OUD-PLAYER-VIOLINIST Taiseer Elias will be one of the highlights of this year’s Oud Festival. (photo credit: SHMULIK BALMAS)
OUD-PLAYER-VIOLINIST Taiseer Elias will be one of the highlights of this year’s Oud Festival. (photo credit: SHMULIK BALMAS)
Taiseer Elias honors Egyptian great at Jerusalem Oud Festival

Festival organizers and artistic directors continually grapple with the challenge of introducing more contemporary, often left-field, works into their programs alongside the proven crowd pullers. ​After all, they need to keep to the box office ticking over.

In the classical music world, for example, do you slot a work by 20th-century American composer Norman Dello Joio between a Beethoven sonata and a symphony by Haydn? All art forms, by definition, must evolve if they are going to survive and become relevant.

That sentiment is not lost on Effie Benaya, the perennial CEO and artistic director of Jerusalem’s Confederation House, who oversees the annual Jerusalem International Oud Festival. Benaya has addressed this issue since he founded the event 23 long years ago.

Besides Arabic and Turkish material, the festival’s programs have included Greek and Persian music, Jewish liturgical repertoire and, more recently, shows with 21st-century dynamics and sounds. You will also find the staples of the base genre in there too. 

And, if you are going down the iconic route, there are few more qualified to do the job than Prof. Taiseer Elias, head of the Department of Eastern Music at the Jerusalem Music Academy, which he established 17 years ago. He is also a composer, oud and violin player, and teacher. 

 Taiseer Elias (credit: SHMULIK BALMAS) Taiseer Elias (credit: SHMULIK BALMAS)

A leading figure in the Arabic music scene

Over the past four decades or so, Elias has been one of the leading torchbearers of Arabic music, both here and abroad. During his appearance at the Oud Festival, (9 p.m. November 10, at the Jerusalem Theatre), he will focus on the incomparable Egyptian singer Oum Kulthoum, who died in 1975. 

Elias has been around the block with Oum Kulthoum’s oeuvre umpteen times over the years, and knows his way around most popular numbers, including “Baeed Anak” (Far From You), “Ana Fi Inta Zarak” (I Am Waiting for You) and the anthemic “Inta Omri” (You Are My Life), all of which will feature in Thursday’s show. Although he prefers to cast his artistic net as far and wide as possible, Elias is, naturally, cognizant of Kulthoum’s standing in the canon of Arabic music. 

“I like her work, and appreciate the music of other great artists. She is one of the pillars of Arabic music and she is very popular with the public, she sells,” he says.

The same cannot be said for other members of the Arabic music pantheon. “There are many great Arab artists, like [now 87-year-old Lebanese singer] Fairuz or [compatriot singer and composer] Wadih El Safi. For me, they are among the greatest artists ever.

“Unfortunately, you don’t sell as many tickets for concerts of their work,” Elias notes. “The artists that are popular with most people are Oum Kulthoum and [Syrian-Egyptian oud player, composer and singer] Farid El-Atrash.” 

“The artists that are popular with most people are Oum Kulthoum and [Syrian-Egyptian oud player, composer and singer] Farid El-Atrash.”

Taiseer Elias

STILL, ELIAS is perfectly happy to keep Kulthoum’s enduring legacy alive to a captive Jerusalem Theatre audience, as he has at several previous editions of the festival over the past decades. 

He also makes sure he has the right team around him to do the performative business. Thursday’s concert will see him share the stage with eight instrumentalists performing on strings, wind instruments and percussion. He will also be joined by vocalists Violet Salameh and Yehiel Nahari. Salameh, in particular, has achieved lofty standing in the international Arabic music arena and is known for her polished emotive renditions of the Egyptian diva’s repertoire. 

“Violet is one of the best vocalists in Israel, and anywhere in the world, when it comes to singing Oum Kulthoum,” Elias says, “in vocal terms and style. Of course, Violet brings her own voice and approach, but she connects strongly with the source. That’s the wonderful thing about it. If you respect the source, you can interpret the material in your own way, introduce new elements, including improvisation, and a new spirit and breathe new life into it all.”

Staying true to the original intent is also reflected in the instrumental layout of the concert. “We are going with a classic Arabic music ensemble,” Elias explains. “There will be violins, oud, qanun, ney, darbouka and rik. There is no room here for more Western instruments, like a flute. You can’t play around with that too much. You simply have to respect the source.” 

That doesn’t mean you are duty-bound to replicate the base charts as is, but you have to be aware of the prevailing market forces. “You can bring something fresh to it, but you can’t bring in too many changes. The audience doesn’t want to hear something too different from the original either. You can’t take too many risks with the sacred cows.”

Knowing your consumer sector, and tailoring your output accordingly, is just as important for a performing artist, as the talent, skill and technique it takes to convert written scores into sonic entertainment. 

“When I perform for a traditional conservative Arab audience, I play in a certain way. And when I play abroad, or for a Jewish Israeli audience that likes world music or jazz, I can allow myself more freedom. You have to know the audience you are appealing to,” he says.

Elias may have to rein in his more adventurous side for the forthcoming Oud Festival concert although he says, in terms of repertoire selection, he is spoiled for choice: “You can’t really say there are any bad Oum Kulthoum songs. The ‘problem’ is not what to choose, but what to leave out,” he laughs. 

“When you decide not to play a particular song, you feel it is a shame to leave it out. Sometimes you have to omit a song, possibly because it is long, or you may have to shorten it. That is a shame but you have to be pragmatic.” 

Over the years, owing in no small part to the continued existence and growth of the Jerusalem International Oud Festival, audiences for Arabic music have become more varied. Increasing numbers of Ashkenazim have become fans of Kulthoum, the el-Kuwaiti brothers, and Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

“There is more openness among all sorts of people toward Arabic music today. And you get people of all ages coming to concerts – not just the older folk who were born in Arabic countries before they came to Israel. That is very satisfying.”

For tickets and more information: *6226 and http://tickets.bimot.co.il

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