Amid COVID-19, Oud Festival of Jerusalem goes digital

Only local artists were asked to perform, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Prelude for Peace Ensemble (photo credit: ILYA HANUKAYEV)
Prelude for Peace Ensemble
(photo credit: ILYA HANUKAYEV)
Like most other cultural festivals around the world that actually took place, the Oud Festival of Jerusalem 2020 was handicapped by the coronavirus. As with the Israel Festival in September, changes had to be wrought at the last minute as a result of the pandemic sweeping all before it. This was particularly true for the Oud Festival which involves planning a good year ahead of time.
Effie Benaye, director of the festival, told The Jerusalem Report: “We had already booked two groups from Greece and another from India. We obviously had to cancel these, although we promised to invite them back for next year!”
There were important changes that were made in the format of the Festival as result of the situation. The first is of course that only local artists were asked to perform. As it turned out this was a blessing in disguise in that it showed the tremendous riches of local talent that would otherwise have been passed over. It also showed the level of cooperation between Jewish-Israelis and Arab-Israelis. “Some 45% of the performers were Arabs,” observed Benaye.
Moreover, “we have a number of internationally-recognized musicians, “ he explained. “Like, Taseer Elias, Shlomo Bar and Ehud Banai. Most of those performing had already appeared in past festivals. In fact we have made this a sort of retrospective of the previous twenty festivals.”
The opening performance well expressed the flavor of the Festival. The group, G’ish, have been playing together for more than 30 years and it showed in the ease with which they sounded off each other. George Samaan and Salem Darwish on Oud and darbuka respectively are Arabs from the Galilee village of Rameh, and Ehud Banai from the well known family of musicians and actors from Jerusalem.
Together they brought the sounds and stories of the countryside alongside those of Banai’s childhood in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehudah district, who played his distinct acoustic guitar. This was Arab-Jewish cooperation at its most intimate and joyous. Typical was their rendering of the well-known table hymn “Tzur Mishelo” (“The Rock,” from whose bounty we have eaten) in both Hebrew and Arabic. Similarly their guest singer Luna Abu Nassar sang in a fine alto voice in both languages.
Two ethnic performances followed. Mor Karabasi hailing from a Moroccan-Sephardi tradition was able to slide from the liturgical songs of northern Morocco and Haketiya which she learned from her grandfather, to Berber songs of the Atlas mountains. She sang piyutim (devotional hymns ) – normally reserved for men – endowing them with great emotion and drama, accompanied by an organ, percussionist and a superb guitarist, Joe Taylor.
Hadas Pal-Yarden presented newer versions of old Ladino songs many of which had been hidden away in an archive in England for a century. Now resuscitated they found expression in Pal Yarden’s renditions accompanied by a band that included a clarinet, baglama, sasz, darbuka and Spanish guitar. Her songs ranged from a Jewish man going into the Turkish army, a woman having a hard time giving birth, to another woman being chased by a Pasha, refusing his advances and as a result taken out to be hung. Another sad song was composed by the Jews of Salonika on their way to Auschwitz, knowing they were going to their deaths. By contrast was a song originally accompanied one of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi’s religious ceremonies. These songs will be released soon by the Jewish Music Research Center in Jerusalem, some of which will feature Pal-Yarden.
Wissam Joubran highlighted the oud on his solo performance that included compositions which he created for the Iraqi Kurdish community.
More innovations came in the form of a family duo, Yagel and Uriah Haroush, two brothers who played kemanche and nai (a Turkish flute) and oud. They took the ancient texts of tikkun chazot – devotional night hymns – and turned them into moving chants accompanied by a four-man chorus. These ‘midnight songs’ feature on their new album. The soulful renditions of the mystical strain of Judaism contained many repetitions as the singers became increasingly more ecstatic.These piyutim contain such lines as “From my poverty I will reveal Your glory.”
Keeping in step with the local atmosphere of this year’s Festival, Samir Makhoul presented a medley of songs from Nazareth in song and on his oud. These songs reflected the city’s past as a trade station between Damascus, Beirut and Cairo. The texts of the songs were written by the inhabitants of Nazareth and the Galilee and were set to Egyptian and Syrian melodies becoming folk songs of the region and used in weddings and family festivities.
 Neta Elyakam and Amit Hai Cohen sang songs reflecting the very universal issue of migration and longing for a distant homeland. These included texts translated from modern Hebrew poets to Moroccan Arabic, hymns of longing for the Holy Land from the Maghreb and protest songs from the ma’abarot –refugee camps in which Moroccan immigrants were housed in the Israel of the 1950s. There were also some surprise songs such a rendition of “My Yiddishe Mame” sang not in Yiddish, but in Arabic!
The Bab al Hawa group (Gate of the Wind or of Love) brought together two virtuoso musicians, Nissim Dakwar on the violin and Wassim Odeh on the oud, who performed new works with these traditional instruments, accompanied by the kanoon, nei, darbouka and double bass. Their powerful performance managed to expand their traditional tropes with a vibrant modern touch. Their set was even more impressive in that Zohar Fresco, the international acclaimed percussionist, was absent from the group due to an injury to his hand just days before the festival.
One of the favorites of the Festival – he has appeared here countless times – is Tayseer Elias, a professor of music at Haifa University, who brought his all-Arab group to play a tribute to the legendary Egyptian songstress Oum Kalthoum and her lesser known sisters. Elias’s masterly playing of the oud was well on display as he played alongside his ensemble, accompanied from time to time by women singers. Their expressive voices were redolent of Egyptian culture at its very sophisticated.
 The final concert was also in some ways the most radical. Omri Mor a youngish Jazz pianist integrated his free-form jazz modes with Abatte Barihun, an Ethiopian singer and clarinet player, a violinist, the sasz, a double bass player and percussionist.
This itself promised an interesting mixture of styles and cultures. In addition their special guest was Shlomo Bar. Bar, who started his music career playing the blues, soon morphed into the man who, more than anyone else, introduced World Music into Israel back in the 1970s. His various bands since then have sought to integrate the ethnic sounds of Israel with other traditions, particularly from his home country of Morocco, but also from further abroad such as India.
His pioneering efforts brought down the umbrage of more ethnic purists. Sefardim, for example, felt that he was diluting their tradition. Nevertheless he persisted, succeeding to bring a whole generation of musicians to appreciate the possibilities of mixing other styles and cultures into the rich traditions that are found in Israeli music. So it was that here too his raspy voice somehow melded into the cool sounds of Mor’s funky jazz and Barihun’s sensuous, flowing clarinet. His version of such standards as Adon Olam (Master of the Universe) and Esai Eini (I will lift up my eyes) left in no doubt that a well-grounded traditionalist (Bar is now an Orthodox Sefardi Jew) can integrate many styles into his own and still remain his own man.
 As for the Festival as a whole Effi Benaye was fairly realistic: “Since we could not have performances in front of live audiences we decided to digitalize the whole event and show it on U-Tube or Facebook (where they can now be viewed MB).
The various bodies funding the festival – the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Foundation and the Ministry of Culture and Sport were forthcoming in underwriting the whole budget, even though our side of it, collecting monies from ticket sales, would not be forthcoming. To balance this we put a lot of effort into publicizing the festival in places we normally wouldn’t get to. In particular I am thinking of the Arab community, and not only in Israel.”
Benaye’s plan seems to have worked judging by the thousands of people who have logged onto the festival during and after its run.■