International Oud Festival
November 14-26, 2005
Music can be a solid bridge between cultures, especially alienated cultures such as the Muslim and Jewish ones. The sixth Oud Festival brought Israeli, Palestinian, Turkish, Indian, and American-Armenian musicians (pictured: Ara Dinkijian) to the torn city of Jerusalem, all relating to the rich tradition of the fascinating lute, teaching us that behind all the myriad differencesmusical, geographical and culturalwe are still part of a very cozy and friendly neighborhood.
Such a moment happened when the Turkish ensemble from Istanbul, Saz Endeleri, hosted Imam Hafiz Halil Necipoğlu, chief muezzin of the Tofhane Mosque in Istanbul, for a set of Turkish Sufi Music. Necipoğlu, who arrived in the last minute after being harassed for hours by the Israeli security officials on his way to Israel, got a standing ovation upon entering the Jerusalem Theater hall, and this warm gesture touched him and the ensemble. I guess that even he was surprised to find this eager audience, mostly indifferent to the plights of the occupied Palestinian Muslim neighbors of East Jerusalem, humming with him devotional Islamic prayers such as "La-Ilaha-Ila-Allah (there is no god but Allah)."
The ensemble, which featured Israeli percussion player Yinon Muallem, opened the concert with pieces from the classic repertoire of the Ottoman Empire by composers like Tanburi Jemil Bey, as well as modern compositions by its leader, kanun virtousi Göksel Baktagir. All of the arrangements evolved around the truly exceptional playing of Baktagirwho can produce from his instrument the sounds of a Japanese koto, an Indian sitar, an American banjo, or even a mandolinbut Baktagir did not leave a lot of space to the other members of this fine ensemble. The ensemble sounded much more balanced when Necipoğlu took the lead and his throaty deep voice began to chant the meditative Sufi prayers with focused conviction. The disciplined support of Baktagir, excellent oud player Yurdal Tokcan, and kamanja player Selim Guler and the inspired Muallem drove Necipoğluand the audienceto spiritual excitment.
Israeli composer and pianist Yitzhak Yedid debuted his new composition for oud, bass, and piano. This five-part suite, like all of Yedid's compositions, attempts to encompass and quote many themes and traditionsfrom Jewish prayers, Arab music, contemporary music, and modern jazz. Yedid tried to create a new musical language that could bridge the gap between the quarter notes of the fretless oud and the Western notation of the piano, and he succeeded in capturing some of the oud's notes while playing and hammering the piano strings. His ideas were executed brilliantly by bassist Ora Boasson Horev, who centered the music around her imaginative playing and the sophisticated interplay between her and Yedid, but unfortunately oud player Mikhail Maroun's repressed playing lacked the needed vision for such a demanding composition.
Israeli-Palestinian oud player Wisam Gibran presented a very personal and heartfelt tribute to one of the great oud players of the 20th Century, the late Iraqi oud player Mounir Bashir, who died eight years ago. Bashir is considered a passionate defender of Arab music and one who fought to establish the lute as a solo recital instrument. But Bashir was also a very curious listener, and throughout his many journeys around the world he was exposed to various Western musical traditions. Gibran, who has quite criminally not been recorded yet, fancied in his concert a new oud that was built by the son of the oud builder of Bashir, Yaroub Mohammed Fadhel. He interpreted a few of the compositions that were associated with Bashir, and he managed to capture Bashir's free spirit. His poetic and often humorous playing referenced flamenco music, blues slide guitar, and bluegrass plucking, all without abandoning his musical identity. During the latter part of his concert, Gibran hosted his young and gifted student Loai Haleife for a series of oud duets in the tradition of Bashir and his son. I hope that by the next oud festival Gibran will also present some of his masterful playing on disc.
The concluding concert, "An Armenian in America," featured American-Armenian oud and cumbus player Ara Dinkijian, who led the Night Ark band with master percussionist Arto Tunçboyaciyan, who is of Armenian-descent. Night Ark is still very popular in Israel, to the extent that some of Dinkijian's compostions have been arranged as local TV series theme and pop songs. Dinkijian's songs indeed have very simple and catchy motifs, but during his Night Ark period he used very skilled players such as Tunçboyaciyan, pianist Armen Donelian, and bassist Marc Johnson, who added the necessary volume and depth to Dinkijian's themes through their joyous improvisation.
His concert in Jerusalem was dominated by his immediate affinity with the great Israeli percussionist Zohar Fresco, which very soon veiled the worn-out cliches of keyboard player Adi Rennert. The swift dialogues between Dinkijian and Fresco (pictured above) featured the two as perfect partners, challenging each other, opening new vistas, and solidifying well-trodden trails. Their dynamic and powerful playing gained many justified rounds of applause.