Arab Music Finds a Voice

Israeli and Arab teens met last week at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, where, instead of just talking politics, they played the organ, the oud and darboukas together.

Behind the thick curtain one can hear music that is full of life. The players are apparently unaware of the hidden audience: They are playing with total enjoyment, like a person who eats enthusiastically with his hands when nobody is looking. The music is Mizrahi (of North African or Middle Eastern origin), and the mistakes don't detract from its charm. "What are they playing?" we asked Sami Khashibon, a violin teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. "Noise," he says, dismissing the question with his hand.

Later, he calls twice for quiet. But on the other side of the improvised partition, they ignore him. When he gets up after a while and joins the musicians, one discovers a group of teenagers playing the organ, the oud (Middle Eastern lute) and darbouka drums, looking as serious as if they were in the middle of a concert at the Philharmonic.

Within moments, these youngsters - the members of Khashibon's ensemble at the music camp that took place last week at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, with 18 Arab and 12 Jewish participants - had organized in order to perform a musical selection of works by Riad al-Sonbati. Al-Sonbati is an Egyptian composer who created several of the songs performed by singer Umm Kulthum, explains Khashibon. With all due respect to Umm Kulthum, the music takes us back, like a time machine, to the bygone and one-channel days of Israeli television, when you were forced to stare at the screen during the transition from the Arabic broadcasts to the news in Hebrew, when well-dressed, serious-looking men played foreign music that was strange to our ears. Since then our ears have apparently become accustomed to this music, and the sounds are better understood, albeit still foreign.

The Forum for National Consensus, which initiated the camp, is now trying to change the isolation and foreignness imposed for years on Arabic classical music, its musicians and its fans. This organization was established during Ehud Barak's term as prime minister by Rabbi Michael Melchior, then the minister of social affairs in the Prime Minister's Office, which engages in rapprochement between Jews and Arabs, among other things.

At the music camp, the main issue seems to have been cultural. Taiseer Elias, a well-known Arab composer and oud player, says that the meeting of the youth was secondary in importance to the main mission of promoting and studying classical Arab music. At the start of the camp, he says, there was great frustration with the level of playing, but after four days something had changed.

"The playing at the final concert was a pleasant surprise," he says, despite the fact that he had chosen two particularly challenging musical selections.

With his two hats - as head of the Mizrahi department at the Jerusalem music academy, and director of Arabic music programs on Israel Radio - Elias is very familiar with the problematic nature of Arab music in Israel. That's why he left behind all of his many activities and came to the camp, without complaining about the "field conditions." He discusses the acute shortage of good music teachers in the Arab sector, not to mention the conservatory, and declares the result is that the level of the young players is not high. To this should be added the fact that published music is not available, and that there are no good oud- makers in Israel.

The reasons for this situation are many and complicated. Arab music is fundamentally traditional, and is transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Although already at the beginning of the 20th century, influenced by Western music, people started to write down and document Arab music, many players keep the music stored in their heads even today. Improvisation is an inseparable part of this music, adds Elias, and this fact has also contributed to the problem of documentation.

`We are under siege'

Of course, there is also the political dimension. Elias and Khashibon complain about the unnatural severance of Arab music - and of themselves as musicians - from Arab countries. "We are under siege here," says Khashibon. "We cannot develop as musicians, cut off from our natural audience." Elias says that he wasn't invited to an important conference of oud players in Jordan that took place recently, because he is considered a collaborator with the Jewish establishment.

Like other components of Arab culture and identity, musical education in the Arab sector has been neglected. Arab players like Khashibon, but even those younger than he, it turns out, have not been receiving any formal musical education. Khashibon, a resident of Kafr Kana, says that he is the only musician in the village; when he was a child, youngsters didn't learn to play an instrument. But at one stage, a music teacher came to the village school, and a group of children, including his brother, were sent to study violin with him. When they all left after a few lessons for lack of interest, it turned out that the youngest child in the Khashibon family had in fact been listening and developed an interest in the music.

"I fooled around all the time with the violin," he says. "I never studied regularly, a month here, two months there. I didn't hold the instrument correctly and everything was chaotic." Only in 11th grade was he sent to study with a well-known (Jewish) violin teacher. "I was talented, but mainly I had to be corrected," he recalls.

From Mozart to quarter tones

Helen Sabila, an Arab Christian music teacher from East Jerusalem, who was responsible for finding and selecting the Arabs who participated in the camp, began as a child to play an organ that was in her house. She was sent at first to study music, but her teacher at the Christian school she attended used to hit her on her palms when she made a mistake, and she refused to continue studying. Until the end of high school, Sabila played the organ constantly, without studying in an organized manner and without reading notes at all. Afterward she developed an interest in Western classical music and began to listen to it faithfully. She bought the music for Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," and that's how she taught herself to play by notes. None of this prevented her from being accepted to the department of Mizrahi music at the music academy in Jerusalem, or from completing her degree in music and music education.

Although there are now music lessons at community centers in the Arab sector, and the parents are more aware of the value of music, the situation has not changed dramatically. Most of the music teachers are Russian, says Khashibon, and they don't specialize in the quarter tones and microtones unique to Arab music. Thus, says Sabila, "the Arab players are not `speakers' of Arab music. They have an accent in music."

Most of the young generation of musicians will play in wedding orchestras when they grow up. The fact that she was female helped Sabila become a serious musician: It is not customary for girls to get up and perform at weddings.

The academy has had great difficulty finding suitable candidates for studying Arab classical music. Elias says that they are often forced to compromise, and to accept a student because of his potential and because they are afraid that otherwise he will get lost and stop playing. Finding young people for the music camp was no less frustrating a task. Atar Oren, coordinator of the Forum for National Consensus and director of the camp, says that in a survey she conducted about a year ago, she spoke to everyone who is active in the area of classical Arab music - from Yael Shai, the supervisor of Arab music in the Education Ministry, to Ori Ben David of Kibbutz Mizra, who has children from a neighboring village who are studying the oud at the music school he directs. Nobody, she says, believed that the project would get off the ground, because of the difficulty in finding prospective campers.

The reactions didn't discourage her. She turned to all the music teachers and conservatories in the country, and even did something very original: She organized concerts for classical Arab music, which were meant to put Arab music "on the map" as Oren puts it, and to find potential candidates. Last year there were concerts open to the public in community centers in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Nazareth, where a quartet of Arab and Jewish players performed. One of the players was Sabila.

Young people who participated in the camp were not required to pay anything, but in spite of that some of the parents - mainly of Arab girls - had to be convinced to allow their youngsters to go.

The parents of Buteina Nakad, a Druze girl from Shfaram, didn't have to be convinced to send their daughter to the camp. Nakad herself, who was immediately enthusiastic about the idea, did say there were reservations on the part of her girlfriends and relatives. Revital from Carmiel, a young cellist, says she didn't have to be convinced either, because she had been exposed to Arab music. Her studies at the Misgav school, which espouses coexistence, contributed to her belief that an encounter with Arabs her age would be important. But she said that friends who excel in music belittled the value of Arab music; she also described one friend who came to the camp, but didn't succeed in connecting to what was happening there.

Apparently, most of the young people succeeded in creating a common language among themselves. Instead of just gabbing, as do young people everywhere, or talking about politics, as is common during coexistence encounters, they preferred to play music.

One of them was Gilad Kaplan, 17, from Afula, who came to Mizrahi music through the late singer Zohar Argov; from there it was a short jump for him to the works of Arab composer Farid al-Atrash. For the past year and a half he had been studying the oud as naturally as if it were an electric guitar.

Is Arab music blossoming? "There are encouraging signs that there is more interest in this music," says Taiseer Elias, one of whose works is being played in the Keynote educational program run by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in elementary schools in Tel Aviv - whose goal is also to develop an interest in classical Arab music.

"But there is still a feeling of an episode here and an episode there," Elias explains. "Coexistence is important, but in the case of Arab music we must first of all worry about its basic existence. We have to open more conservatories and to educate good music teachers, so that they can raise a new generation of players."