Wind instruments – like an addiction

An interview with Yonnie Dror, master of wind instruments.

Yonnie Dror (right) in concert with Knesiyat Hasechel, Caesarea Amphitheater, June 2018 (photo credit: ADI OFER)
Yonnie Dror (right) in concert with Knesiyat Hasechel, Caesarea Amphitheater, June 2018
(photo credit: ADI OFER)
Yonnie Dror specializes in playing wind instruments: duduk, nay, shofar, clarinet, saxophone and diverse flutes. He performs and records with numerous popular Israeli artists and bands: Rita, Knesiyat Hasekhel, Idan Raichel, Shiri Maimon, Evyatar Banai, Dudu Tassa and many more. Dror plays concerts all over United States and Europe and he is one of the key members of the Yamma Ensemble, whose third record is to be released soon.
Sitting down with the Magazine, he tells us about his passion for exploring and teaching music, especially that rooted in the Middle East. This extremely modest, versatile instrumentalist shares the turning points in his career, claiming that failures can often bring luck.
Are wind instruments your life?
It happens to be so. They became my definition. That’s what I do.
You play various music genres: classical, jazz, world music, Israeli rock… How would you define yourself now? What kind of a musician are you?
Multi-wind artist. I still don’t have my own album, but other musicians invite me because of my ability to bring extra colors, many different styles into the music that is defined today, especially in Israel, when music is such a mixture. There are no rules. Every mixture is legitimate as long as it sounds good. Musicians who are eclectic, influenced by a lot of cultures and musical environments can talk to me in the same language because I can be flexible in what they want.
You are about to release the third album with Yamma Ensemble.
Yes, it is a very nice process. I don’t take it for granted, to record a third album with people I have been working with already for over 10 years. Personally, I am also excited because after a long time I wrote a composition. It is based on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 125. I am really thrilled about the arrangements we did together. There will be a lot of new songs and different styles.
Different styles, but around the Mediterranean traditions?
Mediterranean music has a lot of variations. Geographically, it is close to Europe, Asia and Africa. So there are a lot of influences from all of those places. Gypsy, Iranian, Turkish, Ladino music – all are integrated naturally in Mediterranean music.
Growing up in Jerusalem, were you familiar with this music as a child? Your mother is American Ashkenazi, your father Iraqi. Did you listen to different styles of Jewish music at home?
My parents used to play records of Tchaikovsky, John Denver, musicals and karaoke. My father was not attached to the Arabic music. But when I was a child, I used to go with him to the synagogue that his grandfather built in Katamon [a neighborhood in Jerusalem]. It was a synagogue for Jews who came from Babylon. So every few Shabbats, or on Holy Days I was there. My grandparents were there; an uncle was a hazzan.
In a very natural way, you were surrounded with traditional Iraqi tunes.
Yes, I was introduced to the Middle Eastern and Iraqi music there. Also, when we celebrated Holy Days – my family was masorti (traditional) – we read the Haggadah for Passover or celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Iraqi style.
How did your adventure with music begin? Your parents sent you to music school, or was it your desire?
I was sent to one those after-school activities by my parents. It could have been any other activity: electronics or a nature class. I was six or seven years old. I played a recorder. My very vivid memory is that I was the worst. After a year or two, I played the alto recorder (kids usually play a soprano recorder). I still have that specific instrument and actually, I played on it recently. Liora Itzhak and Dudu Tassa invited me to record a song with the sound of the recorder, and suddenly I used the instrument I used maybe 40 years ago. So it was quite exciting.
But going back to your musical struggles as a child: If it was hard, what kept you playing?
When I was about 10 years old, I started to play flute, a more serious instrument. After only a few months, I performed for my class. They liked it and it was the first time I noticed that it gave me a pleasure to play. Soon, my teacher called my father and said: “I cannot keep up with him, he needs a professional teacher.” I did not realize I was learning really fast. I tried for, and got accepted to, the conservatory.
When was the moment you realized you would be a musician?
The first time I performed a serious classical piece. On the concert of flute students, at my teacher’s home.
What was the piece?
It was a Sonata by Handel, G minor. I started to play the first chapter, and something happened to me. Something hard to understand, the feeling of thrill, the pleasure of playing music. The kind of sensation that is beyond you, like a start of addiction. I could feel how the audience reacted to it. Then, there was the second chapter, where I messed up, but I remember that first moment of instant connection. I thought this was out of the ordinary. I was 12 years old. It took me maybe 30 years to understand what it was. What music does, what the energy is…
Having that start in mind, have you ever wanted to play in an orchestra, to play classical music?
Yes, of course. Later, when I was a student of the Music Academy, it was one of my goals. Unfortunately, or maybe it was my biggest piece of luck, I failed in becoming a professional classical flute player that a good orchestra would hire. I had one experience playing in an orchestra, I do not want to say the name of the orchestra, but it was a horrible experience. Sometimes you gain a lot from your failures. I feel very lucky that I failed, because that enabled me to explore different kinds of music. I think I would not be fulfilled if I were playing only flute in a classical orchestra.
You play about 50 wind instruments.
By education, I am a professional flute and saxophone player. But I play many instruments from all over the word, including duduk, ney and shofar. I have 50 to 70 instruments in my home. For example, in Arabic music, in each scale you need a different flute. Similarly, with flutes from India.
If you don’t mind, I will share with our readers what I see: your entire apartment is filled with instruments; there are instruments in your bedroom, inside your closet with clothes…
Yes [laughs]... and each instrument is going to work one day. I often record a studio session and suddenly there is a song with a very specific scale and from 70 instruments that I haven’t used for a year and a half, suddenly one is perfect.
You collect instruments and you bring them back from your journeys. Would you ever pay a fortune for an instrument?
I have instruments from Japan, Armenia, India, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt and Iran, Slovakia, Australia, and many more. Luckily, a lot of world music instruments, even if made by masters, are simple. This is also their charm. They do not have crazy prices. Western instruments, like flutes, saxophones and clarinets, they can cost an insane amount of money because they are based on technology. I always bring something from my trips.
You often play many instruments during one concert. I remember your show at Hoodna Bar in Tel Aviv, it was like a music lesson. Educational tours in United States and Europe became your brand. How did it start?
Around 10 years ago I received a phone call from Talya [Talya G.A. Solan the leading singer of Yamma Ensemble], who was looking for someone who could talk and demonstrate instruments from Mediterranean, to join a concert and educational tour in America. This is how “Yamma” started. And I found myself standing in a gymnastic hall in front of 600 kids in a small town of South Dakota explaining them about the shofar, ney – Arabic flute, and music in Mediterranean. And suddenly I felt the connection, I felt thrilled to deliver this experience to them, explaining them about music from my region. I did this program for nine years with three bands: Yamma, Baladino (which I created with two other musicians; for four years we performed all over the world, participated at big festivals and concerts); and with Sofi Tsedaka. That opportunity helped me to develop myself a lot, and now I give lectures also in Israel.
Your classes are based on music developed out of the Hebrew language and various Jewish traditions. When you read the Bible, do you hear instruments?
No. I do not have a clear musical image, rather a feeling. You can never know how instruments sounded. There were two things for sure that were used: shofar – a ram’s horn and drums. And singing. Also maybe there were types of flutes.
When you teach music, do you also introduce biblical sources?
When I was doing those workshops in the United States, I would associate instruments with the environment and traditions they came from. For example, when I introduced the shofar, I said it is used in Judaism during Holy Days. The tradition is that when the shofar is sounded, the gates of heaven open and God can hear our prayers. This is a beautiful tradition, people could relate to it.
Have you ever played shofar in a synagogue?
Unfortunately not. I played shofar so many times, but the only place I did not play it was in a synagogue. I hope one day I will. But even when you play it elsewhere, there is a strong effect. I think there is something transcendental about its sound. As a kid, I remember when I heard the blowing of the shofar at the end of the prayers, it was doing something to me. Even if a player of the shofar is not so good, the struggle he puts in it taking out the sound, gives an effect. I am very fortunate, I found a way to play shofar in regular concerts.
How different is the experience of playing shofar from any other instrument? Is it more spiritual?
Every instrument that I play has a different feeling to it. The sound and the energy. When I play shofar, I feel some kind of freedom. I cannot explain it; it’s something beyond understanding. Sometimes you play a shofar for only one minute during a concert, you should not play it longer, because the impact of its sound is so great. It is also a crying spirit.
Can you also feel the spirit of thousands of years of Jewish tradition?
There are variations of horn instruments in many cultures.
Thousands years ago, people used the sound of horns to communicate. But the Jewish religion is very dramatic in a way, so this kind of instrument really reflects it.
What is your connection with religion today?
I live a secular life, I am not a religious person. But I would not say I am an atheist, because it would be arrogant of me. I know there is something much bigger. It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Hindu, you are small compared to the great universe that was created by something. And one must be humble and thankful toward it. There were horrible things that came out of religions, because of the way people manipulated it. But there are also great cultures that came out because of religions, and so many beautiful tunes. I connect on the spiritual level.
Between the 12-year-old Yonnie playing his first Handel’s sonata, and you joining “Yamma” 10 years ago and teaching about shofar, there is a big time gap. What were you doing during those years?
After high school, I did my army duty. But after three years of army and four at the Tel Aviv Music Academy, I needed a break. I stopped it all. I flew to New York where I was exploring the city for a month and then I found myself in Australia.
So like most of young Israelis do after the army service you did the tiyul hagadol (the great vacation)?
Yes, I did things I had not done as a teen, working physically in agriculture – the backpacker’s job. For half a year, I was all by myself, just driving around Australia, meeting people on the way. Those were times with no GPS, just maps. I remember those endless roads... It was it was very cleansing experience.
I imagine you also must have come across the Aborigine culture. Is this when you first played didgeridoo, the Australian instrument?
Yes, I got my first didgeridoo and talked to Aborigines about it, then I started to practice playing it.
Can we say that this was the moment that opened your door to ‘world music’?
In a way, yes. I could not make a sound on didgeridoo, but it was clear to me for the first time in my life, I had the vision that I will master this instrument, that I will play it all over the world and will teach it. And I taught myself circular breathing. It took me about two years to develop a method to teach it to kids – third and fourth graders, in Israel.
So this is ethno, world music. But when we met few years ago, you told me that you used to play jazz.
I love jazz, I listen a lot to jazz, I go to jazz concerts. My biggest jazz influence was John Coltrane. His spirituality, curiosity about music. Because I play saxophone, I had a time when I was practicing bebop. As a young musician, I used to play saxophone in jazz clubs and jazz standards at kabbalot panim (the pre-hupah ceremony) greeting a Jewish couple entering the wedding canopy. But in my late 20s, I realized that although I love it and it is part of me, being a jazz musician is not who I am.
As you mentioned wedding music, you used to play klezmer music as well...
That was actually the biggest influence on me! At the beginning of my career for about five years, I played at weddings and big international folk festivals, with a religious band Tizmoret Amamit. Some of the tunes played at Jewish weddings are very powerful. It was a mixture of Carlebach melodies. That experience opened for me a window to origins of religious music here. It was fascinating to me! I did not even consider it work, but a learning process. And this is my goal in every project, I want to learn something new. This year, I started working with a flamenco band because I really want to learn how to play flamenco. I can add my influences from other sources to their music. I can express myself in that, too.
This is really fascinating, how open you are for different artistic encounters! Classical, jazz, world music, now flamenco! Last summer I listened to you playing with Dudu Tassa; an Israeli rock concert, with your acoustic touch. The concert was in Tel Aviv Port, with a very young audience. There was a huge crowd, the police were closing gates, not letting more people in. Did it feel different than playing in a concert hall?
Dudu Tassa combines Middle Eastern influences with rock. The way he integrates both is genius and simply fantastic. This is unique Israeli rock. I am very humbled to bring my wooden stick and play it to this massive crowd. This is a very energetic challenge to transcend in this kind of audience, and if it works, you get a massive energetic feedback from the crowd. But when I play, I just play. It doesn’t matter if it is for two people or 2,000 people. I just play.