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Show goes on for annual Oud Festival, held online for free

November fest highlights local musicians singing in Hebrew, Arabic and Ladino

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

November always brings Jerusalem’s Oud Festival, hosted by the Confederation House, this year for the 21st time.

“We’re trying to salvage our events and not postpone them,” said Effie Benaya, the long-time director of the Confederation House. “It’s emotional for us; we didn’t want to lose the festival during this crazy year, but experience it in a different way.”

Held online November 19-28, this year’s festival celebrates local musicians: Ehud Banai with the Jish quartet, George Samaan, Salem Darwish and Gil Smetana; Mor Karabasi and liturgical song from the Atlas Mountains; Wissam Joubran and an oud recital; Yagel Haroush and Uriah; Ladino songs from 100 years ago; Nazareth songs from Samir Makhoul and Um Kalthoum and her sisters for a taste of Egyptian music and a closing concert including Shlomo Bar, Omri Mor, Abate Berihun and other musicians.

What’s missing this year are the international musicians, a decision Benaya made early on as a result of the ongoing coronavirus.

“I’m trying to get back musicians who used to be here at the very beginning,” he said. “I thought it made more sense to work with local musicians; the need to work is so great, and I wanted to support them as much as possible.”

The festival is also completely free this year — with many feeling a financial pinch — thanks to the money saved by not having expensive international acts. Events are accessible on YouTube and Facebook Live,

“This is the year to give the gift and offer as many homes access to the festival,” he said.

With many Arabic-speaking musicians participating in the Oud Festival, Benaya is also hoping to reach more Arabic-speaking homes this year. The festival’s Facebook page will include posts in Arabic to offer better access to those audiences.

Usually some 8,000 to 10,000 people attend the festival; this year, Benaya is hoping to reach tens of thousands.

“This year won’t be the celebration of meeting up on the stage and in the audience, an experience that we will all miss, but there’s the opportunity to reach as many people as possible in our country, and abroad,” he said. “Our festival is such a tradition, and we’re protecting something important by making sure it still happens.”

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