War sounds

Eli Greenfeld, founder of the Tel Aviv Oud Festival, first thought about producing Arabic music in Lebanon in 1982.

Eli Greenfeld founded the Oud Festival 12 years ago (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eli Greenfeld founded the Oud Festival 12 years ago
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The 12th annual Oud Festival in Tzavta Tel Aviv will kick off on July 7. The sixday program takes in a surprisingly wide swathe of sounds and sights, from Arabic song to electronic music, from Persian material to Greek tunes, with some belly dancing thrown in for energetically sensual good measure.
The man who has been behind the venture from the get-go is 59-year-old Eli Greenfeld. It doesn’t take a scholar of Middle Eastern studies to work out that, judging by his surname, in all likelihood the artistic director does not hail from a Sephardi family.
In fact, Greenfeld became personally – and emotionally – involved in the region’s indigenous music in the most unexpected of circumstances.
In June 1982, when he arrived back at his Tel Aviv home from a chamber music concert at the YMCA in Jerusalem, he found a slip of paper on his door. It was an official document with an IDF stamp. “It was a call-up order to join the war,” recalls Greenfeld. “I had no idea what it was all about, and I went to sleep.”
Greenfeld might have checked out for a few hours’ shut-eye but, it seems, there was still a war to be fought. “In the morning there was a knock at my door and I was told I was being waited on, so that we could start the war,” he says with a wry smile.
Greenfeld found himself en route to the Galilee, where his division awaited the arrival of the combat medic. “When I got there, there was a convoy of ambulances and tanks, and they told me they’d been waiting for me. I got into an ambulance in my civvies, we crossed the border and I saw what I saw,” he says, without adding any graphic details of the ensuing hostilities.
The medic was soon in the thick of the violence, and his human-musical epiphany occurred during a lull in the fighting. “The fighting progressed, and as a medic I had all sorts of traumatic experiences. We made a stop in an enormous orchard, with olive trees and all sorts of fruit and flowers. It was so beautiful there. It was a hypnotic scene, right in the middle of the war.”
The pastoral tranquility was suddenly interrupted. “I saw a house there, and a man wearing a jalabiya came out with his arms outstretched saying ‘charam, charam’ [pity, pity], followed by the members of his family who stood on either side of him, like the candles of a hanukkia, all saying charam, charam,” says Greenfeld. “At that moment I realized that the reality [of the war] was much crueler when you think in terms of the day-to-day lives of individual people, just like us. It is very hard to think of people in the middle of the war.”
That, for Greenfeld, was an enduring wake-up call. “I understood that war is such a frightening and threatening thing, even for me as a soldier,” he continues.
“At that moment I vowed that, if I came out of the war alive, I would go back home to Tel Aviv and, as an artistic director and as a manager of artists, I would work to humanize the enemy. I would present the enemy to the public on an artistic and a human level.”
Greenfeld got right down to making good on his wartime resolution. “I began to produce shows of Arabic music as mainstream events,” he says. “I did that at the Israel Festival; you don’t get anything more mainstream than that.”
That endeavor, says Greenfeld, helped to right a long-standing ethnic- cultural imbalance in this country.
When musicians made aliya, for example, from Iraq in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they thought they were coming to a land of milk and honey where they would be able to simply pick up where they left off in the glittering musical careers they had enjoyed in the Arab world. Sadly, they were rudely disabused, and the predominantly Ashkenazi-run Voice of Israel radio hardly offered any airtime to Jewish performers of Arabic music.
“When I started putting on all those Arabic music shows, the Jews who had come here from Arabic countries suddenly discovered it was perfectly legitimate to listen to the music they had heard in their countries of birth,” notes Greenfeld. “Suddenly, they could go out to concert halls and hear the music they had missed so much.”
Indeed, several years ago, internationally renowned oud player and violinist Yair Dalal told me he grew up feeling ashamed of the music his Iraqiborn parents listened to at home, and he initially became a rock guitarist.
Some years later he rediscovered his own roots, and today he is a leading figure on the global ethnic music circuit.
One of Greenfeld’s first forays into the Arabic side of the music world was in the 1980s, when he brought over Moroccan- born singer Sapho, who played to an ecstatic sold-out Mann Auditorium audience. That was followed by an Israel Festival show devoted to the music of legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. “After that I initiated the Oud Festival of Confederation House [in Jerusalem],” says Greenfeld.
The inspiration for the venture came from a neighbor. “I hadn’t seen him for a couple of days,” Greenfeld recalls. “The blinds were down and I’d heard some sounds of music from his apartment. When I finally saw him again, out on his balcony, I asked him where he’d been. He said, ‘She’s dead and I have returned to another love.’” It transpired that the newly widowed man’s wife had not liked his oud music and, straight after her death, he got back to playing. “I was really moved by that, and that’s when I decided to do the oud festival,” says Greenfeld.
Greenfeld’s part in the Jerusalem event came to an end after three years, after which he started the Tel Aviv version, which has now been running successfully for 12 years.
The artistic lineup this year includes megastar Amir Benayoun, and liturgical fare provided by celebrated singers Moshe Habusha and David Menachem, while the Naam Ensemble will use the festival to release its new album. Meanwhile, storyteller and veteran purveyor of Greek music and culture Shimon Parnass will front the Greek Love Story show, and classical double bass player Gilad Efrat’s trio will host guitarist Avi Singolda in a program of Israeli oldies and original material.
The festival also takes in a theatrical departure, courtesy of actress-singer Galit Giat, who will star in the Star of The East show based on songs made popular by Umm Kulthum.
Everything will get off to a colorful, high-energy start with a belly-dancing slot fronted by dancers from the Sahara City school, and singer Sari Alfi will bring Arabic music into the here and now with a heady mix of electronic and ethnic sounds, backed by guitarist and electronic set player Roy Sela and oud player-violinist Sefi Asfari.
For tickets and more information: (03) 695-0156/7 and tickets.tzavta.co.il