How Israeli Jews are increasingly becoming part of a growing craze for Arab tunes

This weekend's Arabesque Festival in Akko is a sign of how Israeli musical tastes are changing — and becoming less Western


In the Israeli city of Akko this weekend, there will be an unusual sight: a large number of Jewish Israelis listening intently to music from the Arab world.

The Arabesque Festival is one of the newest initiatives which sees Arab Israelis share cultural treasures they love with Jewish citizens. It has a similar spirit to the annual Arab Food Festival in nearby Haifa, which shares the culinary heritage of Israeli Arabs.

The artistic director is the Jewish conductor Tom Cohen and the repertoire is Arabic and Andalusian music. Some of the performances will feature Jews and Arabs playing together, while some will have just Arabs on stage.

Audiences, as at the inaugural Arabesque Festival, will consist of people from both communities along with a smattering of tourists.

One of the star acts is Kamil Shajrawi, a Christian-Arab musician from Nazareth who conducts the Almasia Orchestra and plays the oud, a stringed instrument popular in Arab countries. He told the JC that music is a major passion of Arab Israelis and they have long been keen to share their sounds.

“If you go to ten houses here in Nazareth, you will find seven of them with a musical instrument, and the kids learn to play it,” sad Mr Shajrawi.

His orchestra has a huge following among Arab Israelis, who especially crave music from Lebanon and Syria.

“I would say most of our audiences are Israeli Arabs who love the mid-20th century style they grew up with, and now there’s also lots of interest in contemporary Arab classical music.” At the festival it will play classical Arabic music in innovative arrangements that combine elements, from the world of pop and rock.

The very same mid-20th century tunes that Mr Shajrawi’s Arab fans love are familiar to many Jewish Israelis, whose families arrived in Israel in the mid-20th century from Arab countries. Though their relationship with the countries they left is often complicated — many feel they were forced out — lots of people have fond memories of various aspects of the culture there, including the music.

Mr Shajrawi said: “There are a lot of Jewish Israelis whose families are from the Arab world, who love the music we play. Jewish people who come from Syria, Iraq and lots of other countries still love this kind of music.”

But for all the fond memories, Jewish Israelis rarely keep up with contemporary performers of this genre. Mr Shajrawi hopes that the festival — which warmed up earlier in the week and enters its main phase this weekend — “will open the doors for Jewish Israelis” to discover his music.

The festival is a sign of a sea-change that has taken place in Israeli music in recent years. Traditional European music was always dominant, as may be expected for a country established by immigrants from Ashkenazi Jewry. But today, there is a major embrace of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences.

Today, the Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod has the status of an official orchestra, just like the Israel Philharmonic. It performs North African music. The Centre for Middle Eastern Classical Music opened in 1996 with a handful of people, and now has 120 students and 15 teaching staff. And the annual Oud Festival for ethnic music and poetry is in its 19th year.

The Jewish Israelis who turn up this weekend in Akko, which is also known as Acre, without any background in music from the Arab world are in for a whole new experience.

Mr Shajrawi’s orchestra consists of 30 people, including four singers. “We have solo instruments like the oud that western orchestras don’t have, plus other more familiar instruments that aren’t typically in orchestras — such as a bass guitar, saxophone and accordion.”

The accordion adds a unique sound, he said. “It’s similar to having a synthesiser but a synthesiser sounds more artificial and electric, and less acoustic.”

But it is the way that his orchestra plays, as well as its instruments, that goes it such an unusual sound.

“Most orchestras have the various musicians playing the same melody, but what we do is have two or three ‘voices’ going at the same time, this is something none of the other orchestras here do.”

Having the orchestra playing two or three different melodies at the same time makes the sound much “richer,” he said. And he believes that as the instruments and melodies combine to make a single sound, his audiences will unite around the music, and come to share his conviction that music is a “language that crosses borders and reduces gaps.”

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