Music From Two Worlds

Everything remains in the family: When he was a boy, Taiseer Elias went to the Rubin Conservatory in Haifa every week from his home in Shfaram to study violin. "There weren't teachers for Eastern music, and there weren't Arab conservatories, and therefore I had no alternative," he says.

Everything remains in the family: When he was a boy, Taiseer Elias went to the Rubin Conservatory in Haifa every week from his home in Shfaram to study violin. "There weren't teachers for Eastern music, and there weren't Arab conservatories, and therefore I had no alternative," he says.

He studied the only stylistic alternative that the conservatory offered: Western classical music. As a classical violinist he was accepted for studies at the Academy in Jerusalem. Now he still goes once a week from Shfaram to the Donia Weizman conservatory in Haifa, but these days he is accompanying his two young children, who are also studying classical Western music, on the piano and the violin.

Is it preferable for an Arab musician to begin with Western classical music?

Elias: This is the question of all questions. There are many approaches, but there is a gap between the theory and the practice on this issue. My children are studying classical, but they hear a lot of Arab music at home, and I hope that this will help them become excellent performers in both worlds."

A concert that will be held this evening in Jerusalem (at Mishkenot Sha'ananim at 8:00 and broadcast live on the Voice of Music) not only testifies to the road that Elias has followed, but also perhaps hints at his children's future path: He will conduct the premiere performance of the Classical Arabic Music Ensemble that he established as a professor at the academy, in cooperation with the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Music Center. This is an orchestra of 20 Jewish and Arab instrumentalists - all students at the academy - that is described as "the land of Israel melting pot that raises the banner of social, cultural and musical coexistence - a rare and exciting synthesis of East and West that creates a unique sound."

The seeds for the orchestra were sown about a decade ago at a concert in the city of Lille in France. On the stage sat the Jerusalem Camarata Orchestra with two soloists, Menachem Wiesenberg on the piano and Taiseer Elias, who was already an international performer on the oud and the violin and a member of ensembles like Bustan Avraham on the oud. Before they began playing a concerto for oud and piano that Wiesenberg had written, conductor Avner Biron, then head of the academy in Jerusalem, turned to Elias and whispered, "Let's talk today, after the concert."

In the wake of this conversation a plan was implemented that had been formulated many years earlier by Professor Dalia Cohen: to establish a department for Eastern music at the academy. "We'll open the department now," said Biron on that evening. And Elias, who was chosen to head it, had just a few days to establish it. "I started to make phone calls and tell people: Guys, come study," he relates. "And excellent musicians came, from the top performers here, like Sami Hashibon, Nessim Dakwar and Imad Dallal. Over the years younger and not so experienced people started coming, and gradually applications from Jewish students also started coming in."

Elias' solution to the terrible situation of Arab musical education, which has always suffered from discrimination, was original: "I decided to start from above, from the top of the pyramid. People always complain there isn't enough money for teaching music in the Arab population. Once in a discussion I asked one of the educators: And what if there were a million dollars right now? It would be a waste to scatter them in such a broken-down system in the kindergartens and the schools. Instead, we in the department are giving musicians and excellent teachers academic training and sending them back to the field better able both to teach and to identify talents."

Since the founding of the department there have been 40 to 50 students in every graduating class, and Elias points to their achievements. First and foremost, Darwish Darwish on the oud, who won first prize in the all-Arab oud competition in Egypt and the title "The Best Oud-Player in the Arab World in 2003." "A tremendous accomplishment," says Elias, "especially for an Israeli Arab."

Do you have enough good students every year?

"It isn't simple to draw students, because music does not have high status in Arab society and since there aren't any educational institutions, many talents get lost: They aren't identified, or they are ruined by bad teaching. Instead of in established teaching in schools and conservatories, a teacher's reputation gets transmitted by word of mouth and sometimes the students fall victim to this. In Western music, too, you can identify the victim of a terrible teacher. Among us, it sometimes makes you want to cry when you see a talented child who is holding an instrument in a contorted way and is having a hard time producing a tone. I see how the teachers who are graduates of the department and the teaching program at the academy are beginning to have their effect in the field and I hope that in the future more new students will come and that we will be able to be more selective as to their musical level and talents."

Perhaps Arab music does not need institutional learning like Western music?

"It is true that there are great, naturally talented Arab musicians who have never studied. For example, I met Wadi al-Safi and when I asked him where he learned to play the violin, he pointed to the sky. Who is my teacher? God. But I have often asked myself what level he might have attained had he studied. Certainly he would have been greater.

"People think that it is enough to hear Arab music in the home and at weddings. To take it in like mother's milk from childhood and it will sink in unconsciously. This is true but not sufficient. The study of musicology and research has given to me, for example, more sensitivity to intonation, to musical phrasing, to style, to rhythm. When people asked me who was my teacher for oud, I say, 'Dalia Cohen.' Sometimes with a single word a teacher can cause a revolution in musical perception, the way she did for me; and the meeting with Western works like Menachem Wiesenberg's forced me to deal with difficult technical challenges, to learn the instrument anew, to produce sounds that I hadn't even known existed."

There are approaches that are vehemently opposed to this combination, both for musical reasons and political reasons.

"To arrive at a proper combination it is necessary to know what to take from Western music and, more importantly, how to take it so that the result will be enriching, not alien. It is possible to maintain the basic principles of your own culture and at the same time to bring something new, not in their stead but rather in addition to them. The fact that I know Hebrew and English does not cause me to lose my identity as a member of the Arab nation: This enriches me, it does not denigrate me.

"In Western performance I have succeeded in proving that the oud is not a limited and folkloric instrument but rather can play together with a piano and a symphony orchestra, that it is possible to overcome its constraints and in that way enrich it. Every musical culture has its unique components, that's true, but there are also the universal components that unite, that are common to all cultures."

Why does it seem that Arabic music is more open to these influences whereas the other direction, from East to West, is harder?

"Arab music isn't transcribed in notes; it is based on improvisation, the study of it is intensive and the less a culture is formulated, the less it is established and confident, it absorbs a lot more. The problem develops when you take elements from cheap Western pop: Today there are 80 or more Arab television channels, all of which broadcast empty, crude music that of course does not have quarter-tones in it, and I ask myself what is Arab at all in this music? Even the language, the only Arab component in it, is illiterate and low. I am ashamed of this. This isn't the influence from the West that I hope for."

What is the repertoire at the academy?

"At recitals students play music from both worlds, works likes a trio, a duo, a concerto for oud and piano. This broadens horizons. And in the ensembles, like in the orchestra, Jews and Arabs perform together: not out of political ideology but artistic and musical needs. This shows that coexistence is also an experience."

The coexistence that Elias supports, not only musical but also political, annoys many of his Arab colleagues. He is known in the world as an excellent oud player, as a composer and musician of the first rank, and is admired by great musicians. However, his prominent position at the Education Ministry, his work at Voice of Israel in Arabic, his participation as a delegate to many artistic conferences and his trips to represent Jewish-Arab coexistence on behalf of the Foreign Ministry are not looked upon favorably.

"Munir Bashir invited me to perform with him at a festival in Cairo," he relates of the meeting and the friendship he developed with the greatest oud player of our time, "but he died a week before the recital. In Egypt journalists flocked to me and started to interview me as a representative of the Palestinian people. Just a moment, I said to them, I'm not a representative of the Palestinian people and they retreated immediately and started to talk with Israeli performers who did depict themselves as Palestinians."

If that's the case, then how do you define yourself?

"A Christian Israeli Arab, and this has led to boycotts of me, for example at the East Jerusalem Festival, to which I am not invited."

What is the reason for that?

"Because I don't say that Israel is a terrorist state. I don't enjoy both worlds taking whatever is possible from Israel and condemning it to the world outside. I am in favor of coexistence, I live in my own country."