana Eliya, an Israeli singer of Kurdish descent.
Rabbi Haim Louk – who appears here for the first time despite being in his 80s – is very well-known in Israel especially among the fans of piyyutim. Louk is a master performer inspiring his audience to join in as he sings the often obscure verses of these ancient religious poems.
Here he is going to be accompanied by the Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod, which is now officially representative of Israel on a par with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, Louk asked for a representative of the younger generation of singers though this time from Morocco. He specifically asked for Marwan Haji, a young singer from Morocco. This will be their first encounter on stage where they will perform Andalusian music.
Benaya is especially pleased with Haji’s appearance.
“For the first time we’ve managed to bring a singer from Morocco,” says Benaya. “He came through the office of Haim Louk, who insisted on a young singer – and not one of the more famous ones.”
Although the festival will also feature a special event focusing on the best of classic Egyptian music, it is with some regret that Egyptian artists will not be present to perform it.
“We’ve tried to invite Egyptian musicians but it has never succeeded,” laments Benaya. “We tried through our ambassador in Egypt but received no response. There are a number of Palestinians who we would like to come but they don’t want to – there are some who live in Europe and want to come but are constrained because of fear for their family in Palestine, from BDS, or simply because their livelihood could be threatened. Nevertheless, we have had success with artists from Turkey, Morocco, and Armenia.”
Reflecting on the 20 years of the festival, Benaya observes that “In the first 10 years there were more Arab musicians who came, but slowly they, too, have withdrawn. It depends on the political situation. In the past seven or eight years they have participated less and less We do get some people from Arab countries who live in the USA or Europe, but the more local they are the less likely is it that they come.
“There is an important message for this festival, that of partnership and co-operation. Just because Palestinians don’t come doesn’t mean that the basic idea is not important. Many artists from abroad ask us to be invited. It is one of the most important festivals of world music around. Musicians and singers come from Africa, from Europe. If they are relevant to our music I invite them, if not then I have to veto them. But the festival is on the international circuit and artists want to come.”
In addition to all these ticketed events there are also free concerts. In the foyer of the Jerusalem Theater students from the Academy of Music for Arab and Jewish music will play on their varied instruments. Some will play solos, others will play in a larger ensemble of some 20 students, singers and musicians alike, both Jewish and Arab. They will appear just before the opening night of Omar Faruk’s performance. It is an opportunity to appear before a large audience.
“In Confederation House there is also an annual master class given by a leading Oud player for youngsters,” says Benaya. “This year Samir Bahur will be giving the class. Last last year it was Tasir Elias, and the year before that Yair Dalal. Each of them invited five young musicians to play a solo for 20 minutes followed by a joint performance of the master plus the young musicians. We do it in Ta’anim – the restaurant in the Confederation House that is open to the public. This year Samir invited youngsters – some of them as young as 10 – to participate. They study in Nazareth and come to Jerusalem especially for this master class. All of these classes are free.”
The festival keeps Benaya busy all year round, but to organize it does not mean just sitting at his PC. “I’m always traveling to see and hear artists,” he says. “I go to WOMAX, which is the big annual meeting of world music musicians. I met musicians, for example, from Azerbaijan whom I brought here. When there is a concert that I think will be relevant I go there. I like to be aware of what is current and what will attract an audience.”
He tries to keep the price of tickets as reasonable as possible, with most tickets between NIS 80 and NIS 180. The exception this year is the Greek Orchestra, which is priced at NIS 250.
“We have a special arrangement for the Arab sector,” Benaya notes. “We also have a scheme called member-tickets by which whomever buys it receives a subsidy of 40% on all performances. The member-ticket costs NIS 70 but already the first ticket you buy you receive the 40% off, so that the Greek concert, for example, instead of NIS 250 will cost NIS 150. If a couple buys these tickets they will cost 300 shekels instead of 500 shekels.”
The Oud Festival runs from November 3-30. Although it is costly to run a festival of this scope, they are helped by the Culture and Sport Ministry, the Jerusalem Municipality, and other foundations, partly because it has been such an outstanding success.
Although 20 years have passed, Benaya has not let the dust settle. Or, as he puts it: “I feel that each year is the first.”