Call of the Oud (Extract)

The International Oud Festival proves that Middle Eastern music has become a welcome part of the Israeli musical landscape

19oud (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 19, January 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. The loud cheers and thunderous, steady clapping dominated the Jerusalem concert hall long after Israeli-Arab singer Lubna Salameh finished her performance, with all its Oriental flourishes. And the applause continued when the instrumental ensemble, led by Israeli-Arab oud player, conductor and composer Imad Dalal, resumed playing during the recent "Israeli Arabic Music" concert. "Only an audience who is familiar with the music knows how and when to applaud," Salameh has said. And this mixed audience of Arabs and Jews, enjoying the Eighth International Oud Festival in Jerusalem last month, showed that they are certainly familiar with the music. The concert was also evidence that Middle Eastern music, once shunned by the Israeli mainstream and brought out only for special occasions, has become an inseparable part of the Israeli musical landscape, with a loyal audience that transcends ethnicity and nationality. And the festival proved that the distinct and unmistakable timbre of the oud - father of the lute, grandfather of the guitar and considered to be the "Sultan of Arabic musical instruments" - has taken a permanent front-stage position. The festival, which ran for three weeks, in five Jerusalem venues, included classical Arabic and Israeli-Arab music and the more exotic sounds of Turkish, Armenian, Beduin, Sufi and Middle Eastern Jewish liturgical music and was attended by about 7,000 people, including Jews - of both Middle Eastern and Ashkenazi origin - and Arabs, religious and secular, young and old. In addition to local artists, the festival included a lineup of world-renowned talent such as oud player Ara Dinkjian from the U.S., French bassist Jo?lle L?andre, singers Janet and Jak Esim from Turkey, and Greek lyre player Sokrates Sinopoulos. Alongside other, more modest festivals of Near Eastern music - "the Oud Festival in Central Israel," which took place in Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva, and "the Festival of a Culture of Peace," which took place in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Nazareth, Acre and Sakhnin, to name but two - the International Oud Festival indicates an increasingly significant cultural change: Middle Eastern art music has begun to come out from the back rooms of the Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Arab-speaking countries and is now being performed in mainstream, established concert halls. And this is a clear reflection of the increasingly assertive role of Mizrahi'im (Jews from Middle Eastern countries) in Israeli culture and society. "The International Oud Festival was one of the first in Israel to give expression to a wide audience's need for this sort of music and to its increasing acceptance," notes Haviva Pedaya, professor of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and musical director of "Ensemble HaYona" ("The Dove Ensemble") for traditional Middle Eastern Jewish music. "This audience consists in part of first-generation immigrants, who contributed immensely to Arabic musical culture. But it also includes many of their children who were born in Israel and who aspire to revive the musical traditions of their parents, without fear or an inferiority complex," says Yair Dalal, eminent composer, violinist and oud player, and one of the founding fathers of the International Oud Festival. Adds Effie Benaya, general and artistic director of the Oud Festival, "The first festival was rather modest in its ambitions and scope. It was intended only as a means for giving expression to 20th century Arabic music. But within its eight-year existence, the festival has grown to include all the musical cultures under Islamic influence." Two concerts of Arabic CLASSICAL music were among the highlights of the festival. One, "Umm Kulthum Sung by Dalal Abu Amana," performed at the Jerusalem Theater, featured the songs of Umm Kulthum (1904-1975), the Egyptian "Empress of Arab Music," considered to have been the greatest Arabic singer ever. Her work was performed by the young Israeli-Arab singer Dalal Abu Amna, only in her early twenties, who despite her youth has already appeared on important stages throughout the Arab and Western world and is well-known for her unique voice, which combines classical Arab nobility with the clarity of popular song in general and Palestinian song, in particular. The second was "Musician of the Ages," performed at the Jerusalem Theater, by an orchestra based in the Galilean Arab-Israeli town of Ma'alot-Tarshiha, in tribute to the great Egyptian composer and singer, Muhammad Abd al-Wahab (1904-1991), an emblem of 20th-century Arabic music. Abd al-Wahab's songs were interpreted by the internationally renowned singer Ibrahim Azzam, a native of Tarshiha, who is regarded as one of the finest performers of Abd al-Wahab's repertoire. The highlight of the piyyut performances was the opening concert in which Israeli mega-rocker Barry Sacharoff performed his own melodies heavily inspired by traditional piyyutim and composed to poems by the medieval Jewish philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-1058). One of Sacharoff's compositions was the dark and gloomy melody he composed for the poem "And So It Turned to Nothing." " It's impossible to know from Ibn Gabirol's text that this is a poem about destruction and that it occupies a central place in the rituals of Yom Kippur," says Pedaya. "So it is indeed rather striking that Sacharoff's intuition led him to compose it in that way." Accompanying Sacharoff was an unlikely combination of well-known secular musicians from the local popular music scene and ultra-Orthodox musicians belonging to Pedaya's Ensemble HaYona. The audience, also a mix of secular and religious, demanded encore after encore. "My feeling at the end of the concert was that something fantastic is happening to the culture here," says Hana Amit, editor of "Davka," a journal dedicated to Yiddish culture. "Sacharoff mediated in a most perfect way between Ibn Gabirol, who lived a thousand years ago within Islamic culture, and present-day secular and religious Israelis. The music that this country breathes is Eastern music, and the piyyut becomes part of the Israeli blood cycle," she says, pointing to her two twentysomething children, who accompanied her to the concert. "This festival moves the oud to the center of the Israeli musical map," said Amit, herself of Ashkenazi origin. "I wanted to open the festival with a rock musical arrangement of the greatest Jewish poet of the 11th century," explains director Benaya. "After all, the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry parallels that of its Arab counterpart, and a thousand years ago both cultures deeply influenced each other. We thought it was rather fitting to open the festival with the best of both cultures." Extract from an article in Issue 19, January 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.