Swan song in Musrara?

The Center for Classical Oriental Music and Dance, always hard up, might become homeless.

oud 88  (photo credit: )
oud 88
(photo credit: )
In December 1999, about a year after he was reelected, the then mayor of Jerusalem wrote a letter to MK Uzi Landau, assuring him that the "rumor announcing the closing of the Center for Classical Oriental Music was false." Landau had been approached by students and teachers from the center - and apparently by a city council member - regarding the financial situation of the center, which had been created three years earlier. The mayor added that "in fact, this is one of the major projects initiated during my term at the Jerusalem municipality." "That mayor was the [current] Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert," recalls Dr. Avi Shoshani, founder and head of the Center for Classical Oriental Music and Dance in Musrara. "More than seven years have passed since that letter," he continues, "and here we are: The center is once again confronted with the same problems. [Besides the] lack of financial support, there is a new threat. Today the building in which we work is for sale, and in a short while we shall all - teachers and students - find ourselves in the streets, and the worst part is that nobody seems to care." The Center for Classical Music and Dance is a unique institution; according to Shoshani, it is the only one of its kind in Israel, "and probably in the world, since only we have such a wide spectrum of countries and cultures in our teaching program." For the past five years the school has been located in a picturesque old Arab house in the Musrara neighborhood, which would seem to be the perfect environment for the school. "This is not our permanent home - in fact we are homeless," explains Shoshani. "We pay a high rent - more than NIS 150,000 a year - but we have always been exposed, and as it happens now, the owners have decided to sell the place." Shoshani says he has knocked on many doors seeking a solution. "I went to the Ministry of Culture, the municipality and the Jerusalem Foundation - but the results are so disappointing that I am forced to ask myself if anyone, besides me and the teachers here, really cares about this place." The center was created 11 years ago, as an initiative of the Jerusalem Municipality. Singer and actor Yehoram Gaon, who was then vice mayor under Olmert, was the main force behind its creation, but the project had the full cooperation of the municipality and the then head of the Culture Department, Oded Feldman. "It was from the beginning a municipality initiative and project," continues Shoshani. "I was here on a short vacation from my job as a professor at the Royal Music Academy of Glasgow. Olmert asked me to leave that post and to stay here to create this center. I left everything behind me and came back to Jerusalem for this project. I do not understand these people - why would they create this school in order to let it down now?" Those were the days when Middle Eastern classical and Jewish music began to be considered respectable, even in the strongholds of Western music and culture. Oum Khoultoum became a star for music aficionados in Israel, and prestigious author and critic Ariel Hirshfeld wrote an exciting essay on the great Egyptian diva and her art in Ha'aretz. At around the same time, poets and musicians close to their Jewish roots began to perform piyutim (Mizrahi religious songs) outside the synagogue, to great success. A center for learning, on a high professional and artistic level, seemed to be the logical next step. Shoshani had years before published several articles stating that classical Middle Eastern music and culture should be brought into the Israeli mainstream, after years of being relegated to the sidelines. He therefore was more than excited to leave his other professional achievements behind him and devote himself to the new project. The fact that more than 10 years later, he is still faced with critical problems such as a permanent dwelling, or a minimum of financial assurance for the continuation of the center, is, in his words, "devastating and discouraging." FROM THE beginning, the center served as a home for unusual musical encounters and experiences. One of the exciting projects hosted by the center was the group Mysteria, which was formed in 1998 by a diverse group of young musicians under the leadership of Israel Prize winning composer Andre Hajdu and zarb (an Iranian drum) player Roger Ishay. The mixture of young, gifted and enthusiastic musicians, who explored new avenues and brought together different musical traditions, shed new light on what had been long ignored in Israel. Soon, the results of the center's work - the emergence of new ensembles and new teachers - would change the musical scene in Jerusalem and beyond. Elad Gabbay, a virtuoso on the kanun (Middle Eastern zither) and a member of the Shaharit Ensemble, studied at the center before he later became a teacher there. "There is a uniqueness in this school," he confirms. "We make room for everyone, for a wide range of purposes. The fact is that people come here not only to become musicians, but also to get more than just a glimpse of the culture we represent: The classical musical tradition and culture of the orient, something that so few people are aware of, even now." Gabbay, who has become a requested performer, adds that the fact that he chose to teach in the school where he was previously a student, is the best proof that "this is a very special place." The center has a different approach than academies. "We also accept students who do not have much experience of playing music, unlike at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance," explains Gabbay. "Talented young people who are attracted to oriental classical music traditions can study from the beginning, and achieve very good results with the best teachers available. This is unique. If a student wants to go to the academy, for example to the Arab classical music department, he cannot be accepted unless he has studied years before at a conservatory, and in any case, it is only classical Arab music. Here we teach classical music of various countries and cultures: Persian, Iraqi, Indian, Jewish oriental, Turkish and more. Unique instruments, old classical traditions - all those one can find only here." One of the most famous teachers at the center is Dr. Walter Feldman, a world renowned scholar in classical Turkish and Sephardi music, as well as traditional Ashkenazi klezmer. Together with opera singer Nurit Henig, Feldman last year gave a series of concerts and lectures on classical Turkish music, including the Sephardi traditions of Turkey, at the Confederation House. One of the top scholars in his field, Feldman teaches a few months of each year at the center, turning it into one of the few institutions in the world where students can attend his classes. Shoshani stresses that in his opinion a mixture of ignorance and the popularity of Mizrahi pop music has affected the center. "As if the people in charge at the municipality, in the government and at the Ministry of Culture can't accept the fact that there is such a thing as oriental classical music and that it deserves the best treatment, just as western classical music receives." The municipality allocates just NIS 50,000 a year to the center, and while the Ministry of Culture gives NIS 900,000, it is not enough to sustain growth or relocate to a new location. "When we started, we had only 30 students," Shoshani recalls. "Today we have 150, but we cannot accept all the others who wish to study here because we can't afford it.. And now the worst is coming, with the sale of the house - if we don't get some support urgently - from the municipality, from the government, from foundations - I don't know, but without support we will just have to close down." The municipality spokesman says that City Hall has supported the school since it was created and will continue to do so, including providing help in searching for another location to rent.