A Man for All Music

For more than 40 years, Walter Zeev Feldman has been traveling along musical paths that synthesize between East and West.

Music Master
WALTER ZEEV FELDMAN, SPEAKS SO SOFTLY that he commands undivided attention, forcing his guest almost to lipread as his sentences move between Hebrew and English. For nearly two and a half hours, on a hot afternoon, Feldman discusses two, seemingly contradictory, fields of music – classic Ottoman and Yiddish music.
Wearing light beige linen trousers and a pale shirt, Feldman, in his early sixties, is of medium height and sports a small mustache; an old pocket watch peeks out of his brown vest. Feldman, an expert in Ottoman Turkish and Jewish music, tells The Report, “There is no difference between Mozart and the Ottoman traditions, as long as they are properly performed. Music, good authentic music is what makes the difference.”
About a decade ago, among other teaching positions around the world, Feldman also began teaching at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and to present master classes at the School for Classical Eastern Music, located in the somewhat downscale neighborhood of Musrara. His Jerusalem apartment is airy and comfortable, the floors are faced with colorful tiles, the soft sofas are upholstered in ethnic textiles, and the walls are covered with massive bookshelves, filled with books and, especially, CDs. Feldman comes to this apartment several times a year, but he mostly divides his life between New York, Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, where he teaches classical Turkish Ottoman music at a local extension of New York University.
Feldman is Jewish and was born in the Bronx in 1949. He has conducted extensive research in the ancient traditions of Ottoman music, the classical music written and played at the sultan’s court.
Traditionally it involved a solo singer with a small instrumental ensemble. Feldman is a master of many other traditions, including Greek Orthodox church chants, Ashkenazi liturgy and klezmer and a performer specializing in various types of the dulcimer, as well as the Ottoman tanbur (an ancient classical Turkish string instrument).
He has even partnered with a Turkish Ottoman ensemble to perform a concert of works by Turkish composers and Mozart.
GROWING UP IN THE 1950s, Feldman recalls that his family “was traditional by Israeli standards.” His father was from northern Moldava, the region known as Bessarabia, and came to the US in 1922; his mother was born in Belarus but was raised in Quebec.
“My parents spoke Yiddish,” he recalls, “and I was given a Hebrew religious education, something between Conservative and what would later come to be known [in Israel] as ‘National Religious.’” His neighborhood, he recalls, was “98 percent Jewish”; a majority of the residents were Yiddish-speaking Jews from Europe, and the rest were Ladino-speaking Sephardim from Turkey and Macedonia.
Feldman’s first link to music came from his father’s homeland, famous for its musicians. Feldman says that being constantly surrounded by music since early childhood, whether at home or at his friends, has had a massive impact on his interest in music in general and notes that, as he became older and his own music matured, these early influences led him to klezmer music. But first he became connected to Sephardi rhythms. “By age 10, I was a regular at the Sephardi synagogue, because I was friendly with the rabbi’s son. Soon I became a regular member – for ten years, I was the only Ashkenazi there.”
Within a few years, “I came to know musicians from the Greek and Armenian communities in New York. I began to play in a band in Washington Heights [in northern Manhattan]. Later, after being invited by a boy I went to school with, who was an altar boy, I became a regular at St. Spiridon’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington Heights. That’s when I developed my lasting interest in Byzantine chants. At the same time I was a regular at Haroot’s, a unique Armenian nightclub and also at several Greek nightclubs.”
In between, Feldman began to learn Turkish with a teacher, “so I could speak to the older generation of musicians, since Turkish was their lingua franca.” By the time he was 18, Feldman made his first trip to the Balkans and Turkey (to become one of countless trips), beginning in Romania and ending in Istanbul.
“In fact,” he summarizes, “by that time – I was barely 18 – I had already been exposed to and become familiar with the Ashkenazi style of prayer, Yiddish songs, klezmer music, Turco-Sephardi chant, Ladino religious songs and folksongs, Byzantine chant, Greek folk songs, Old Turkish popular songs, Turkish-Armenian folksongs, some classical and popular taksims (improvisations)… a little instruction in makam (modal theory), and even Yemeni Arabic and Hebrew songs.”
FELDMAN RECALLS HOW HE BECAME FASCINATED by Turkish music. “In New York, there was a small group of aficionados and performers of various kinds of Turkish and related music. One of them was the Istanbul-born Albanian oudist and clarinetist Aydin Aslan, owner of the Balkan Records shop in Manhattan. As a teenager I frequented this shop, then a meeting place for the Greek, Armenian, Sephardi and Turkish musicians. After two years Aydin thought that I might be ready to be initiated into a higher level of Turkish music than what was available in America. One day he reached under the glass counter and pulled out some antediluvian sheet music, whose titles were written in a florid Arabic script. He read out for me ‘Tanburi Jemil Bey.’ Aydin looked up solemnly and announced: ‘Turkish Beethoven.’” Feldman attributes his own fame and skill to Nacdet Yasar from Istanbul, who is widely regarded as the most accomplished master of this tradition, playing classical Ottoman music on the tanbur, sometimes alone and other times with a group. Feldman first heard Yasar’s music in 1980, when the Turk performed at a concert at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. Despite the poor acoustics, the concert left an indelible impression on him. “Ottoman music in all its dignity presented itself to me for the first time,” he relates.
Feldman had been spending a lot of time with expat Turkish musicians, when Yasar approached him. “Necdet walked into my life decisively in the summer of 1982, during the intermission of another concert,” Feldman recalls. “He strode up to me and announced, ‘I want to help you.’ With these words, Necdet started a relationship that we have continued for more than 25 years.”
“In Turkey, the great musicians of classical Ottoman music do not teach for money – they care about the music, not about earning money from it,” Feldman says. “A great teacher does not take students without a reason; he has to love and admire them. I once asked Yasar why he had agreed to accept me as his student, even though I am not Turkish,” Feldman recalls. “His answer was, ‘it is because you are not Turkish that I am willing to teach you.’ “You see,” adds Feldman, “they were committed to their culture, as musicians had been for generations.” According to Feldman, champions of this music, like Yasar, feel they have to fight in order to preserve these traditions from modernity, Western pop and light music (and also fundamentalist Islam), they dedicated their whole life to it and, therefore, they are keen to encourage a foreigner who understands the importance of this music and the need to preserve it.
Feldman is the author of two books, “Music of the Ottoman Court: Makam, Composition, and the Early Ottoman Instrumental Repertoire” and the “Ottoman Turkish Music Anthology.”
IT WAS DURING ONE OF HIS MASTER CLASSES AT THE Rubin Academy that he met Claudia Nurit Henig, who was born in Buenos Aries and came to Israel in the 1970s. “I had just received a scholarship from the school in Musrara to take further courses in classical Eastern music, and a colleague told me about Walter’s class,” Henig recalls. “I was curious and I went to hear him; at the end of the class, he asked that I sing for him. My voice has been trained for opera, but he contended that I could sing Turkish music and convinced me to learn this completely new field.
“I fell in love with Ottoman music and I relate to it as true classical music, no differently than I relate to the works of Schubert or Mozart, with the same professional expectations.”
Feldman was so impressed with Henig that together they established the “Saz-Tar” duo, named after two of the ancient Turkish instruments. The duo, occasionally with additional musicians, performs in Israel, mostly at the Beit Avi Chai Jewish cultural center in Jerusalem or at the International Oud festival, sometimes with additional musicians.
However, although classical Eastern music has been enjoying a revival in Israel over the past few years, not everyone appreciates Feldman and Henig’s admiration for Ottoman classics.
Yair Harel, the artistic director of the Piyyut (liturgical music) Festival in Jerusalem, for example, tells The Report that he prefers what is known as shirat hamaftirim, whose roots are in the Jewish communities in the region “because they are much more known and familiar to the local audience,” adding that the music, often seemingly monotonic, is less exciting than the music of the Balkans, India or Pakistan – and, indeed, there are very few concerts of classical Ottoman music in Israel.
Feldman doesn’t seem concerned, he is convinced that classical Ottoman music is a must to understand how music evolved and developed, and he is also convinced that its popularity will “grow on” the audiences.
And indeed, at the oud festival in Jerusalem, in the late fall of 2010, Feldman and Claudia Nurit Henig, accompanied by musicians playing authentic Turkish instruments, presented a surprising program: Ottoman music from the sultan’s court, interspersed with arias by Mozart. And the diverse audience seemed to represent the diversity of Feldman’s music: Sitting next to each other, listening raptly, were immigrants from Turkey, young and not-so-young fans of high level world music as well as a large group of Japanese tourists, many of whom seemed to know the music played on the stage. After two long instrumental pieces, Henig joined and sang a long and complicated piece in Turkish, which swept the audience away. The atmosphere warmed up and each selection drew even stronger applause.
Nevertheless, although enthusiastic, some in the audience found the combination of styles difficult to accept. At the end of the concert, a man in his 60s wondered, seemingly speaking to both the people around him and to himself, “It was beautiful, but I still don’t understand why they also put Mozart in this concert.”
For more than 40 years, Feldman has been traveling along paths that synthesize between East and West. Feldman is also a highly acclaimed performer of klezmer music, especially in the US. “Dancing Ashkenazis” is the name he gave to a series of successful concerts at Beit Avi Chai two years ago, where he performed tunes and dances of various Ashkenazi communities.