The Jerusalem Oud Festival 2021: A multi-cultural celebration

The Oud Festival again proved itself a true expression of multi-cultural living.

 Sofie Sedaka (left) and Hadar Maoz (right) expressing the Hebrew Woman (photo credit: ILYA HANUKAYEV)
Sofie Sedaka (left) and Hadar Maoz (right) expressing the Hebrew Woman
(photo credit: ILYA HANUKAYEV)

It’s difficult to believe that this year’s Oud Festival, the 22nd of its kind, was not international, with music from the Yemen, Persia, Kurdistan, Morocco, Iran, Algeria and Spain, as well as Israel. Yet all this wealth of music is generated from local Israeli talents. Owing to corona, the festival was again limited, as in the previous year, to local performers. The focus on Israeli talents, Jewish and Arab, highlights that this country has an extra-ordinary collection of musicians.

The opening concert was, however, an all-Israel affair. Effie Benaya, director of Confederation House (in the name of Kalman Sultanik) who produces the annual festival, has made it a tradition to open the event by asking an Israeli artist to premiere a new work based on traditional Jewish texts. This year is no exception. What was maybe surprising was the choice of one of Israel’s top popular composers – Yoni Rechter, who is identified more with jazz, pop and rock – to create a new work.

In the past, this spot was filled by the likes of Eti Ankari, who composed beautiful melodies to the words of Judah Halevi, and Berry Sakharof’s similarly interpreted poems by Ibn Gavirol. 

This year’s choice was different. Rechter, a secular Tel Avivian chose as his text the rich, philosophical Mishnaic book of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). Alongside two of the country’s leading singers, Ester Rada and Eviatar Banai, and a choir, The Israeli Vocal Ensemble, he presented his version of these ancient pearls of wisdom in his own music.

 Luna Abu Nassar hosted George Kandelfat, fusing Arabic and Hebrew music (credit: Guy Zagron) Luna Abu Nassar hosted George Kandelfat, fusing Arabic and Hebrew music (credit: Guy Zagron)

Rightly regarded as one of Israel’s leading composers of popular melodies but with an emphasis on complex chord progressions and jazz-based syncopation, Rechter went to work on these old texts. The music he produced was rich and powerful, very much jazz-inspired. Unfortunately, it seemed unrelated to the texts it was accompanying.

Such inspirational verses as “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” and “Anyone whose good deeds exceeds his wisdom, his wisdom will endure, but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, his wisdom will not endure,” or “Love work, despise power, and don’t become overly familiar with the government” were given a modern jazzy treatment. Whereas the music was highly sophisticated, its relation to the texts has to be questioned. Maybe Pirkei Avot should be set to much simpler music, reflecting the folk wisdom of the original.

The following evening there was a quintet led by the oud player Dr. Wassem Odeh. His innovative music was based on classical Arab themes and maqams (scales). His mellifluous playing on the fretless oud was reinforced by his talented group that included – unusual for this type of music – an accordion and a cello. The results were a wonderful mixture of traditional sounds and more contemporary influences. It was not difficult to see why Odeh has received international prizes for his performances and compositions.

A sad note was added by Effie Benaya, who told tThe Jerusalem Report that one reason for local Arab musicians and ensembles playing for Israeli audiences is the lack of performance halls in the Arab community. “Apart from weddings and other social occasions,” explained Benaya, “they have no places to stage their music.”

The emphasis in this year’s festival has been on women musicians and singers. One of the evenings was given over to Sofie Sedaka and Hadar Maoz, who presented a variety of songs expressing “The Hebrew Woman,” as they called their performance. 

Their opening number was written in ancient Hebrew, followed by others in the Samaritan tradition as well as others in Maoz’s Persian-Bukharin tradition. Maoz accompanied herself on the Persian tar, guitar and a variety of percussion instruments, which she explained connected her to the biblical Miriam whom she revered as a proud and independent woman.

A teacher of Kabbalah, Maoz’s performances, as well as that of Sedaka, touched moments of ecstasy in which they both enjoined the audience to participate. The spiritual energy with which these two feminist musicians brought to their music certainly flowed out to the audience, who participated joyously in the songs, many of which were known to them, including the poem of Rabbi Yitchak Kook: “People arise, arise! For this is your power.”

Maoz and Sedaka brought out the bold and assertive nature of their music as an expression of the strong women in biblical texts whom they saw as models. They sang and played like two free spirits wandering in their own cosmos of song and dance. It was an inspiring evening in the intimacy of Confederation House that only has room for 100 patrons in the audience. But their performance and the response of the crowd made it seem like far more people were packed into the hall.

One of the features of the music in some of the performances was the fusion between Israeli tropes and jazz. This was apparent in the performances by Neta Elkayam, who added to her Algerian-based songs a bassoon and trumpet; Luna Abu Nassar, whose Arabic music was accompanied by a double bass; Maureen Nehedar, who enriched her performance of Iranian inspired melodies with piano, double bass, trombone and trumpet; and Mor Karbasi, whose set was based on the Berber legend of al-Kahina the warrior queen, adding to it the fluid electric guitar sounds of Joe Taylor.

 Somewhat more conventional was Kitsat Yosef, the stories of the biblical Joseph as recorded in the Yemenite tradition. This was as much a theatrical performance as a musical one, complete with dance, and one wonders why it is not adapted to the stage.

Additions to the source story came from Islamic as well as Hebrew traditions. The splendid mixture was carried through on the voices of three male singers, a dancer and some spirited playing of oud and drums. The oddity of the production came with the figure of Zlicha (a rabbinic name given to the otherwise anonymous wife of Potiphar). This was played by Lea Avraham, a well-known Israeli actress and singer, who is 80 years old! But the original biblical text, while praising the good looks of Joseph, says nothing about the age or appearance of his temptress. Anyway, this did not stop the audience from joining in and dancing with the rhythmic, sensual music.

The last performance was actually a repeat of a successful show in 2007, where Berry Sakharof added music to the poems of the medieval poet-philosopher Solomon Ibn Gvirol. Sakharof, more known for his rock-guitar playing, here presented the poetry of the medievalist with a cocktail of sounds ranging from a kamanja, oud and marimba to guitars, both electric and acoustic, a large set of drums of Rea Mochiach, (who co-wrote the music and their arrangements), keyboards, and saxophone.

Ibn Gvirol, who lived 1,000 years ago (although his dates are uncertain), would no doubt have enjoyed these lively interpretations. However it would have been judicious if his words had been displayed on the back of the stage. Poetry is not the easiest of writing to access without actually seeing the words before you. This would have especially helped since Sakharof seems to have crossed his rock music with the more subtle sounds of the poetry of his medieval muse.

As it was, the decibel level of the music, which had the audience dancing in the aisles and auditorium of the Sherover Theater, distracted from the subtle melodies and chant-like phrasing of the music. It seems though that many Israeli groups think they are playing Yankee Stadium and crank up their sound accordingly. Quel dommage! 

In summary, the Oud Festival again proved itself a true expression of multi-cultural living, a reason to rejoice in these trying times, and a reason for bringing together a coalition of different cultures and peoples in this multi-cultural mix that is our fate.