Balance Check

His new live album follows a string of CDs and two years of intensive performing; Dudu Tassa has finally found his Iraqi-reggae-hip-hop groove.

These are busy days for Dudu Tassa. On Monday he released a live album "Aharei Lila shel Ra'ash" ("after a night of noise") with a performance at Tel Aviv's Goldstar Zappa Club. He is putting on the show "Iraq 'n' Roll" with Yair Dalal. And he is working on a new and intriguing album of songs by the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers. The younger brother, Daoud, was his grandfather.

Tassa's connection with Yair Dalal - the composer, violinist, oud player and singer known for preserving Iraqi classical music and staging diverse musical collaborations - began during preparations for the 10th International Oud Festival, held in Jerusalem in November. Dalal called Tassa and suggested they collaborate.

"Yair performs compositions by my grandfather, and has recorded them for his albums. When he called, I panicked. I felt like I was out of my league, it was a bit of a leap for me. My grandfather is one generation older than him, I am one generation younger. It was moving. At the first show there were a lot of tears."

Tassa says he is learning a lot from Dalal: "Yair explains things that I had no idea existed in music. But it's mainly his attitude, the easygoing approach. When he goes on stage he takes three minutes, he wipes his hands, takes a breath and only then begins to play. It sets the tone. He puts the audience in a certain mindset, and throughout the show they're going at his pace, in another place. I, on the other hand, whenever I go on stage I feel like I have to hit them over the head from the first moment."

"Aharei Lila shel Ra'ash" is Tassa's seventh album. He recorded his first, "Ohev et Hashirim" ("Loving the Songs"), in 1990, when he was 13. It was followed by "Yoter Barur" ("Clearer," 2000), "Mitokh Behira" ("Out of Choice," 2003), "Bidiyuk Bazman" ("Right on Time," 2004), "Lola," in 2008, and "Basof Mitraglim Lehakol" ("Getting Used to All," 2009).

"This week I realized that it has been 20 years since my first album came out, at age 13. Sure, there was a hiatus of seven or so years, but I feel that I could have accomplished more." Tassa says he does not spend a lot of time practicing guitar, due to fears rooted in his childhood. "When I was young I was afraid to practice because I felt that people were listening. I was afraid they would hear me make a mistake."

Like his last four albums, Tassa's latest is on the Hed Arzi label. It includes hits such as "Eizeh Yom," "Lola," "Basof Mitraglim Lehakol" and his popular renditions of "Ani Gitara" and "Halila Lo." He views it as a record of the past two years, a period of frequent performances. Although he had amassed significant stage experience as a musician and guest artist, he only began appearing solo six years ago.

"I got used to performing with others, Rami-Rita (Rami Kleinstein and Rita, now divorced) and the like. At my first show I had horrendous stage fright. I began playing and the whole time I kept waiting for the real thing to happen, for the headliner to come on. I didn't get it that I was the main event. I left the stage feeling like nothing had happened. For two or three years I didn't get that the audience was watching me, paying money, and that I was singing songs for them. I still feel like I should be paying them to see me. It bewilders me when my shows are sold out weeks in advance."

Nowadays performing is sheer pleasure for him. "It happens during the third or fourth song in a show," he says. "You aren't thinking about anything, you're in another place, and when the song ends I return to reality for 20 seconds and dive into some other place. I get criticized for closing my eyes, but it helps me to wander."

Mideastern, not Mediterranean

Tassa grew up in Tel Aviv's working-class Hatikva neighborhood, where he was surrounded by Middle Eastern music, particularly Zohar Argov, Sounds of the Oud, Ishay Levi and Avner Gadasi, but at Ironi Alef High School he enrolled in the jazz study track. Now he finds himself returning to the old songs, like "Yalda shel Stav Ehad," "Tzel Tamar Ve'or Yare'ah" and "Rak Otach Ohav Halila," sung by Zohar Argov, as well as Nati Levy's "Pere Adam" and Ishay Levi's "Tzlil Ha'inbalim," marveling at their lyrics.

He incorporates Middle Eastern motifs into his music, as well as reggae rhythms and rock. Tassa says that in the past two years, he believes he has achieved the right balance between the musical influences of his childhood and the following years.

"On my first albums I went for a different style each time. People told me they had to have a unifying character. The record companies also tried to bring in someone to do that. I insisted against it, but it happened on its own, without me trying."

The Hebrew translation of Dr. Seuss' "My Many Colored Days" is a cornerstone for Tassa, who also set it to music. When prompted, he immediately begins reciting the rhyming verse. "It gave me a lot of confidence and validation for my path. I've reached levels of honesty where I'm not afraid to tell it like it is. Musically, I don't hide as much behind overly sophisticated melodies or harmonies. I do everything to serve the song, and not hide behind it. It used to be important to me that people say: here's that sweetie, but now I can handle the fear that they won't like me. It doesn't drive me as much."

"I think that when people mature they understand what is truly authentic, and what is fake," Tassa says when explaining the renewed appeal of Middle Eastern music in Israel. (He says he does not understand the insistence on calling it "Mediterranean.") He seems preoccupied by the growing popularity of the genre. He is aware of the performers' great commercial success, the sold-out concerts and intensive airtime, but believes that the successful artists (he does not name names) are going in the wrong direction.

"They should use this platform as a springboard, not merely ride it to recreate old hits. I think it will hurt them. They are inside and perhaps unable to see it, but they must be daring. People love and embrace them, but they mustn't remain static. I feel that I came from that place, I am part of them. They are brothers to me, so I care. But who am I to tell them anything?"

In his Tel Aviv apartment, Tassa listens to recordings of the classical guitarist John Williams. Tassa's family, with the help of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and Radio Baghdad, have collected and restored the recordings of the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers, who fled Iraq for Israel in 1951. Salah and Daoud Al-Kuwaiti represented a significant chapter in the history of modern Iraqi music. Last year a street in Tel Aviv was named for them.

Tassa listens to the numerous recordings, searching for something he can make his own. He began the process eight years ago, well before his collaboration with Dalal, but at one point he stopped.

"I wasn't ready for it, it's a matter of maturity, of identity, confidence in who and what I am. It intrigues me to do this because it's not simple. The rhythms are complex and difficult to understand. Also, I don't speak Arabic, so I am learning the meaning of the words. I'm getting used to singing quarter-tones."

Tassa is arranging the songs for guitar, and says the album he envisions will be fairly Western. "There is a kind of really weird communication between me and my grandfather," says Tassa. His grandfather died before he was born, and he was named for him. "I am slightly a part of him, and I would like him to be a part of me."