The Ninth Jerusalem International Oud Festival
November 20December 4, 2008
The ninth edition of the Jerusalem International Oud festival predated the current, painful Middle-Eastern round of hostilities in a month, but still offered a much better alternative to the local leaders' militant vision for this region. This festival over the years insisted on suggesting a sane and peaceful oasis of cultural coexistence even when the outer surroundings were oblivious to such needed alternative.
The festival highlighted this year the bowed, pear-shaped kemence in all its forms and names. Mark Eliyahu presented the Persian version of the instrument in a program dedicated to Ha-Ben Ish Hai, Rabbi Yossef Haim (1834-1939), a charismatic, theatrical and mystic religious leader of the Jewish community of Baghdad. The Yonah Ensemble, which featured Eliyahu as a guest musician, re-arranged some of the Kabbalistic texts of Ha-Ben Ish Hai in a Jewish Kawali dresses, stressing in this performance the ecstatic spiritual euphoria. The lead vocalist Rabbi Yehuda Ovadia Ptaya did not attempt to imitate the vocal gymnastics of traditional Sufi vocalists. Though he is not gifted with the charisma of famous Kawali singers such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, in his modest manner he led the Yonah Ensemble gradually into a cathartic devotional ecstasy that was shared between the musicians and the attentive audience. Eliyahu was the most prominent player in this outfit, sounding too careful in just the setting that demanded more ecstatic performances. Eliyahu is gifted with poetic and imaginary articulation on the ancient kemence, which is not bound to the traditional rules of playing, and often references modern classical composers and jazz improvisers. Each of his arresting solos just took these songs into higher heavens.
Ross Daly, an Irish musician who lives in Crete, encompasses in his singular musical language all the musical traditions of the East, from India, through Persia to Turkey and Greece, and focuses on the Cretan lyra (including a custom built version of it), an instrument that is a close relative of the kemence. He led a quartet comprising Turkish oud player Yurdal Tokcan, Israeli percussionist Zohar Fresco and fellow Cretan lyra player Kelly Thoma. The emphasis on this performance was on the open and patient interplay that left enough room for personal expressions. The four musicians formed an immediate intimacy, and each gesture sparked a supportive answer from the others. Daly's plying resonated with many distant and ancient overtones, but all melted now into his unifying language. Tokcan spiced his solos with surprising and humoristic citations in a way that brought to mind another great oud master, Rabih Abou Khalil. Fresco is one of the most sensitive percussionists around and can add color and depth to any theme with minimal means, but he can also amplify the rhythm and push the other players when needed. Thoma featured a beautiful composition of hers that was interpreted majestically by this quartet. More than likely all four were surprised by the enchanting impact of their performance when the audience refused to leave the hall and demanded more and more encores.
Derya Turkan, Renaud Garcia-Fons and Ugur Isik
The unique trio of Turkish kemence player Derya Turkan, cello player Ugur Isik and French bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons, all playing on bowed instruments, dedicated their performance to Turkish Ottoman instrumental works, composed specially for the Ottoman sultans and first documented in the 17th century. This trio performed these works on Turkan's beautiful disc Minstrel's Era (Kalan, 2006). The performance offered a better, and even ironic, look on these ceremonial works. Turkan, who arranged all these works, led the trio and usually followed the original formal themes, but whereas in the disc both Isik and Garcia-Fons did not attempt to hold back in their articulations from these sophisticated themes or their moderate pace, in this performance they challenged Turkan arrangements with daring and humorous ornamentations, all answered properly by Turkan, while all these gestures still adhered to the original thematic frame. Garcia-Fons played with much more restraint than on his own recordings and often used the bow to add charming percussive touches. Throughout this concert Turkan, Garcia-Fons and Isik demonstrated the common threads among this ancient Eastern musical tradition, both ancient and modern Western classical forms and even flamenco traditions and jazz improvisation, and how these adjacent traditions keep enriching each other.