In Israel's Biggest Hipster-fest, Arabs and Haredi Jews Will Make Beautiful Music Together

The Firqat Alnoor Orchestra will be playing at this month's InDnegev Festival, showing the Tel Aviv hipsters what real alternative music is.

Inas Elias
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The Firkat Al Nur players performing their Arab music.
The Firkat Al Nur players performing their Arab music. Credit: Chemi Ben Lavie
Inas Elias

For many years, Hannah Fetaya dreamed of a classical Middle Eastern orchestra. She’s not a musician, but this music spoke to her ever since she was small.

“My connection to this music and this culture is mainly from my grandfather, Rabbi Shaul Fetaya, who came from Iraq to Tel Aviv in the 1920s and was always proud of his cultural heritage,” she says.

She tells how the rabbi’s father was the famous Rabbi Yehuda Fetaya, a sage of Babylon. Hannah Fetaya has been active for many years in the world of piyyut lyrical works that are usually liturgical. She has researched the music and traditions; for example, in ensembles like the band Shaharit. Her sister is poet and scholar Haviva Pedaya.

A few years ago, Fetaya’s dream began to come true. With ultra-Orthodox percussionist Ariel Cohen she founded a respectable orchestra of 20 musicians.

“We collected the best musicians on the Mizrahi scene who had been performing under the radar at parties, at gigs,” she says, referring to Jews with roots in the Middle East. “And we wanted to bring them to center stage, like in an old-fashioned orchestra.”

But the wheels of bureaucracy didn’t let the dream happen, until two years ago. Then, after a performance by Muslim Iraqi singer Taher Barakat in Israel, the initiative was revived as two new people joined Firqat Alnoor (Orchestra of Flame).

The two were oud player Yehuda Kamari and Middle East scholar Roni Bialer. The orchestra has blossomed since. At the end of this month, Firqat Alnoor will perform at the InDnegev Festival, which is marking the 10th anniversary of its founding.

By definition, InDnegev, a platform for independent music, should include a wide range of styles. But its center of gravity is Western music and the Tel Aviv alternative scene. Still, over the years, more and more Mizrahi and Mediterranean artists have appeared.

The Firkat Al Nur OrchestraCredit: Sasson Tiram

Asaf Ben David, one of the festival’s musical directors, says of Firqat Alnoor: “As distant and different as it is from things at the festival – I feel that it’s very suitable and relevant. And in the band itself, the connection between Jews and Arabs, religious people and secular people – it’s very suited to this effervescent salad we try to achieve at InDnegev.”

Firqat Alnoor will perform at the festival on Friday afternoon, October 28, in a roster including Tigris – an Ethiopian band that will host singer-songwriter Gili Yalo – singer Tomer Yeshayahu, who plays the bouzouki; Quarter to Africa, a band that combines Arab music, African music, jazz and punk; and Zaaluk, which performs Moroccan music.

“This is an interesting vocal trip with very many angles,” Ben David says. “It takes the Middle East to different places.”

All the way from Tunisia

Firqat Alnoor will perform adaptations of classical Arab music with Amal Shahin, who was born in the Druze town Daliat al-Carmel near Haifa.

“This will be lighter music, the kind most people know, like Karem Mahmoud’s ‘Samra Ya Samra’ and Farid al-Atrache’s ‘Ya Awazel Falfelo,’” Fetaya says.

“I’m very glad to reach an audience that usually isn’t exposed to this music. It has so many fans in Israel and abroad. It has so much beauty, richness and depth there’s no reason it shouldn’t open itself to more audiences.”

Firqat Alnoor is unique in its especially wide variety of musicians. Although there’s the Andalusian Orchestra, Fetaya notes that Arabic and Middle Eastern music is not Andalusian music, and Firqat Alnoor's repertoire includes classical Arab music from Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia and the entire Arab world.

“Our uniqueness is that we can do nearly everything,” Fetaya says. “Recently we had a performance with Fathi Ali, a Tunisian Muslim musician at the Ashdod Performing Arts Center, and Iraqi Muslim singer Ismael Fadel is also interested in performing with us. We have a large and loyal fan base in Israel.”

In addition, the group’s repertoire includes vocal works in Hebrew, mostly piyyutim, along with songs by the great Egyptian musicians Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Oum Kalthoum that have been translated into Hebrew. There is huge demand for both kinds of music, Fetaya says.

“The ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities are the biggest consumers of this music, but its existence is underground – in wedding halls or nonestablishment places,” she says. “A piyyut singer goes on stage with a skullcap on his head and sings songs in Arabic to an ultra-Orthodox audience. The ultra-Orthodox audience grew up on this, and at concerts you can see young children alongside very elderly people.”

One of the orchestra’s successful concert tours was a joint program with Shahin and ultra-Orthodox vocalist Gil Rabi at Jerusalem’s Tahrir Bar and in East Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood. The is effort came in the framework of a Jewish-Arab backgammon tournament.

“The reactions were amazing,” Fetaya says. “The sheikh of Beit Hanina said it had been a long time since he’d heard this music the way we play it.”

Another interesting collaboration the orchestra is working on is a performance with singer-songwriter Amir Benayoun slated for November 12 at the Rehovot Cultural Center.

“Amir Benayoun will sing songs in Arabic that he himself has chosen and loves, and his own songs in our adaptations,” Fetaya says.

There must be more money

Still, the orchestra has had financial problems. “We have a small subsidy from the Jerusalem municipality – an amount that doesn’t even cover one concert” 40,000 shekels ( $10,480). From the Culture and Sport Ministry a similar amount is due.

“According to the criteria, there has to be a larger ensemble, and it has to do more to get more money, but there’s a limit to how much risk we can take. There are performances that don’t even cover the costs, especially when it comes to top instrumentalists and the special amplification we need for our music,” she says.

“It’s impossible to maintain our orchestra with government or municipal subsidies. With all the sympathy for us at the Culture Ministry, as long as they don’t change the criteria for defining an orchestra and the budgeting aspect, we’ll be limited in our ability to make progress and perhaps even exist.”

Fetaya does nearly everything herself. She produces, markets, coordinates the rehearsals and manages the orchestra’s money.

“We don’t have money for a staff,” she says. “Half of us are working as volunteers out of a sense of mission and vision.”

The musicians invest their time to make the orchestra. “These are outstanding instrumentalists in Arab and Middle Eastern music, who are not getting the stage they deserve. They're known mainly by a small audience that has been following this music from the outset.”

Among these musicians are the famous qanoun player Eli Avikzer and violinist Rafi Shawat. “We also have young musicians, some of them graduates of the Middle Eastern music program at the music academy in Jerusalem, but we had to invest a lot of time and energy to bring them to our standards,” Fetaya says.

“The thing about Arab and Middle Eastern music is that it requires experience and prior familiarity. Most of our musicians learn everything by ear,” Fetaya says. She notes that rehearsals are held without scores because Arab and Middle Eastern music uses quarter tones and a lot of improvisation.

“If they wrote this music down, it would lose a lot of its uniqueness,” she says. “This is a matter of thousands of pieces and songs that are in our musicians’ heads.”

When the group gives very long concerts, some of them three or four hours or on into the night, there’s a need for improvisation. The decision about which pieces to play is made on the spot. “Eighty percent of the musicians I can ask anything and they’ll play it by ear,” Fetaya says.

In Firqat Alnoor there’s also an ultra-Orthodox musician who plays the bendir (frame drum), a violinist from Beit Shemesh, cellists and jazz bassists. There’s also a Hasid who plays the Arab ney (end-blown flute), and Arab musicians from all over the country. No women, though.

“Sometimes it’s kind of strange being the only woman in such a male place. Sometimes I come to a performance in front of an ultra-Orthodox audience and the entire audience consists of men and I’m the only woman around – both onstage and backstage,” Fetaya says.

“Recently we made a call for tryouts and two women showed up whom we wanted, but in the end it didn’t suit them. This is music that people bring from home, and unfortunately there aren’t a lot of women who play this music.”

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