Curtain Hovers Over Keepers of Babylonian Jews' Musical Heritage

In its heyday, the Mizrahi Orchestra numbered 36 musicians, including experts in 18 classical Eastern instruments.

Uri Zer Aviv
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Uri Zer Aviv

The Mizrahi Orchestra, an ensemble of devoted musicians seeking to preserve a nearly lost genre of traditional ethnic classical music, may be approaching its finale. The ongoing lack of government and other funding that has already shrunk the size of the orchestra in recent years is now threatening to shut it down completely.

"There is no other orchestra like this in Israel - there is simply none," asserts singer-songwriter Avihu Medina, who in essence personifies Mizrahi-Mediterranean music. "They play nearly all the [authentic] musical instruments that were heard in the Temple - no other orchestra in Israel does that. It is true that we have good Andalusian orchestras, but they represent music from one very specific place in the Mediterranean: Spain, Morocco and the surrounding area. The Mizrahi Orchestra, on the other hand, plays the music of Jews from Persia, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Bukhara and so on. This is the music of the Babylonian Diaspora."

Members of the Mizrahi Orchestra rehearsing in Lod. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The Mizrahi Orchestra, usually referred to as the Maqam Orchestra (Maqam meaning "place" in Arabic) was established in 1998 by Prof. Vladimir Sabirov of the center for traditional music, which was founded by him two years earlier as part of Bar-Ilan University's music department. In creating the group, Sabirov - an expert on the differences between Eastern and Western music - has sought to preserve the classical music popular among the communities mentioned by Medina, which has all but vanished in Israel since the establishment of the state. He managed to obtain funding, mainly from the Culture and Sports Ministry, to set up the orchestra. However, over the last three years it has nearly ceased to function due to a lack of financial resources, and its members only appear today in smaller ensembles.

Recalls Medina, who appeared with the orchestra when it was at its height, in the middle of the last decade: "I invited them to appear with me [in the middle of the last decade] in order to help them out, so that people would see and hear them. The performance was broadcast on television. You must understand that all the players are volunteers, acting out of love for [the music], but this is no way to operate an orchestra."

The orchestra's principal conductor since its founding has been Prof. Shlomo Takhalov, 77. Before immigrating to Israel in 1992, he conducted a similar orchestra featuring authentic traditional instruments, in Uzbekistan, and also taught at the Tashkent conservatory. Today Takhalov lives in a modest apartment in south Tel Aviv that looks like a museum of Eastern musical culture: Many instruments with unfamiliar names hang on the walls, and he is happy to demonstrate how they sound.

Takhalov is full of life and youthful energy, but his eyes moisten when the conversation turns to the bleak situation of the Mizrahi Orchestra - his "baby," as he calls it, with a rueful smile.

I have sympathy for your efforts, but is it really so important to save the orchestra?

"When we started the orchestra, there was no repertoire of works from which to choose. Instead we had to produce new versions and reconstruct a culture that is nearly undocumented in Israel. The Mizrahi Orchestra is different from all others here."

In its heyday, the ensemble numbered 36 musicians, including experts in 18 classical Eastern instruments, including some that are plucked (oud, dutar and tanbur ), as well as strings (kamancheh, jorza, jizak), winds (duduk, zurna), and percussion (duira, tonbak, darbuka, tabla and dhol).

In contrast to the Andalusian Orchestra, which Takhalov also conducted, the authentic Eastern instruments played in the Mizrahi Orchestra are unfamiliar to most Israelis. Seventy percent of the musicians have a master's degree in music and a good number studied at Bar-Ilan, he continues, but despite that, most make their living from fields other than music. Many are relatively new immigrants from countries in the former Soviet Union and central Asia, who play alongside Israelis who emigrated years ago from Mediterranean and North African countries. Some of the players, Takhalov notes, are among the only experts in the country in these traditional classic instruments.

"We played before 3,000 people at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv," Takhalov says, recalling a special performance five years ago for immigrants from Morocco, at which the orchestra performed with the famous liturgical composer Rabbi Haim Louk. "Afterward, Louk came up to me to say that not even the king of Morocco ever had such an orchestra," Takhalov says.

'A painful loss'

About 10 musicians from the orchestra have been meeting regularly to rehearse at a center for the elderly in the Kiryat Menachem Begin neighborhood in Ramle.

One of them is Yitzhak Refua, 65, who plays the kanun, a string instrument, and the santur, an instrument with strings and hammers that is similar to (but predated) the piano, and is also an expert in traditional Persian songs and used to appear as a soloist. "There is no place else where I can contribute my knowledge of music better than the orchestra," Refua says.

Dr. Miriam Gez-Avigal, a culture studies scholar at Bar-Ilan University who has accompanied the orchestra from the beginning, has gone to battle to prevent it from closing down. Last year, she initiated a petition to musicians and the press to that end. "The orchestra's closure would constitute a painful loss to Israeli culture, an injustice that must be averted before it is too late," she says, warning that, "the knowledge of how to play these authentic instruments [both separately and] together is likely to be lost completely."

In a letter she sent last month to the Culture and Sports minister, Limor Livnat (Likud ), Gez-Avigal wrote, "It would be a large and crass error to think that this culture [represented by the orchestra] is merely ethnic, and I would like to believe that the mistake was unintentional, for if not, it borders on the criminal."

Except for musicians in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, whose salaries are relatively respectable, most members of symphony and chamber orchestras in Israel receive only minimum wage, with few reaching NIS 6,000 per month, despite their years of intense academic study. Sources familiar with the field warn that musical education is on the decline; the number of ensembles and choirs at educational institutions of all kinds has been shrinking for decades. The government does not support the establishment of new artistic bodies, and funds only those that are economically viable.

According to the Pilat company (an outsource company that handles public documentation of government funding), in 2010 the Israel Philharmonic was allotted NIS 9.3 million. The Haifa Symphony received NIS 3 million; the Jerusalem Symphony NIS 5.3 million; the Jerusalem Camerata NIS 4.6; the Andalusian Orchestra NIS 1.2 million; and the Arab Music Orchestra, NIS 500,000. The New Israeli Opera was allotted the largest budget: NIS 19 million. By contrast, the Mizrahi Orchestra, defined as a "project," was granted only NIS 70,000.

In any event, the Mizrahi Orchestra will only hear about the budget it will receive next year from the government at the end of the year.

The Culture and Sports Ministry spokesman's office explains that it "has supported the Makam Orchestra for six years, in accordance with criteria fixed by law, except for one year in which problems concerning the orchestra's management prevented it from receiving funds. Contrary to the claims being made, the Culture Ministry works to advance Mizrahi classical music, and contributes NIS 4 million to the orchestras that represent [this field], including the Andalusian Orchestra, the Al-Mughrabi Andalusian Orchestra, the East West Ensemble, the Center for Mizrahi Music and so on.

"The Culture Ministry views the unique activities and function of the Makam Orchestra as of the highest importance, and remains in constant contact with it. [Makam] has been warned repeatedly that the ministry cannot increase its support as long as it does not meet the conditions required by law regarding the number of performances, programs and an annual budget of NIS 500,000. Orchestra management retains the right to make a new request for a larger amount of support in 2013."

For his part, Sabirov argues that, "We received authorization from the ministry that we meet the criteria of a professional orchestra. The claim by the ministry that we do not meet standards determined by law is absurd. This seems like a chicken-and-egg situation."

Medina complains that the orchestra received a budget that "won't even cover the cost of tea" for its players, while the Philharmonic gets millions: "The government funds too many Western orchestras that each do exactly the same thing. They are 'God's little acre' for the decision makers. Western music would not be able to stand on its own without this subsidy. In this way the authorities blot out identities and erase history. This is exactly the method. No one will emerge from this story clean."

Change in approach

Prof. Oded Zehavi, a University of Haifa musicologist and a composer, argues that the problem is that the Mizrahi Orchestra's identity is not well-defined, unlike that of the two Andalusian orchestras. They were savvy enough to include an entertainment aspect in their performances, he says, and thus attracted larger audiences and income.

"The Andalusians flatter their audiences, bringing in [actor] Moshe Ivgy, [singer] Amir Benayoun and doing what they have to do to survive," Zehavi says.

The Mizrahi Orchestra, in contrast, suffers from the fact that it is identified more as an academic project. There is no demand from audiences, the professor notes, to preserve the musical culture represented by this ensemble. In practice, interest in this culture must be reawakened - without the orchestral performances turning into pure entertainment.

"The Israeli public is interested in going out to be entertained, not to learn things," Zehavi explains. "But an umbrella organization is needed to preserve all ethnic music cultures. If such a body existed, it would ensure the Mizrahi Orchestra had a budget."

Zehavi agrees that the continued existence of the orchestra is extremely important, but admits that it needs to change its approach and content to some extent, in order to survive: "If the orchestra is doing what it usually does, and as a result sees that it is losing its audience - it has to understand that with all due respect to academic research, what is important is a dialogue between it and the potential audiences."

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