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Classical music gets eastern spice

Israel is embracing sounds from the Arab world.

    Classical music in Israel is undergoing a sea change, as it shifts from traditional European roots towards more Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences.


    The ultimate testament to this change is the fact that the Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod, which performs North African music, today has the status of an official orchestra of Israel. That puts it on a par with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.


    The odds have long been stacked against non-Western musicians, according to Avi Shoshani, founder and director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Classical Music. “Those running public radio here, as well as the leading impresarios, were invariably Ashkenazi or people brought up in the Western tradition,” he says. “They could not conceive of a classical music that was not Western and European.  


    “That Arabic and ethnic Jewish music has its own classical canon was beyond them, if not intellectually, then emotionally. But in point of fact, the Eastern classical tradition precedes the Western tradition by several centuries.”  


    Shoshani opened his centre in 1996, together with the famous Sephardic singer Yehoram Ga’on, to train people in the ways of Oriental music. He started with a handful of people, and now has 120 students and 15 teaching staff.  Students and teachers are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds: Jewish and Arab, Charedim and secular, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. “The aim of the school,” says Shoshani, “is to bring together the various strands of  classical Eastern music and use it as a bridge between a diverse student body.”


    There have been other markers of this shift towards a greater awareness of Oriental and Jewish music by the Israeli mainstream. One of the most significant is the annual Oud Festival for ethnic music and poetry, organised by Jerusalem’s Confederation House, and now in its 18th year. It celebrates the oud, a stringed instrument common in several musical traditions, including North African and Middle Eastern. 


    Festival director, Effie Benaya, organised the first festival, even as the second Intifada was raging.  Against all expectations, the festival has become not only successful in itself but also an integral event in the cultural calendar of the country. 


    What Benaya succeeded in doing was to bring the best artists from Israel and abroad to congregate in Jerusalem and make wonderful music, often together.  These musicians include Israelis and Palestinians, as well as a plethora of artists from India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, Egypt and Spain.  


    “In the first years,” recalls Benaya, “we had the sheiks from the Al-Aqsa, Temple Mount, performing songs of praise, and a Sufi musician from Istanbul’s Tophane mosque.”    


    Many Israelis with Mediterranean origins had no problem relating to this old-new music. But many of the concert-going audiences had to adapt to the new musical environment and to the sounds of the lute-like oud, the kanoon (or zither), the darbuka (a small drum), tabla (Indian drum), the sitar, the ney (Armenian flute), the kamanche (a violin-like instrument, played on one’s lap) and the saz (a long-necked stringed instrument), plus many other ancient sounds from near and far. They also had to relate to new musical scales, called maqamim, on which most Oriental compositions are based. 


    One of the central figures in Israel’s Eastern classical music scene is Nino Biton, who was brought up in Oran, Algeria, and was heir to the rich heritage of Jewish-Algerian music. Master of many stringed instruments, he emerged as a major figure in revitalising his specific tradition, especially on the oud.  

    A Tribute night to Nino Biton
    A Tribute night to Nino Biton

    He says: “Mine was a tradition handed down from father to son. Its origins were in the piyyut — chants and songs composed to Hebrew texts and sung at religious events, in the synagogue, at weddings, henna parties, barmitzvahs and other religious occasions.  


    “Although the piyyut was widespread across the Sefardi world and each region had its own style, the Algerian tradition has its own sets of maqamim that mark it out from all the rest. It is this tradition that I’ve tried to preserve and transmit.” 


    At 60, he finally produced a CD containing both traditional and original works, accompanied by some of his students. Among Biton’s students are some of the leading talents of Israeli ethnic music, such as Etti Ankori, Ehud Banai, David Sakharov and Yasmin Levy.  Biton also worked with The Andalusian Orchestra, both as arranger and performer. 


    Etti Ankori was known as rock and pop singer until she became more interested in her Jewish roots and produced a CD based on the medieval religious texts of Yehuda Halevi, which premiered at one of the Oud Festivals as the opening act and received rave reviews.  


    Ankori is only one of several Sephardi women performers who have turned to their ethnic origins for inspiration. The late Ofra Hazza had a worldwide hit with her purely ethnic Yeminite Songs album. Another leading songstress, Rita, had a similar success with her disc of Persian songs.


    Yitzhak Levy, singer-songwriter and composer, promoted the Judaeo-Spanish language Ladino in his work, and today his daughter, Yasmin Levy, has become a major figure in world music. Her 2000 debut album, Romance & Yasmin, earned her a nomination as Best Newcomer in the 2005 Roots/BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards.


    Mark Eliyahu and his father, Piris, have brought the sounds of the kamanche, a bowed string instrument, and the tar, a long-necked string instrument, to a much wider audience. Yaron Peer blends a Sufi tradition with Jewish piyyutim to produce one of the most distinct sounds with his Qawwwali music group. which wound up the annual festival Mekudeshet.  

    Piris Eliyahu (left) and Chaya Samir (right)
    Piris Eliyahu (left) and Chaya Samir (right)

    The flourishing of Eastern classical music in Israel, and the way that it brings diverse line-ups and audiences together, has impressed some leading international music writers. Pierre H Lavi, reviewing a concert by the Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod for the Wall Street Journal, wrote: “Watching the musicians, Israelis of Moroccan, Tunisian and Russia origin, playing together with the Israeli singers and lyricists, made me think again that there is still hope that people can unite and leave their disputes behind and concentrate on the real and important issues that life offers us — the ability to live and create, not to destroy.” 

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