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Live Reviews

The Seventh International Oud Festival of Jerusalem

By Published: January 3, 2007
The Seventh international Oud Festival
Jerusalem, Israel
November 2-16, 2006

Just when the Middle East seems about to slide into one of its reptilian-macho phases, burdened with too many bloody and violent conflicts, the independent Oud Festival of Jerusalem draws an almost utopian vision for this piece of land. The Middle East, according to this optimistic view, is in fact a very close and open-minded musical neighborhood where traditions rely upon, borrow from, and exchange ideas and themes with each other, and beneath the conceited poses of the region's hollow leaders, we are much more alike than what these leaders would like us to think.

This festival, conceived by the artistic director of the Confederation House in Jerusalem, Effie Benaya, brought together Jewish, Palestinians, Armenian, Persian and Spanish musicians who represented the different as well as the similar facets of the glorious, multifaceted culture of the Arabic world.

Three weeks have passed since the final concert of this festival, on Nov. 16, and I am still trying to reconstruct this rare musical and spiritual experience. With no oud on stage, the Lian Ensemble, a Sufi-Persian aggregation composed of four Iranian exiles who are based in Los Angeles and augmented by an American percussionist, delivered a hypnotic set of their interpretations of the poems of well-known Sufi masters such as Jellaluddin Rumi, Farid al-Din Attar (whose text, Conference of the Birds, inspired bassist Dave Holland's album of the same name, ECM, 1972) and Sheikh Javad Nurbakhsh.

Tar player Pirayeh Pourafar usually began each piece with focused and economic playing; santur player Mahshid Mirzadeh soon interlocked with Porafar's nuanced ruminations; and after these two women outlined the exquisite theme, the percussionists—Houman Pourmehdi, who alternated his tonbak and daf frame drums with the ney flute and the stringed setar, and Randy Gloss—added momentum and infectious rhythms. But the magic began when their vocalist began to sing.

Naderi Veseghi Soleyman, a dignified-looking white-haired gentleman in his sixties, seated in the center of the stage, was gifted with a warm and expressive voice, but it was his delivery of the Sufi texts that made the difference. When he sang, you could understood why the Sufis believe and they are able to approach God through truth and love. Soleyman's sincere and humble affinity with the messages of the poetic texts—none was translated—and his joyous, total belief in these texts, together with the rich tonal ornamentations of the ensemble, captured the audience's attention again and again.

The devotional approach of this excellent ensemble, with their imaginative arrangements of complex Sufi texts, all executed in a refined yet virtuosic manner that never lost momentum, contributed to the feeling of elation that accompanied me many hours and days after this concert.

The festival began two weeks before, On Nov, 2, the official opening with a tribute to one of the greatest Egyptian modern composers, Sayed Darwish (1891-1922), who was often called the "Egyptian Verdi," because of his combining elements from the Italian opera and Western instruments with Arab arrangements and theatrical traditions.

The Taiseer Elias ensemble, led by master oud player Elias, performed for three intense hours that encompassed many of the musical highlights of the Darwish legacy. The vocalists Khalil Abu Nikola, Samir Abu Faris and Manal Madani covered many Darwish standards that had been performed before by such noteworthy vocalists as Abd al-Wahab, Fairuz and Zaki Murad. They were frequently joined by the mixed Palestinian and Jewish audience, which seemed to know these songs by heart. Although the rich program did not leave much room for the ensemble members to elaborate and improvise on the original charts, it still managed to allow space for tasty and refined playing by Elias and violin player Sami Khashiboun, and of course all the three vocalists.

The day after, Nov. 3, another master oud player, Wisam Gibran, delivered an inspired set comprising his tribute to the poet Ahmad ibn al-Hussein, al-Mutanabbi, the prophetizer, who lived in Abbasian Iraq in the tenth century and who is considered one of the greatest Arab poets. He's also remembered as one of the most iconoclastic ones, someone who rebelled against poetry with poetry.

Gibran's oud playing was quite poetic, and his rich musical language reflected and drew elements from modern flamenco guitarists, European lute players and even from blues slide-guitar players, all spiced with his gentle sense of humor yet still carrying a strong Arabic tone. Gibran was joined by vocalist Shirin Daniel, whose clear and deep voice stressed the elegant and exquisite playing of Gibran. The latter, as al-Mutanabbi, is a natural rebel against tradition and its confines but still has not documented his exciting work on discs.

The Jerusalem-based Shaharit Ensemble presented their tribute to the Jewish poet Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1093-1167), one of the most fascinating characters of the Jewish Golden Age in Spain on Nov. 5. The ensemble arranged the cantorial texts, piyyutim, of Ibn Ezra, many of which are still sung in the Sephardic synagogues and congregations. Their performance uncovered the Arabic musical layers of these traditional melodies, even quoting themes from popular songs by such legendary musicians as the great Egyptian diva Om Koulsoum.

But throughout the evening, as the members of this ensemble presented more and more anecdotes about the adventurous, humoristic and broad-minded Ibn Ezra, his character seemed to outgrow the conventional arrangements that the ensemble offered. There were some captivating moments, especially when violin player Nitsan-Khen Raz'el and bassist Naor Carmi took the lead. Still, I left this concert thinking that although such a remarkable character as Ibn Ezra would have enjoyed the devotional approach of the ensemble he would have appreciated a more free-minded approach.

Rabbi and cantor, Yehuda Ovadia Fetaya, with the magnificent Yona (dove in Hebrew) Ensemble succeeded in combining ancient cantorial songs, piyyutim, with modern ethnic and rock elements on Nov. 9. The program began with Fetaya, a remarkable cantorial vocalist who improvised quite naturally with the ensemble, singing traditional Sephardic prayers, many identified with the Jews of Iraq.

The ensemble—featuring Carmi on vertical bass and the bowed Turkish yelitambour, Itamar Shachar on ney and Eliyahi Digmi on oud, saz and electric guitar, plus three percussionists—offered innovative and highly original arrangements for these prayers, making it clear that all members of the ensemble were deeply immersed in these religious texts. The ensemble was joined by Israeli singer-songwriter Meir Banai, whose songs always reflect his deep interest in religion, but Fetaya and the ensemble did not manage to interlock with Banai, and served modest arrangements to the Banai songs.

This all changed when Israeli alternative rock icon, Berry Sacharof, joined Fetaya and the ensemble. The charismatic presence of Sacharof inspired Fetaya and the ensemble to a frenzied passion, first as they performed the Kabbalistic texts of Rabby Israel Najara and even more so when they sang some of the original songs of Sacharof and modern Israeli songs. Sacharof's version of his song, "Avadim" (slaves in Hebrew), which tells the story of a junky who strives for redemption in his next fix, was truly exciting in its new arrangement, and the musical interaction between the extrovert Sacharof, the more modest Fetaya, and the re-awakened ensemble sounded natural and flowing.

Another concert, on Nov. 11, was devoted to the folk music of Armenia, arranged by the ex-leader of the ethnic-jazz ensemble Night Ark, Ara Dinkijian, and featuring his father, vocalist Onnik Dinkijian. This concert, "The Voice of the Armenians," presented an almost vanished musical tradition that portrays the varied cycles of life. Ara Dinkijian, who played an oud that his father got as a wedding present, described the feelings that motivated the traditional songs but let his father lead this evening, and through the expressive phrasing of Onnik Dinkijian one could understand the yearning for the Armenian homeland, the joy of love between villagers, and the pride of the Armenians in their tradition and historical legacy.

Armenian folk music is based on a variety of complex, asymmetrical rhythms and to my untrained ear sounded quite close to Turkish folk music. Since the focus of this concert was on the songs, the tight and economical arrangements did not leave enough room for the members of the ensemble to elaborate, but still the kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi and kemenche player Sokrates Sinopoulos demonstrated inspired, colorful playing.

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