It’s not all about the oud at the upcoming 17th Oud Festival.
The pear-shaped string instrument known from Persian, Turkish, Greek, North African and Middle Eastern music is at the core of the annual musical week at Jerusalem’s Zionist Confederation House. Yet the festival, held November 17-26, has morphed into something much larger, a celebration of Eastern music melded with more contemporary sounds, made by musicians from the world over.
“It brings more than 8,000 people to Jerusalem,” said festival director Effie Benaya. “And around half are from the country’s center. That’s amazing. I bring Tel Avivians to Jerusalem for the Oud Festival. And we sell out.”
It was nearly 20 years ago that Benaya, director of the Zionist Confederation House — a combination art gallery, cultural center and café housed in a turn-of-the-century stone building overlooking the Old City walls — first organized the festival, wanting to expand the audience for what was then known as ethnic music.
As the son of an Egyptian father and Georgian mother living in the historic Mamilla neighborhood outside Jaffa Gate, Benaya had always heard Eastern music, whether sung by his grandparents or the neighbors.
“Arabic music was the music I heard,” he said. “I wanted to give a stage to it, because it didn’t get heard enough.”
Within three years, he started the festival, opening it with oud and violin artist Tayseer Elias playing Egyptian classics by Umm Kalthum. There were just 100 seats available in the small auditorium and they were sold out within one week.
Benaya was encouraged.
“I said, ‘Let’s make it into a festival,’” he said.
But he didn’t want it to be just an oud festival, performing oldies but goodies from the old countries. Instead, Benaya aimed to meld Eastern sound with Israeli music.
“I took music of the Middle Ages to Berry Sakharof,” he said, naming one of Israel’s premier rockers. “Or Ibn Gabirol to Etti Ankri,” naming another local artist. “Now people know that Ibn Gabirol isn’t just a street name in Tel Aviv.”
The ancient, Eastern music was the golden age of Jewish music, said Benaya, who often reintroduced it to Israeli musicians who ended up using pieces performed at the festival as the motivation for an entirely new album and musical direction.
Israeli rock queen Corinne Allal turned her Oud Festival performance of Ecclesiastes into an album of the same name. Ankri did the same with her Rabbi Yehuda Halevy album seven years ago, pushing herself in a new direction.
This year, the lineup includes the opening night concert with jazz saxophonist Daniel Amir with Shem Tov Levi, and pianists and singers Shlomi Shaban and Shlomo Gronich, playing the Psalms.
“They’re singing the music of people who died hundreds of years ago,” said Benaya. “The oud is the golden age instrument of this, strengthening the songs and texts and written words. We’ve found a way to get deeper to the roots of this music and to get the audience to understand it all better.”
He also thinks it can only happen in Jerusalem, the holy city, and his musical artists agree with him.
Turkish musician and composer Omar Farouk Tekbilek, who has lived in Rochester, New York for the last 41 years, will be at the Oud Festival to perform for a second time, this time with Yasmin Levy, one of several Israeli artists who appeared on his most recent album.
“I”m a musician’s musician,” said Farouk Tekbilek. “We share our cultures, and in two hours of a concert, if I can make people forget their problems and experience inner peace and give them strength, that is my mission.”
For Daniel Zamir, the Israeli-born, newly religious jazz saxophonist who spent seven years playing jazz in New York, this will be his first Oud Festival, where he is directing the festival’s opening concert of Psalms, performed with Shaban and Gronich.
For Zamir, it was his return to Israel and his album “Amen” (2006), that reminded him that he could combine his jazz roots with the music that is more endemic to the Middle East and his Judaism. But even this concert is a more extreme exercise in his musical experimentation.
“I’ve been working on it for a long time because for most of the musicians, it was their first encounter with this kind of text and that’s a challenge,” said Zamir. “You have to match the rhythm of the words with the rhythm of the music and to understand the music and what it means.”
Benaya travels to two music fairs each year to hear and meet new artists, and makes sure he has a steady diet of YouTube for accessing performers that are new to him. He sees the festival as his opportunity to introduce Israelis to other world artists as well.
“The audiences know they can trust the festival,” he said. “It affects the local music scene too. And then other artists want to come here to play.”
There are also the oud purists like Naseem Dakwar, an oud player and violinist from Tarshiha in the north, where his musician father first exposed him to the two string instruments. He took a more academic path with the violin, to the Jerusalem Music Academy where he studied and now teaches.
Dakwar, who also played with world music band Bustan Avraham, said that he wasn’t always conscious of the possibilities of Eastern music.
“It was from my family, it was my roots, but I wasn’t immersed in it like I was in classical music,” he said.
Eventually, he took the techniques he gained for playing classical music and brought them to the oud and Eastern music.
“The oud was an instrument just for song, never for instrumental music,” said Dakwar. “It’s when you start to write works for the instrument that you start to deal with the instrument, and that’s what’s been happening with the oud for the last 20 years. It has music written for it the way it was done in the west.”
It was also his time spent performing with Bustan Avraham that also brought Dakwar to festivals like the Oud Festival, which encouraged him to work on his own music, something he’d wanted to do years earlier.
“Effie pushed me to do it,” he said. “I write all the time, all kinds of world music. But when it’s your own work, it’s scary. And now we’re ready.”
Tickets for the 17th Oud Festival can be purchased through the festival website.