Israeli Orchestra Plays Arabic Music From Memory, Under a Haredi Conductor

Mixed Arab-Jewish orchestra Firqat Alnoor and its conductor Ariel Cohen are fighting stereotypes — around the music they play and around Israeli Haredim and Arabic culture. And they do it all without sheet music

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Ariel Cohen, the conductor and musical director of Firqat Alnoor. 'I’m more of an Arab in my culture than many Israeli Arabs.'
Ariel Cohen, the conductor and musical director of Firqat Alnoor. 'I’m more of an Arab in my culture than many Israeli Arabs.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

“‘Al-Fan’ in F-minor!” announced Ariel Cohen, the conductor and musical director of Firqat Alnoor. A few second later the orchestra’s 20 or so musicians, crowded into a rehearsal room in Moshav Yish’i, near Jerusalem, began playing the works of the great Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. But in the tiny gap between Cohen’s announcement and commencement of playing, those sitting close Shoham Gabai, the orchestra’s flutist, could hear him say under his breath – in a language not quite natural to the orchestra or its members – “Oy, a-brokh.”

It’s no small feat to play Abdel Wahab’s complex and evolving works, and it’s particularly challenging to do so in a way that will meet the exacting standards of Cohen, who demanded that the musicians reflect every tiny musical nuance, jocularly chiding them whenever they failed to do so properly. During the rehearsal of a different Abdel Wahab piece, Gabai played a note that was not part of the musical score. It wasn’t a mistake – he felt like improvising. A second after he did it, Cohen stopped the players and said, “Can you improvise for Abdel Wahab?” as he aimed a half-amused, half-reprimanding glance at the flutist. But there’s that wiggle there, the flutist noted in his defense. “OK, that wiggle is improvised,” said Cohen. “The question is what note you reach at the end of the wiggle. You have to reach the right note. You went somewhere else.”

The rehearsal last week was in preparation for Firqat Alnoor’s new tour, dedicated to Abdel Wahab’s music. It opened in last week, Haifa and will last for several more performances over the next three weeks – in Ashkelon, Jerusalem, Or Yehuda, Maalot-Tarshiha, Bat Yam, Petah Tikva and Be'er Sheva. This will be a milestone for the orchestra, which began playing nine years ago, first under the name the Classic Eastern Orchestra before quickly changing to Firqat Alnoor (“orchestra of light”).

For nearly a decade, the group worked in a single-concert format, with each one held in several cities. But Cohen and orchestra director Hana Ftaya recently decided to take a risk and offer season tickets, in the style of classical occidental orchestras and like Israel’s major Middle Eastern orchestras – The Israeli Andalusian Orchestra and the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra.

A Firqat Alnoor performance.

The difference between the latter two and Firqat Alnoor, which opened the Felicja Blumental International Music Festival on Sunday with the “Rose of Cairo” performance, is its repertoire, which is dedicated almost in its entirety to classical Arab music, as well as its mode of playing, which derived from that same repertoire. The orchestra’s musicians do not play from sheet music. The musicians must memorize their scores. “That’s how Umm Kulthum’s orchestra played, and that’s how the Israel Broadcasting Authority Arabic Orchestra played,” says Cohen. “No orchestra in Israel today plays without sheet music. They don’t work like that in Egypt and Iraq anymore, either. There are partiturs and the musicians read from the page. But if you want to know the nitty gritty of Arabic music, you can’t play it from sheet music.”

Violinist Marian Tur, who joined the orchestra in 2018 after playing with the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra for several years, concurs with Cohen: “Playing from sheet music is like reading a text, and if you’re a good reader, it sounds great to the audience. But for you, you read it and forget. When you learn things by heart, they remain. It’s not written down, so it forces you to remember more, to delve deeper, to understand why this note is here and that note is there. At first it was a complete shock to me – the amount of material, and all by heart. But after four years with the symphony I feel like I got a degree in Arab music with them.”

An Arab, but not by birth

Some of the musicians grew up on Arabic music at home, and many come from a Western classical background. While their talent and dedication plays a significant part in Firqat Alnoor’s success, the orchestra has a powerful and and inspirational musical anchor in Cohen. At the rehearsal last week, which took place without solo vocalists, Cohen conducted the musicians, played the darbuka and sang each word of Abdel Wahab’s long songs which the orchestra will be performing in concert. “It’s not that he loves this music. It’s much more than that. This is who he is. This is his essence,” says Ftaya, the orchestra’s director.

A Firqat Alnoor performance.

Cohen was born in the mid-1980s to a Haredi family in Petah Tikva. “Somehow there’s this stereotype that if you’re Haredi, then you have no connection to the Arabic language. Maybe you even hate Arabic,” says Cohen. “But I’m more of an Arab in my culture than many Israeli Arabs. I have friends from Nazareth and Acre, Muslim and Christian Arabs, who don’t know half the Arab music I do.”

The stereotype regarding Haredim and Arabic is truly the product of ignorance, as the Mizrahi Haredi world is bound tightly to classical Arab music, upon whose tunes many liturgical works are based. And yet Cohen is an outlier: a young man for whom the Arab music of the early and mid-20th century was his entire world. As a little boy he heard classical Moroccan music at home, as well as what he calls “light Arab music” – Farid al-Atrash and Abdel Halim Hafez.

“And then, at age 10, I got a tape from the Old City of Jerusalem that turned my life upside-down,” Cohen says. His older brother, who studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, brought him a cassette tape of “Inta Omri.” Cohen, who fell in love with Umm Kulthum’s most famous song, asked his brother to bring him more of her tapes. “I remember sitting with three tapes, three songs by Umm Kulthum, all composed by Riad Al Sunbati, and I couldn’t understand how three songs, all by the same singer and composer, could sound so different.”

Not exactly a question a 10 year-old should be asking.

“Okay, that’s my quirk,” Cohen laughs.

Firqat Alnoor, performing in Jerusalem in 2015.Credit: Hemi Ben Lavi

Many of the questions, that occurred to him upon falling in love with classical Arab music, remained unanswered. It was the mid-90s, before Google and YouTube, he says. “So who can I ask who composed that song by Umm Kulthum in 1925? Where could I go?”

The best source – perhaps the only one available – was the musicians of the Israel Broadcasting Authority Arabic Orchestra: Zuzu Musa, Avraham Salman, Felix Mizrahi, Elias Zubaida. They were around 70 years old at the time, forced into retirement when the IBA Arabic Orchestra, one of the finest Arab orchestras in the Middle East, was shut down in 1993. The orchestra’s musicians kept performing at haflas – parties where Middle Eastern music was played, usually in private homes or small clubs. Cohen realized that if he wanted to meet them and ask them questions, he had to go to those get-togethers, held mainly in Ramat Gan.

“Imagine an 11-12 year-old boy, finishing studies at the yeshiva at 9 in the evening, changing clothes and going alone to haflas,” he recalls, adding that his mother would send him in a taxi. “The haflas would begin with Iraqi music, which didn’t interest me at the time. I would sit, wait, among all the older people. A yeshiva boy. I’m also light-skinned and I look Ashkenazi. People didn’t understand what I was doing there.”

Then, he says, “After the Iraqi music, the serious Egyptian music would begin, and my eyes would open wide. At one in the morning, when the haflas were over, I’d chase the musicians, badger them with questions. They didn’t have patience for me. Now I get them – after playing for four hours straight, and you’re a 70-year-old man, the last thing you want is for someone to ask you who wrote the music to that Umm Kulthum song in 1925. Enough. Let me go home.” But, he adds, “At some point they noticed that I was asking good questions. They told me, ‘Why now after the hafla? Come tomorrow at noon.’ That’s what I did. I remember my whole body shook before entering Avraham Salman’s home for the first time. These people were my idols. It felt like I was entering the inner sanctum of Arabic music, and I was lucky enough that they liked me.”

At age 14 or 15 Cohen began performing with alumni of the IBA Arabic Orchestra, mainly former conductor Zuzu Musa and violinist Felix Mizrahi. “Playing with them isn’t just the performance itself,” he says. “I’m a 14-year-old boy. How am I going to get to a gig in Be’er Sheva? So I come to Felix’s home, eat lunch with him, he tells me about Egypt in the ‘40s, what Umm Kulthum said to Abdel Wahab and what that musician shouted back. Then we get in the car and drive to Be'er Sheva, and the whole way we’re listening to music, and Felix says “Look how they ran away from the beat here, notice what the oud player does here. It was the best school possible for Arabic music. I regret that those taps are closed and there’s nobody left to take from.”

Ariel Cohen, the conductor and musical director of Firqat Alnoor.

The vision for Firqat Alnoor came directly from Cohen’s personal apprenticeship. “We weren’t born in Syria or Iraq in the 1930s. We can’t play like the IBA Arabic Orchestra musicians,” he says of himself and his players. “But we can carry on their cultural endeavor, which was cut short almost 30 years ago when they shut down the IBA Arabic Orchestra, to the best of our ability. When we started Firqat, we wanted to dismantle the stigma that Arabic music is the music of the hamara [drinking clubs], of haflot. Cohen clarifies that he is not disparaging those places I’m not disparaging those places or minimizing their importance – he supplements his income by playing at haflot. “But Arab music is higher than that. I find its place equal to that of Western classical music. If Western music gets an air-conditioned hall, sound and lights, there is no reason Arabic music shouldn’t receive the same.”

‘We’re here too’

In 2013, when Firqat Alnoor was founded by Cohen, Ftaya and oud player and physician Dr. Yehuda Kamari, the orchestra included only male musicians, mostly young Haredim who knew Arabic music from home and from synagogue. The Haredi musicians are still a very important group within Firqat Alnoor, but in recent years several women have joined them. “It was a conscious decision that we wanted women, and we searched for the right musicians,” says Ftaya.

Ftaya is asked what happens when the orchestra plays for a Haredi audience, which it often does. She says, “It’s important to us that the women perform, but it’s a quandary. We are the only orchestra that plays for Haredi audiences. When they ask us to only have men perform, it can upset me as a woman, but on the other hand, they deserve [music] too. If these are their codes, I can’t impose my codes on them. I shouldn’t punish them. It’s a delicate game. We try to insist that the women play, and it has happened that there were women on stage when we played at Haredi venues. But sometimes, when it’s a performance for a male-only audience, myself and the female musicians prefer not to come. I don’t want to be the only woman in a hall with hundreds of men. I don’t find it pleasant.”

A Firqat Alnoor performance.

Firqat Alnoor operates on a small budget. Although it received an increase during Miri Regev’s tenure as the culture minister, it is still inconsistent with the investment and vision of the musicians and administrators. The support Firqat Alnoor receives from the Culture Ministry is around 1 million shekels ($311,000) a year – a figure several orders lower than those received by the two larger Middle Eastern orchestras in Israel. “The orchestras that are supposedly in our league are out of our league. They’re in Savyon and we’re in Amishav,” Cohen says with a laugh, referring to a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb and a low-income neighborhood in Petah Tikva, respectively.

The decision to launch season tickets stems largely from the desire by Firqat’s members to declare their place in the arena. “We realized that we had to drive a stake in the ground, demonstrate our presence,” says Ftaya. “But I won’t lie. We took a risk with these season tickets. We don’t have a well-oiled marketing system. We’re not good enough at reaching our audience. It worries us. I don’t sleep at night.”

Firqat Alnoor’s season will include four concerts. The second concert will be dedicated to classical Lebanese music, the third will feature the songs of Umm Kulthum and the fourth will wander off the classical reservation and focus on Arabic pop music from the 1980s and ‘90s, starring Israeli Druze singer Mike Sharif. “This is an appeal to a different audience than Firqat’s natural crowd. A younger audience, in the Arab community too,” says Cohen. He emphasizes that the Arab audience is important to the orchestra; at their last concert in Be’er Sheva, about half the audience came from the nearby Bedouin town of Rahat.

Just before the COVID pandemic, the Firqat musicians held a series of performances in a directed concert format, in which they celebrated the music of IBA Arabic Orchestra and played works by its composers. There are many such beautiful works, as the Firqat concertgoers in Jerusalem can attest. Why won’t these pieces, the lifeblood of the orchestra, be played during the upcoming season, alongside the canonical works of Umm Kulthum and Abdel Wahab, which are performed often and by many?

“A little while ago I planted a Felix Mizrahi composition in one of our concerts. But I have to admit that what the audience wants to hear most are the hits by Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthumm,” says Cohen.

Ftaya adds: “Our ambitions are far greater than to play the obvious. To rescue the works of the IBA Arabic Orchestra musicians is more important than to play Farid [al-Atrash]’s songs again. It will happen. We’re still in a process of building, ripening and maturing. We know that it’s a marathon.”

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