Oud times from Bosnia

One of few female oud players, Marina Toshich is the pick of the bunch at the upcoming Tel Aviv festival.

Marina Toshich521 (photo credit: Barak Olman)
Marina Toshich521
(photo credit: Barak Olman)
Over the last couple of decades or so, we have become accustomed to musicians from different cultures and parts of the world producing sounds and rhythms that patently come from elsewhere, and doing a good job with them. Presumably, however, most people would not associate Bosnia with mastery of the oud, the lutelike instrument best known as the linchpin of Arab music.
The eyebrow level would probably rise another notch or two were the instrumentalist in question to hail from the “wrong” gender.
“There are a few female oud players around, but we are still largely a rarity,” admits Marina Toshich, who is due to perform at this year’s Tel Aviv Oud Festival at the Tzavta Theater (August 18-24).
The August 20 concert will be based on a repertoire of Ladino material and Bosnian love songs, seasoned with some dance spots. Toshich’s artists-in-arms for the occasion include wind instrument player Jacob Miron, cellist Eyal Lahav and percussionist Ben Dagovitch. Toshich will also sing and there will be guest appearances by New York-born Ladino vocalist Betty Klein and dancer Ella Greenbaum.
Toshich is used to mixing things up musically, and her eclectic ethos comes across loud and clear on her recent recording – with its self-explanatory title, Oud in the Middle West. It features material written by Toshich and arranged by Miron, who also plays saxophone, clarinet and flute on the album. “We are geographically in the East, but culturally we are in the West,” she notes.
The 45-year-old Toshich knows all about cross-cultural balancing acts.
“I was a classical pianist when I came on aliya from Sarajevo, in 1991,” she says, adding that logistics, and later accident, pointed her in an entirely different direction. “I brought a guitar with me to Israel, because it is easier to carry than a piano,” she laughs. “One day someone sat on my guitar and broke it, and the next day he brought me an oud instead.”
But, surely, we are talking about two very different instruments here.
Toshich is a bit hazy on why the perpetrator did not replace like with like. “I probably asked for an oud. I can’t really remember,” she says.
Considering Toshich’s expansive cultural background, that would have been a perfectly logical request. “I was no stranger to Eastern music when I came to Israel,” she explains. “I come from Bosnia, and Bosnian folk music is strongly connected to Turkish music.
The saz [long-necked string instrument found in Turkish and Iranian music] is played all over Bosnia, and we, at home and with neighbors, sang music from Muslim communities. There are strong similarities between the musical scales, even though there are no quartertones in Bosnian music.” Quartertones are a staple of Middle Eastern music.
Even so, the technique required for piano playing appears to have absolutely nothing in common with strumming a guitar or an oud. Toshich prefers the inclusive approach to sonic endeavor. “All music is basically the same,” she says. “We are talking about developing technique, but it is about playing the music and conveying something through that. If I have something to say through my music, it makes no difference whether I have a soprano sound, or if it is a male voice or a child. The main thing is that there is some kind of musical message involved. Of course, each instrument brings its own color to the music, and I liked the color of the oud sound. But there is always a common denominator between instruments – you just have to be open to the sounds.”
Toshich did not just pick up an oud and recall the songs she sang as a youngster in Bosnia. “I did a degree in Arab music at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance [of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University],” she notes. ‘I studied with Michael Maroun.”
Maroun is head of the academy’s Department of Oriental Music, and a renowned oud player himself. “I also studied with Tayseer Elias and Nassim Dakwar.”
Elias and Dakwar were founder members of seminal East-West musical ensemble Bustan Abraham.
It took a while for Toshich to come to the realization that a career in music was a viable option. In fact, she initially aimed for a very different avenue of artistic expression. “I was never sure about what I was going to do for a living,” she recalls. “You know, you work in all sorts of things and, anyway, I studied art at university in Poland.
Basically, I was always looking for some vehicle for expressing myself, whether it was through music or the plastic arts.
But when I began to get into music more seriously, I sensed that it was the right thing for me.”
She may have settled on an instrument, but Toshich says the quest for enunciating her thoughts and ideas goes on. Besides her work as a soloist and leader, she plays with the Mediterranean Orchestra, which performs Andalusian music, and with the Golha Persian music ensemble. “I think you have to keep on searching.
Some people have this idea that you shouldn’t spread yourself too thinly, that you shouldn’t try out too many things. I don’t agree. If someone is an engineer, does that mean he or she shouldn’t do yoga, or maybe play music?” That diverse mind-set keeps Toshich busy in all sorts of areas of the music business. “I am happy to play in different places, in different environments,” she declares. “Last week I played at a bar mitzva. I enjoyed it. It was more klezmer music than Arab, but that was fine. Anyway, I relate to the oud as a classical music instrument – Western classical and Eastern classical.”
Toshich returns to her flexible philosophy. “You know, we think we are familiar with, say, European classical music. But I remember, a few years back, listening to contemporary western classical music. It was a concert by two women, in Bosnia. I listened to it for a few minutes, and then I ran outside to laugh. It sounded so strange. But then I thought, I wouldn’t want anyone to laugh at what I play, and maybe I should listen to the music differently, with more open ears.”
The audience at Toshich’s August 20 Oud Festival concert will, no doubt, have their ears and eyes well and truly opened for them.For tickets and more information about the Oud Festival: (03) 695-0156/7 and www.tzavta.co.il