Ancient harmony

Sounds of Sufism combine with Persian music in Oud Festival

Sitar, ney, daf and santur are some of the instruments recruited to tell the story of a 13th-century mystic’s voyage, highlight of an annual event celebrating Middle Eastern music

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Iranian-born wind musician Amir Shahar, middle, in rehearsal ahead of the Oud Festival, November 3-12, 2022 at Jerusalem's Confederation House (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Iranian-born wind musician Amir Shahar, middle, in rehearsal ahead of the Oud Festival, November 3-12, 2022 at Jerusalem's Confederation House (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

When Persian ethnic wind musician Amir Shahsar performs with Turkish Sufi musician Isa Nasim and Turkish vocalist Selçukhan Yılma on Monday night, it will mark a rare encounter between the Persian and Turkish artists in Israel.

The three are performing as part of the Oud Festival, which is running from November 3 to 12, hosted at Jerusalem’s Confederation House and directed by Effie Benaya.

The three artists, accompanied by other musicians, will trace a musical journey of Sufi mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, who left Persia in the 13th century on a journey to Turkey via Kurdistan and Armenia. It’s a performance that includes vocals in Turkish, Persian, Arabic and Hebrew.

At a rehearsal last week, several days before Nasim and Yılma arrived in Israel, Shahsar rehearsed with sitar player Gilad Weiss, daf drummer Ruhama Carmel and santur player Noam Shemesh, with Prof. Haviva Pedaya, who translated the poetry and readings being performed.

The Iranian-born Shahsar, who lives in Israel, placed the ney, an ancient Iranian flute, on his upper lip and his cellphone on his leg, rehearsing the ancient Turkish tune that speaks of Sufi love and friendship.

Shahsar is the “master of Persian music,” said Pedaya of the Iranian-born musician. She described him as the only person who could weave together the evening of Turkish and Persian music from the period of the 1300s, when much of Persia and Turkey were merged in one empire.

“The concept just made sense,” said Pedaya. “Persian and Turkish together — that’s Amir, it’s these two shades together. He’s a cantor and a muezzin, he’s Jewish and Arab, he’s multilingual.”

Shahsar performs original compositions that are tinged with his background of Persian, Turkish, Armenian and Middle Eastern influences. His music is known for combining the contemporary and traditional, sacred and folk sounds.

The 58-year-old musician was born in Iran and played the flute and Persian ney from a young age. When he was 24 he left for Turkey, where he learned traditional Turkish and Sufi music, and the Turkish clarinet, before immigrating to Israel in 1989, where he added the oud to his repertoire.

Persian musician Amir Shahsar, performing at 2022 Oud Festival (Courtesy Oud Festival)

It was Shahsar who suggested including the Turkish musicians, but he also needed fellow local artists “who could really play anything,” he said.

His fellow band members include former students and musical colleagues. Carmel learned to play the daf, a wide, light drum with Shehsi, while Weiss, who usually plays the fretless guitar, picked up the Persian sitar a couple of months ago.

During the rehearsal, Shemesh drew out piano-like notes from the santur, a biblical-era instrument that is played with slim metal hammers that touch the keys — a kind of hammered dulcimer.

The song they were rehearsing was a lengthy, singsong poem about love and relationships, of spiritual awakening and mystical concepts, said Shahsar, offering an impromptu freestyle translation into Hebrew afterwards.

Haviva Pedaya is a poet and professor of Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and head of the Elyachar Center for Sephardi Heritage (Courtesy Haviva Pedaya)

“It’s happy music, but the words are a little painful,” laughed Pedaya. “It goes on and on and as it goes, the saddest things can be laughed at through the music.”

The annual Oud Festival is celebrating its 23rd year with a full schedule of performances by visiting and local artists, including Mira Awad, Palestinian hip-hop and electronic music for younger fans at the Mazkeka bar, and a night celebrating Riff Cohen’s new album.

The younger generation will also offer their additions to the festival, including liturgical singers Shir Yifrach and Yahala Lachmish and a series of events in the Khan Theater courtyard with musicians from the Eastern music department of the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

More information and tickets at the Oud Festival website.

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