Live Wire Gentle Artifice

It was the Arabic songs performed by this mixed Jewish-Arab group that were the real treat of the evening.

There are one-storey houses and one-storey songs, too. What's a one-storey song? You'd know if you attended this week's terrific performance by Jish, an ensemble made up of Ehud Banai, George Samaan, Salem Darwish and Gil Smetana, at the 11th International Oud Festival.

Ehud Banai
Ehud Banai and Jish at the Oud Festival. Emil Salman

It's a song that's lyrical and free of frills, it has an earthy feel to it, evoking dewiness and sounds of dawn. From what Banai used to call "the digital street," they've already disappeared.

But in the Galilee, where the connection between Banai, Samaan and Darwish was made, one-storey songs are still to be found. And if they disappear from there, too, they will remain in the memories of the members of Jish, offered up in a straightforward and captivating way, like strings of rough but precious musical stones.

Imagine a great country show in Nashville, move it to the Middle East, replace the banjo with an oud, and Mary-Beth with Amara. That's how a performance by Jish sounds, and the way it looks, too. Four not-so-young men sitting side-by-side - no demarcation lines drawn to set the star apart from the others - playing instruments that are beaten and strummed. It's what you call Galilee country music at its best.

Jish's performance at the festival (its fourth in a tour that began in Samaan and Darwish's hometown of Rama, then traveled to Haifa and down to Tel Aviv and made its way Tuesday to Jerusalem ) included Arabic folk songs, songs written by the Lebanese Rahbani brothers and Banai's own songs in one-storey versions.

Since Samaan's rough oud playing is an acquired taste, the first songs sounded a bit too basic, but by the fourth and fifth, an Arabic folk song featuring a proud and challenging young woman (in some ways reminiscent of the Israeli 1980s rock bank, Minimal Compact ), the show got on track and stayed that way through the end, sometimes galloping forward but mostly progressing comfortably.

From his own songs, Banai chose mainly those that in one form or another address the complex relations among the children of Abraham.

Most were lovely, but it was the Arabic songs that really hit home. "Hala," for example, with its echo of Greek music, or the fabulous number depicting, if I understood correctly, a conversation among street laborers that includes the unforgettable line "Yalla, workers, let's go through the gate of God together."

Banai did not speak between songs, and for good reason: There was absolutely no need for commentary. Only at the beginning of the encore did he tell a story about how, as a soldier at the beginning of the 1970s, he walked from Kfar Saba to Qalqilyah in the West Bank, caught a taxi to Nablus, also in the West Bank, and from there continued on to Jerusalem.

The story led to a perfect encore: "Sweet Knafa" played beautifully (Samaan exchanged his oud for a violin ), "An Evening of Roses" in Arabic sung by Samaan and Darwish, and for the finale, a great rendition of "Esther" with all the musicians, except for Smetana, singing and drumming (Banai beat on his guitar ).

Hidden gem

Smetana, incidentally, was the hidden gem of the performance. If the music were entirely one-storey, his bass provided the groundwork, the basis for everything. Rather than make do with a supporting role, he played melodic patterns that were wonderfully creative, moving freely between Arabic music, Jamaican beats, and even a bit of rock'n'roll.

Given his exemplary thoroughness and humility, it was possible to imagine him at rehearsals staying in the room to work on his part while Banai, Samaan and Darwish went out for a smoke. Next time he can certainly join them.