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Live Reviews

The Seventh International Oud Festival of Jerusalem

By Published: January 3, 2007

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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