SENEGALESE KORA player and singer Momi Maiga is one of the Arkho lineup's stars. (photo credit: Mekudeshet)
SENEGALESE KORA player and singer Momi Maiga is one of the Arkho lineup's stars. (photo credit: Mekudeshet)
Mekudeshet Festival Arkho project offers immersive take on music making

Jerusalem has been touted, across the ages, as the epicenter of the globe. While the likes of New York, London, Paris and Rome may have something to say about that, no one can argue with the cosmopolitan nature of our capital or the fact that it comprises an unparalleled multifarious composite of cultures and ethnicity.

That, naturally, impacts on the city’s artistic output, a delightful and life-enriching characteristic that will be augmented and amplified August 1-11 when Arkho Festival takes place under the aegis of the Mekudeshet arts and culture venture.

In fact, Arkho is the new pretender to the local eclectic music throne, with the organizers neatly contextualizing the event.

Arkho Festival

“After a wonderful decade of musical Mekudeshet in Jerusalem, two years of a global pandemic, and the birth of FeelBeit as a new domain for multicultural interaction, we set off on a voyage to find the intent, the sound and the precision of this time,” they say. “The journey began without a clear goal, with an immersive search that returned to the roots, which sought to, once again, sense the raw materials of the music, the foundations that connect people, the musician to the work, and the performer to the audience.”

 KAREN RUBIO LUGO will wow the audiences with contemprary Spanish flamenco dance. (credit: Mekudeshet) KAREN RUBIO LUGO will wow the audiences with contemprary Spanish flamenco dance. (credit: Mekudeshet)

The latter is certainly a welcome development as, over the past few months, we have rediscovered the joy of experiencing art as it is created and have gotten back to attending live performances, with our breathing apparatus unrestricted by masks, rather than Zoom-facilitated and other online virtually presented entertainment.

The joint artistic directors of Arkho have done us proud, and compiled a sumptuously faceted lineup that takes in sounds and energies from around the globe. Spanish percussionist Aleix Tobias Sabater and Israeli counterpart Itamar Doari have dipped into a broad spread of cultures, genres, styles and spots around the world to offer us a top-notch program that should draw lovers of quality sonic material to the festival’s physical and spiritual home, Feel Beit – “at home” in Arabic, which also conveys a sense of intimacy and coziness in English – near the Yes Planet complex in Abu Tor and the Sherover Promenade in East Talpiot.

The world music A-lister roster includes the velvety textured singing of Spanish vocalist-guitarist Silvia Pérez Cruz, Guinean roots-pop singer Nakany Kanté, Turkish kamancheh (spike violin) player and vocalist Ugur Onur, the mesmerizing joie de vivre style of Senegalese kora player and singer Momi Maiga, and the bare-knuckled delivery of Spanish vocalist-guitarist Carles Dénia.

The sonic offerings will be visually enhanced by a stirring performance by contemporary Spanish flamenco dancer Karen Rubio Lugo, with a bunch of our own top musicians putting in their shekel’s worth, including cellist Mayu Shviro, US-based jazz trumpeter Itamar Borochov and bassist Yankale Segal. And, in addition to overseeing the festival agenda, Doari and Tobias Sabater will lend their polished seasoned skills to the musical fare.

While the artist bill certainly has the creative and emotive firepower to do the business, the festival honchos were keen to provide the culture consumer with some rare added value.

“After months of research and, mostly, listening to our heart, we invite you to Arkho,” they say, also noting the titular etymology that comes into play. “The name, from ancient Greek, means ‘the beginning’ or ‘source.’ It also infers gates and ancient arches, and even the ark, Noah’s Ark from the beginning of time.”

Then we get into the human side of the programming philosophy, and the pertinent benefits for the public. “Arkho is a common domain, both for the musicians for you (us). Vocalists, percussionists and players of string and wind instruments, international virtuoso and you will, together, create a new space for shared musical and human exploration, where you are invited to come, stay, participate and impact on and witness a process, encounter and discoveries.”

“Have you ever sat up really close, amongst wonderful musicians from all over the world, while they are in the process of creating? Right in the studio?”

Itamar Doari

Doari highlights another benefit of taking advantage of the forthcoming Mekudeshet program. “Think about it,” he posts. “Have you ever sat up really close, amongst wonderful musicians from all over the world, while they are in the process of creating? Right in the studio?”

That references the three intimate Arkho Studio berths of the festival when we will be allowed “an exceptional opportunity to peep into musicians; ‘the holy of holies,’ where an international and onetime musical project evolves, whereby it is hard to predict where it will lead, at any given moment.”

The project informational material goes on to explain that “the audience will bunch up between the group of musicians in a rehearsal room, without a stage, and will be privileged to witness an intimate creative process that few get to see from close quarters.”

IT PROMISES to be an exhilarating experience for all concerned and, particularly, an opportunity to catch Tobias Sabater in full percussive flow.

The Spaniard was clearly fated to walk this professional walk. He says he began to display an interest in drumming-related activity at a very tender age.

“I was two years old when I started to play music,” he recalls. “I don’t know why. I don’t come from a musical family.”

Genetic shortcoming notwithstanding, once he began rhythmically banging away, there was no stopping the kid.

“Why I started with music is something I still think about. I don’t have an answer yet,” he said with a smile.

The why and wherefore behind Tobias Sabater’s incipient artistic pursuit may yet transpire, but the undeniable fact of the matter is that he has climbed to the top of the world music ladder, and regularly mixes it with a broad sweep of musicians from across the globe and the full breadth of the ethnic music spectrum. Some of his fellow Arkho performers have benefited from his percussive anchoring and seasoning, including Momi Maiga and Carles Dénia. Naturally, that ups the sense of warmth and tête-à-tête ambiance the shows will, no doubt, exude.

By the time he was a four-year-old, Tobias Sabater had progressed from empty detergent packages to a toy drum, and then to a more advanced junior drum set three years later. He drummed the life out of the kit – literally – until it broke. “It was just discarded,” he said. “No one thought about the possibility of repairing it.”

He pressed on regardless, reverting to ostensibly nonmusical objects. Still, he managed to make artistic strides, with a little help from some bona fide professionals. “I listened to a lot of CDs, paying special attention to the drummers, and I’d drum out their parts on a table, or on my legs, in a very intuitive way.”

It was down to the youngster taking the proactive approach. “In those days we didn’t have YouTube, and my family didn’t go to concerts.”

Eventually he got to witness the magic happening right in front of his young eyes. “One time we went to a ‘family concert’ at school. It was an hour-long show, and I just kept on staring at the drummer. That is my first memory of seeing drums played live. I think I was nine or 10 at the time.”

Thankfully, his autodidactic days came to an end when he began attending a music conservatory at the age of 15, having finally acquired a real drum set a year earlier. He learned the rudiments the right way at the school, including how to use the various drums and cymbals to their best rhythmic and textural advantage. “I didn’t know how the hi-hat, ride cymbal or bass drum were used.” He says he played the bass drum part on the tom drum, and often doubled up on both. “I still remember the day when I thought: This cannot be. There is something not going good here,” he said.

He complemented the theory he imbibed in class with continuing to listen to more drummers on CDs, and the pennies gradually began to fall into place.

“I heard something like, tsi tsi tsi,” he says, miming a cymbal sound. “I thought, Let’s see, if I close the hi-hat here. OK. That’s it!”

Ever curious about percussive fare from all over the show, Tobias Sabater began to get into African music, which naturally led him to hand drums, such as the djembe and dundun and sabar, and he started to incorporate hand drumming in his work.

That changed his way of thinking for good. After taking on the percussive sides of pop, rock and jazz, suddenly the street-level output from rural African made deep inroads into Tobias Sabater’s musical consciousness. “It opened my imagination regarding sonority, texture and musical language.”

He has taken that invaluable baggage with him, honing his craft and fusing his own cultural and musical backdrop with a whole host of artists, from Brazil, Africa and beyond.

Today, among his many musical pursuits, he serves as director of the Coetus Iberian percussion orchestra. The ensemble, which Tobias Sabater founded, acts as a means for him to season traditional music with more contemporary and wide-ranging musical vernacular. He also holds frequent workshops at which he enlightens musicians about Iberian percussion.

His eclectic musical gospel-spreading endeavor also includes working with the Tactequeté group, which he helped to found in 1995, and which leans heavily on the percussive side of contemporary ethnic music.

FOR DOARI, the forthcoming event is nothing less than the realization of a dream.

“The Arkho project is something I have been thinking about for years,” he says. “I dreamt about taking on all kinds of forms and pathways, and I knew that the time would come when life would show me that it was time, and would show me the way to do it.”

That much is abundantly clear, with the program promising a rare high-quality experience for one and all, not least for Doari and his coprofessionals.

“I dreamt of convening a group of amazing musicians, and sitting down to play for hours, just like when we were all learning, more than anything, from each other, and the music that passed through us was so free and pure.”

That is, indeed, a lofty aspiration. It must be difficult for artists who take the stage to completely immerse themselves in their work and remain unaffected by the ego-pumping response of the audience. That is, of course, assuming the patrons appreciate their efforts.

That desirable state of affairs stands a good chance of coming about, as all the artists on the Arkho roster – all 12 of them – will get down and dirty together on three successive days at the Sherover Promenade, for four straight hours. With such gifted artists in the lineup, the magic will surely emerge.

But that may not come easy. Doari says the artists will have to take a leap of faith or two. “In order to reach these places, we have to enter the space of not knowing. We have to be genuine and in the moment. We have to be very attentive and intuitive, hone our improvisational abilities and our instrumental mastery, and to just be. To be.” ❖

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