RENOWNED TURKISH oud and fretless guitar player Yurdal Tokcan makes a welcome return to Jerusalem. (photo credit: Courtesy Confederation House)
RENOWNED TURKISH oud and fretless guitar player Yurdal Tokcan makes a welcome return to Jerusalem. (photo credit: Courtesy Confederation House)
Jerusalem International Oud Festival is back and is more than just oud

The Jerusalem International Oud Festival has always gone with its natural exponential and cultural flow. The annual predominantly Arabic music fest, which takes place under the auspices of Confederation House for the 23rd year November 3-12, was somewhat of a slow burner to begin with. 

That, really, is the time-honored Middle Eastern and Eastern way. Under the practiced stewardship of long-serving Confederation House CEO and artistic director Effie Benaya, the event has gradually built up a head of steam, evolving from an intimate two-day vignette on the national arts curriculum into a 10-day extravaganza with shows venturing into increasingly broadening circles of stylistic and genre fare.

Next week’s program takes in some of the staples, including a tribute to Egyptian diva Oum Kulthoum, music from mystical Sufi realms and liturgical material. But Benaya has never been one to shirk from flexing the boundaries of the domain, incorporating sounds and rhythms from associated cultures and marrying them with the core sensibilities in an attempt to draw in new audiences.

Since those early days, the festival has spread its venue wings too, presenting gala shows at the Jerusalem Theater and, more recently, at Zappa, as well as cozier locations such as the Khan Theater and the Mazkeka, in addition to Confederation House. 

 SUPERGROUP SUMMIT: Iranian-born multi-instrumentalist Amir Shahsar joins forces with Turkish Sufi musician Isa Nasim and Turkish vocalist Selcukhan Yilmaz. (credit: OSNAT ROM) SUPERGROUP SUMMIT: Iranian-born multi-instrumentalist Amir Shahsar joins forces with Turkish Sufi musician Isa Nasim and Turkish vocalist Selcukhan Yilmaz. (credit: OSNAT ROM)

Spreading its venue wings

YURDAL TOKCAN certainly pertains to the grander end of the performing arts sector. The Turkish oud player and guitarist has been thrilling audiences the world over for more than three decades and graced the Oud Festival in its earlier days. 

It was a rare treat to catch the master unfurl seemingly effortless riffs and intricately crafted passages on oud or fretless guitar as he mined rich seams of Middle Eastern music, spiced up with blazing and sumptuous colors and textures from foreign climes.

Now, after a protracted hiatus, he is back, and the forthcoming occasion will see him appear together with compatriot oud players Ufuk Kaan Icli and Tolga Karaslan as part of his ÛDÎ project.

The 56-year-old frontman says music has been a constant for him since his youth. “I started my musical life at the age of 18 when I entered the Istanbul Technical University State Turkish Music Conservatory. That was the start of my professional career, but music was always a part of our household. I can say that I grew up with music.”

The sounds Tokcan wrapped his young ears around, which he caught on Turkish radio and TV, were complemented by his formal conservatory studies. After graduating, he came under an experienced wing.

“Tanburi Necdet Yasar became my master,” he says. “The relationship between the master and student is very important in our tradition, and it is [the] main source to protect and to pass on our musical heritage. Our traditional heritage was my main source of inspiration.”

“The relationship between the master and student is very important in our tradition, and it is [the] main source to protect and to pass on our musical heritage. Our traditional heritage was my main source of inspiration.”

Yurdal Tockan

Yasar was artistic director of one of Turkey’s leading musical outfits and helped the young musician achieve the next career step. “My master invited me to be a part of the Istanbul State Turkish Music Ensemble in 1990, and I was very lucky to be a part of it. It was a very important milestone in my musical journey in order for me to learn more about our classical music. Because my master also played an instrument [tanbur lute], he guided me through my journey to become a better instrument player.”

Tokcan soon became one of the top exponents of his trade, developing impressive skills and breathtaking technique.

He also began to season his output with elements from Western musical areas, while never straying too far from his cultural core.

“First of all, we should learn our traditional music well in order to create new things,” he states. “As an artist, I am open to any form of art that has its own historical roots and character. So I am open to these interactions between classical music and modern music in order to create my own [approach].”

For Tokcan it has always been a matter of venturing into uncharted waters while remaining fully grounded in his hereditary musical habitat. That also goes for stretching his artistic and instrumental range. “To be able to play the fretless guitar, you should definitely be familiar with the traditional Turkish music ornamentations. Because both instruments are fretless, I was able to link what I learned from playing the oud to playing the fretless guitar and vice versa. It is really important to be able to make these transitions between instruments because it allowed me to improve my music.”

When you make strides in peripheral areas, it is a fair bet you will at some point encounter some degree of resistance from the genre police. However, it seems Tokcan has managed to carve a safe path through that particular minefield and says he has not taken any flak from purists who may not like the way he rearranges traditional music into more modern patterns. “I always play our traditional music in its pure form and preserve this purity. Apart from that, I use modern tunes to be able to strengthen the way of the oud and create my own music. This is always well received and respected in our country.” Clearly, the man must be doing something right.

Tokcan is also amenable to a variety of lineups and says he is perfectly happy to mix it with small bands and larger ensembles. “I do not differentiate between the two, and I am a part of both formats. Our traditional music is in a form of chamber music, which consists of a small number of instruments and a small number of vocals. So I prefer smaller groups, but I am happy to be a part of both formats.”

It has been a while since Tokcan last performed here, and he says he is delighted to be returning and is looking forward to renewing old relationships. “Israel has always been a special place where I performed in many estimable concerts and gained many valuable friends. I am very happy to be back in Israel and to be able to meet my friends again.”

Considering the occasionally rocky course followed by diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, which may have precluded Tokcan’s plans to play here all this time, next week’s concert at the Jerusalem Theater is cause for celebration.

As far as the oud maestro is concerned, he would rather we all stick to the melodic side of life instead of getting enmeshed in extraneous shenanigans.

“Music is an international language, and I am looking forward to the festival so that we can share our music and our hearts,” he declares. “And I believe music is the only way through which we are able to speak the same language simultaneously.”

That is a heart cockle-warming inclusive ethos, and one that resonates right across the Oud Festival agenda.

THE MIRA AWAD slot at Zappa on November 5 (9:30 p.m.) certainly echoes that mindset. Awad has been lauded as a singer-songwriter and actress for some time and, more recently, as an artist in textiles and ceramics. She has represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest and, at long last, is taking her Oud Festival bow alongside guitarist Shay Alon, with whom she has enjoyed a long and fruitful professional relationship, and oud player and violinist Milo Frazer. In addition to vocals, Awad will play guitar and concha.

The Zappa gig should appeal to a broad swath of musical predilections. Over the years, Awad has followed an eclectic stylistic path, producing a wide-ranging oeuvre with mainly Arabic lyrics accompanied by both Eastern- and Western-leaning charts. At her Oud Festival debut, Awad will perform a repertoire culled from her discography and will examine the cultural links that several of her co-professionals have generated through cover versions of songs from the Arabic world, seasoned with multicultural sentiments.

Benaya has made a habit of mining sonic seams from around our neck of the world to embellish the festival program and let us in on some of the musical treasures to be had from our regional neighbors.

This year’s curtain-raiser suits that expansive line of thought, featuring the Estudiantina Neas Ionias Orchestra from across the Aegean Sea, with singers Eleni Vitali and Babis Stokas leading a tribute to feted Greek composer Vasilis Tsitsanis. The Greek composer and virtuoso bouzouki player, who died in 1984, was one of the most prolific and influential composers of the rebetiko and laiko styles of Greek popular music. He also introduced Western elements into his national musical material laced with poetic motifs.

The festival opener, conducted by santouri player Andras Katzigiannis, feeds off the musical traditions of Smyrna and Asia Minor. This will be the orchestra’s second appearance at the Oud Festival, with Tsitsanis’s works taking the listener along a meandering timeline through milestone events that shaped 20th-century Greek history, depicting its down-at-heels heroes, social woes, great loves and exotic odysseys to magical lands. The 11-piece instrumental cast takes in an East-West hemisphere-leaping arc, which includes bouzouki, guitar, qanoun, piano, bass, violin and clarinet.

The November 6 date at the Khan Theater, fronted by stellar Israeli Algerian-Tunisian-French-rooted singer-songwriter Riff Cohen, should add a dimension or two to the festival’s artistic fare. The show takes its structural cue from Riff’s latest album, Hole in the Heart, which addresses feminist themes and dips into multifarious regional pastures from Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Morocco and Algeria. The record title references Cohen’s stormy divorce, and the songs express feelings of freedom and feminine empowerment and follow an intimate and highly emotive narrative.

All the above is rolled out with Hebrew, Arabic, French and English lyrics, accompanied by an ensemble playing traditional Middle Eastern instruments, such as oud, saz, riq and darbuka, as well as some of their Western counterparts. Cohen’s sisters and brothers in musical arms include violinist-conductor Joanna Rittmueler; percussionists Aviv Ezra and Eylon Elyakam; Elad Kimhi on synthesizer; and oud and saz player Yaniv Meisel.

THE DISTAFF SIDE of our musical community is well represented at the festival and includes rich liturgical content. On November 7 (7 p.m.), Confederation House will host liturgical singers – paytaniyot in Hebrew – Shir Yafrah and Yahala Lachmish, who will front a concert devoted to piyut and other material from a female perspective. Most of the piyutim and songs come from the Andalusian North African side of the stylistic tracks, but the performance agenda will also incorporate other piyutim from the East and the West.

Liturgical programming has been making inroads into cultural life here over the past decade or so, with series at Beit Avi Chai and elsewhere around the country drawing sizable crowds. However, even with the sterling efforts of the likes of seasoned Ladino singer Hadas Pal Yarden, paytaniyot are still a relative rarity in Israeli entertainment circles. That makes Benaya’s decision to include Yafrah and Lachmish in the Oud Festival lineup all the more laudable.

Other festival items to look out for across the rich roster include singer Tamar Shawki’s tribute to her Lebanese-born musician grandparents, and a beat-based, DJ-pumped Arabic-lyric trip along the ancient route between Jerusalem Gate in Jaffa and Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem at Hamazkeka.

The confluence between Iranian-born Israeli multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Amir Shahsar, Turkish Sufi musician Isa Nasim and Turkish vocalist Selcukhan Yılmaz will take the Khan Theater audience into enthralling mystical realms. Meanwhile, the November 9 date at Hamazkeka offers a leap into the unknown, as a meet between The Love and Terror Ensemble duo, featuring Berlin-based accordionist and computer manipulator Amir Boltzman and percussionist Ariel Armoni, and The Hallway foursome, promises an intriguing taste of traditional Arabic spiced with contemporary electronic music.

The Oud Festival is clearly far more than the eponymous instrument suggests. ❖

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