An Ashkenazi, an Iraqi and a German walk into a bar.... Not a bad opener for a tried and tested quip format – even though, in reality, the three characters play music together rather than downing a pint or two. Still, in the case of the Radio Baghdad trio, that is an accurate description of the members’ cultural-ethnic backdrop, and it’s no joking matter.
The threesome will take the stage at Confederation House on July 28 (8:30 p.m.) to strut their stuff – which, despite the multifarious bio baggage, will lean heavily on the Iraqi Arabic side of the musical genre tracks. The members of the band – in the above order – include oud player-vocalist Yaniv Meisel, vocalist-percussionist Aviv Ezra and violinist-vocalist Johanna Riethmüller.
By hereditary and life experience rights Ezra is really the only one who should be in there. He imbibed the sonorities of the music and language of Iraq with his mother’s milk. “Aviv heard Iraqi music at home,” explains Riethmüller. “His grandfather used to listen to a lot of the music, and his father helps him with the texts of the songs, with the pronunciation, and also translates them for him.” In practice, of course, it is not just “for him” – it is for all three members of the group.
Despite their very different upbringings, they found a powerful common denominator in the music brought here, predominantly by Iraqi Jews who made aliyah in the immediate aftermath of the creation of the state, mostly from 1950-52. Among the over 120,000 olim were musicians who had known fame and glory across the Arab world and who, in fact, took several steps down the socioeconomic ladder, not to mention the public-profile pecking order, when they decided to come to the Promised Land.
THE STELLAR roll call of accomplished artists who may have fulfilled their Zionist dream, but experienced a dramatic fall from grace, included ney (Egyptian end-blown flute) player Albert Elias, oud player and violinist Salim al-Nur, qanoun (Arabic zither) player Avraham Salman and violinist-conductor Zuzu Mousa. And that is even without noting brothers Saleh and Daoud el-Kuwaiti, who were bona fide members of the cultural and social class royalty in the international Arabic milieu, and were particularly admired and supported by King Faisal II, who reportedly begged them not to leave Iraq.
All the aforementioned were members of the Arabic Orchestra of Kol Yisrael (IBA) – aka Chalery Baghdad – which had a weekly radio spot but not much more. Without putting too fine a point on this, it was a kick in the teeth from the Ashkenazi establishment for the former heralded artists, most of whom had a daytime job to keep the wolves from their familial door.
Happily, members of the next generations eventually caught on and began rediscovering their Iraqi cultural roots. Chief among these was violinist-oud player Yair Dalal, who has been blazing a path across the world music global festival and concert hall circuit for over three decades. He was followed by the likes of qanoun and oud player – and vocalist – Elad Gabai, and percussionist and oud player Yinon Muallem, who in turn have imparted some of their experience, wisdom and love of Iraqi music of Iraqi music to the next age group down the line.
While Dalal, Gabai and Muallem all brought the “requisite” Iraqi lineage to the fray, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, to paraphrase an old Yiddish expression: You don’t necessarily have to be Iraqi-spawned to perform the music, and do it well.
“I didn’t come here with the mindset of a musician who knew what she was doing. I didn’t know a thing; I was ready for anything. I didn’t have anything to compare it with so I was willing to take it all on board.”Johanna Riethmüller
You don't need to be Iraqi, or Jewish, to perform Iraqi Jewish music
RIETHMÜLLER IS living, fiddling proof that you don’t have to be born in the Middle East to appreciate, and skillfully perform, Iraqi music. Or, for that matter, even come from “the faith.”
The 34-year-old violinist grew up in a non-Jewish family in Germany and started out on her musical path like so many before her and, no doubt, many more since. Arabic music, or anything outside the domain of Western thinking and creation, was way beyond the bounds of her field of conception or perception.
Then again, it wasn’t exactly as if the youngster wasn’t curious about the world about her and, especially, the sounds. “I attended a conservatory from the age of 14,” she says. “That was Western classical music.” There were plenty more strings to creative and exploratory bow. “I had a punk rock band, and I was in a band that played Irish music,” she says. “I suddenly heard the violin in a different musical context. I was always drawn to that, and other things.”
Riethmüller got a very good introduction to the sounds and textures of her – subsequent, chosen instrument. “My grandfather was a violinist, and I heard him play from birth. I thought I would play [Western] classical music on violin when I was older.”
But there was a price to pay if she was going to make strides in that particular genre sector. “I didn’t really enjoy the atmosphere of the conservatory, the competitions and the pressure that goes with all of that. There was something there that made me want to escape, to go somewhere else,” she laughs.
At the age of 20, she went “somewhere else” in the corporeal, tangible sense of the words when she came over here to be with her Israeli boyfriend. That relationship didn’t last but Riethmüller’s love affair with this country – and, especially, the musical textures and rhythms that are indigenous to this part of the world – captured her heart. “I didn’t have any idea about Arabic music before I came here,” she recalls. “I wasn’t really a professional musician at all, although I had training in Western music. I came to Israel with my violin because it is a good means of communication. Music is a language everyone understands.”
SHE SOON enrolled at the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music in Musrara where she got down and dirty with the Arabic approach to the violin. There she naturally encountered people with the experience and training to help her along her newfound musical way. “I had a teacher from Nazareth – Ihab Nimar – and I studied classical Egyptian music with him,” she explains. That provided her with good grounding and, after a while, she began moving in more Iraqi-oriented circles. “I met Elad Gabai there. He was my teacher for ear training and maqam,” she says, referencing the modal substratum of Arabic and Turkish music in general.
It wasn’t a bad introduction to cultural life in these here parts. “I knew how to sing a few piyutim (Hebrew liturgical songs) even before I learned Hebrew,” she chuckles. “I had a really good experience at the school in terms of the teachers I had and the people I played music with. It all sort of evolved organically.” That is undoubtedly the best way for anyone or anything to grow.
The violinist certainly did not labor under any preconceptions about the whys and wherefores of Middle Eastern music when she landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. “I came here tabula rasa,” she states. Rather than getting into enthused, yet frenzied, catch-up mode, Riethmüller feels it was the perfect entry point into her new musical frontiers.
“I think that was an advantage,” she said. “I didn’t come here with the mindset of a musician who knew what she was doing. I didn’t know a thing; I was ready for anything. I didn’t have anything to compare it with so I was willing to take it all on board.” She was clearly perfectly capable of doing so, as she dived headlong into the mysteries of Arabic music.
She quickly got a more than decent handle on Hebrew – now, 14 years after she landed here, she speaks it fluently and without a discernible accent – and also learned Arabic.
IT TRANSPIRED that her time at the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music was only the harbinger for an even more immersive take on the discipline. “I completed my studies in Musrara with distinction but I thought, I have been playing this music for several years, music which is so vast and special. I thought that if I am really interested in it, and I am serious about it, I should get into the real world and go to the academy,” she says.
She joined the Academy of Music and Dance’s Oriental Music Department. “There are all kinds of ethnic music in Israel, but I really wanted to get into Arabic music, and it was important for me to learn the Arabic language, too.” Stands to reason. In addition to the vocabulary, grammar and syntax, each language has its own rhythmic and sonic characteristics. Being able to speak Arabic gave Riethmüller an added advantage when it came to phrasing and coloring her instrumental output.
She also got herself an invaluable insight into the source of the music she was so serious about. “When I was at the academy, I met David [Regev] Zaarur and I played in his group,” she says. “David is the great-grandson of Yosef Zaarur.” The latter was an acclaimed Iraqi-born multi-instrumentalist and educator who met some of the iconic figures of the Arabic music world, including Egyptians vocalist, oud player and composer Mohammed Abdel-Wahab and preeminent singer Oum Kulthoum.
Playing with Zaarur eventually led to Radio Baghdad. “Aviv and I met in that band,” Riethmüller recalls. “I also met Elias Zbeda, who was the last living member of the IBA ensemble.”
EZRA AND RIETHMÜLLER became firm friends and close-knit creative collaborators. “There is so much music in Israel but I think Iraqi music is not only important to the Jews who came here from there, and for their descendants, but for the entire Arab world,” the violinist declares.
Before long, Meisel swung into Ezra and Riethmüller’s musical and personal sphere. “Yaniv played guitar in rock groups and all sorts of bands, and at some point, he began to get interested in other instruments and other kinds of music.” Meisel came under the tutelage of Dalal and met some of the venerable characters of the discipline. “I think Yaniv met Salim al-Nur, too,” she says. “Yaniv really researched Iraqi music and Persian music. And he went to Azerbaijan, to learn Azeri music. He also speaks excellent Arabic and is a wonderful singer.”
All of which bodes well for next week’s gig over at Confederation House. Riethmüller preempts any doubters that a German violinist can do justice to Iraqi charts. “Today we live in a world where music, of all sorts, is accessible to everyone,” she asserts. “I have ginger hair and I play Arabic music. People ask how can that be. But no one questions whether a Japanese pianist, for example, can play Mozart.”
Point taken. ❖
For tickets and more information: (02) 539-9360 and https://www.confederationhouse.org/en/