The Mood of the Oud

By Aryeh Tepper
Friday, December 10, 2010

Politically speaking, the state of Israel remains largely cut off from the surrounding Arab world. On a cultural level, however, Arab elements continue to animate many forms of Jewish expression that, originally rooted in Arab countries, have been transplanted into Israeli society. The most conspicuous example is music. 

The great musical tradition that grew out of the Islamic conquests of the 7th century was itself a cultural mélange, a fusion of the pre-Islamic songs of the Arabian Peninsula with Persian music distilled in light of musical theories from classical Greece and India. To all of this would be added a distinctive Spanish flavor from the centuries of Islamic dominion in Iberia. In the continuous give-and-take that comprises cultural exchange, the Arab tradition in turn influenced music throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, to the point where it is now possible to speak of seven main strains that have descended from the Arab-Islamic core: Middle Eastern (roughly corresponding to the lands of the Fertile Crescent), Persian, Central Asian, North African, Turkish, Indian, and Bedouin.

Amazingly, however, there is only one country in the Middle East where all seven traditions still thrive: Israel. And the one place where they can all be heard is the Jerusalem Oud Festival, which originated in 1999 with the modest intention of exposing Israelis to some of the wonders of classical Arab music. Eleven years later, the festival has earned an international reputation and includes a roster of first-rate musicians from around the globe.

Why the oud? Known as the "sultan" of Arab musical instruments, the oud is the father of the lute and the grandfather of our guitar. A string instrument with a pear-shaped body and a deeply resonant tone, it represents and embodies the richness of the Arab musical tradition. Indeed, this year's festival, held November 11–25, included a tribute to one of the great oud players of the 20th century, Farid al-Atrash (1915–1974):


Al-Atrash was not only a virtuoso instrumentalist. He was also a prolific composer of over 350 songs and a popular vocalist who starred in 30 movies and is still extremely popular among Israeli Jews who grew up with his music in their homes. Farid's movies, made in Egypt, were thin on plot but thick with romantic songs. Through the mid-1980s they were shown on Israeli television on Friday afternoons. Today, Israeli payytanim, Jewish liturgical singers, are still transforming Farid's melancholy melodies into devotional hymns.

Farid al-Atrash sings Nogoum El-Leil, "Starry Night":  


 David Assraf's contemporary adaptation of the same song:            


The Friday-afternoon showing of Egyptian movies in Israel was itself part of an Arab-Jewish cultural exchange that had greatly diminished after the Jews were run out of the Arab world in the wake of the founding of the state of Israel. Still, it has never fully disappeared. Moshe Habusha, one of the leading contemporary Israeli payytanim, is a master of Egyptian music. A recent Israeli film, The Band's Visit, tells the story of an Egyptian army band stranded in an isolated Israeli desert town, where it temporarily fills a cultural vacuum for the local Jews who have left one world and are still struggling to build a new one. Sasson Somech, an expert on Arab literature at Tel Aviv University who dedicated much of his career to analyzing the works of the great Egyptian novelist Nagib Mahfouz, is credited by some with helping to pave the way to Mahfouz's Nobel Prize.

It thus comes as little surprise that at the tribute to Farid al-Atrash, many in the almost entirely Jewish crowd knew the songs well enough to sing along in Arabic. An Arab-Israeli orchestra performed, and to judge by their faces, the musicians were pleasantly taken aback by the intensity of the emotions unleashed in the hall, with a few audience members adding their own spice to the performance by downing shots of arak between songs. The slightly raucous atmosphere harked back to the secular Arab culture once dominant in the Arab world but in steady decline with the rise of religious fundamentalists. In that world, there are fewer and fewer venues for this kind of music; an Arab orchestra that can play Farid al-Atrash for an enthusiastic Jewish audience in Jerusalem would be forbidden, in Hamas-controlled Gaza, from playing al-Atrash for any kind of audience at all.

At the end of the day, one can only mourn Israel's cultural isolation from the finer aspects of the Arab-Islamic environment in which it is situated. But that's the political reality, a reality rooted in a fantasy, buried deep in the hearts of many, that one day Israel will simply disappear. It would take a singer the caliber of Farid al-Atrash to lament, in melody and rhythm, the waste of it all.

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