Jerusalem festival drums up ancient sounds of a forgotten instrument

Jerusalem festival drums up ancient sounds of a forgotten instrument

Israeli percussionist Zohar Fresco performs Thursday night on his ‘Tof Miriam’ at the capital’s Season of Culture

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Israeli musician Zohar Fresco has made it his life’s work to reintroduce one of Israel’s most ancient instruments to its modern people.

“I play the Tof Miriam (Miriam’s drum). It’s a frame drum that is very ancient, and belongs to Jewish and Israeli culture,” Fresco said. “What I’m trying to do, my life project, is to bring the drum back to Israeli culture.”

Fresco, a native of the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, has traveled the world studying the instrument, a simple drum with a wide face stretched over a basic frame. On Thursday night in Jerusalem, he will bring back what he has learned as part of this year’s Mekudeshet — the Jerusalem Season of Culture, a three-week festival that brings artists, curators, musicians and thinkers together to celebrate the historical city.

“I invited four masters — from Italy, Spain, Azerbaijan and India — and each of them plays on his Tof Miriam, or his frame drum, in a way that is unique to his own culture,” Fresco said.

Fresco has collected methods and melodies from older people throughout the Middle East and the Far East, he said, trying to make connections between the different types of frame drums in the world. He has studied with drummers from Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Uzbekistan, India and Turkey, where his family originally came from. He explained that when he was growing up in Israel the country’s cultural diversity helped him learn.

Fresco and the other drummers held day-long rehearsals in Jerusalem throughout the week. The Spanish drummer is accompanied by a guitarist and singer, the Italian by an accordion and the Indian by a flute player. The mood at the rehearsal was focused, but relaxed and congenial. The drummers walked through their performance, traded tips and admired one another’s work.

The performance will be a special one for Fresco and the group.

“They are all great in their own style, and now they are joining with our music,” Fresco said. “For us, this is a celebration.”

The Senegalese musician Baaba Maal, who will be performing at Sacred in Jerusalem (Courtesy Rob O'Connor)
Senegalese musician Baaba Maal (Courtesy Rob O’Connor)

The drummers are not the only guests at this year’s events. Mekudeshet is host to a total of 250 artists from 18 countries, said Gil Rouvio, an organizer of the event. Rouvio said the idea behind the performances was to create something wholly original, often through collaboration between local and international artists.

“What we hope is not only for people to buy a ticket, come and see a concert, applaud and go home,” Rouvio explained. “All the concerts represent another truth about what is happening and being realized here in Jerusalem by extraordinary people. I hope the audience will get it — and I think they will.”

The festival has brought a variety of world musicians to the city, including Senegalese performer Baaba Maal, who played Wednesday night at the Tower of David, and the London-based reggae band Misty in Roots, due to perform at the Tower of David on Thursday.

Fresco and his fellow drummers are also due to perform on Thursday night at 10 p.m. at the Jerusalem YMCA.

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