Iranians Are Dying to See This Israeli Musician Perform Live

Not the soundtrack he wrote for Apple TV's 'Tehran,' nor his work with popular Israeli singers: To Mark Eliyahu, his greatest achievement is sweeping up audiences with the kamancheh, an ancient Persian string instrument. Many of them live in Iran

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Mark Eliyahu. 'The kemancha was nearly extinct. Students in the academy said to me, ‘Are you crazy?'
Mark Eliyahu. 'The kamancheh was nearly extinct. Students in the academy said to me, ‘Are you crazy?'
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

A yurt standing alone in a field serves as a studio for Mark Eliyahu, who plays the kamancheh (sometimes spelled kamancheh or kamanche), a stringed instrument prominent in traditional Persian music. It’s nice inside the accessorized yurt in Moshav Beit Zaid, near Kiryat Tivon, which is so different from the closed-in urban studios where most Israeli musicians work. There’s a circular space, air, and calm energy. What is lacking, for better and for worse, is sound insulation.

On the one hand, you can hear the birds singing and the whisper of the wind in the leaves. On the other hand, it’s impossible not to hear a combat plane taking off from the nearby air force base in Ramat David. A terrible noise overcomes the yurt when the plane passes by. Eliyahu stops talking for about half a minute, and then goes on to talk about creating his beautiful new album, “About Love,” and about the differences between this album and his previous ones.

The plane is a fitting encapsulation of Eliyahu’s two previous albums, “Roads,” released in 2013, and “Sands,” released in 2016, and really of his career overall before the coronavirus pandemic. He has been on the road for almost his entire life. He was 6 when he immigrated to Israel from the Russian region of Dagestan with his parents, both of whom are musicians. At 16 he traveled to the Greek island of Crete to study the saz, also known as baglama, a type of long-necked lute.

Several months later, he fell in love with the sound of the kamancheh, a bowed string instrument sometimes called the central Asian violin, after hearing an Azeri kamancheh master. He left Crete and the saz and traveled to Azerbaijan, where he lived and studied with a teacher for two years. After his return to Israel, he played for in ensembles of his father, musician Piris Eliyahu, several years and performed with him in several countries. He then started to develop an independent career, which flourished in the years before the pandemic and brought him popularity in Europe and the United States, while becoming a real star in Turkey.

“From a very early age I traveled all the time,” says Eliyahu, 40. “I roamed. I lived on the roads. Even after I returned to Israel and got married and had children, it was movement that gave me inspiration. I would create in hotels, on the roads, in the plane. There was a reason that the album was called ‘Roads’ – it was written entirely on the road.

“And suddenly, when the coronavirus began, I settled down,” he recounts. “I became familiar with the experience of staying in one place. Nothing moved. The skies were closed, the roads were brought to a stop, everything was totally quiet, the air suddenly opened up. That created an option for different, quieter work, and also gave time to get into yourself and to really see what happens when there isn’t all the noise and movement.

Glenn Close and Niv Sultan in the second season of 'Tehran.'

“I feel that the things that came out during this period are more distilled in terms of my emotion – it emerges fuller and more precise. I would get here early in the morning, start to think about some melody, and without my noticing, without eating, it was dark outside. Entire days passed like that.

“I would come with the kamancheh and people would say ‘What’s that thing?’” he recalls. “Nobody was familiar with the sound. Nobody thinks that it belongs here; I always felt that it’s connected to our origins as Jews, as Israelis, an instrument that the Levites played.”

The transition from the pre-pandemic wandering and the closed-in immobility of the pandemic was sharp and sudden, but his musical translation was much more gradual. The differences between the new album, which was written and recorded in 2020 and 2021, and his previous ones are not dramatic, but they are noticeable. Eliyahu finds it somewhat difficult to describe them in a way that satisfies him. He first says that the new album is somewhat more Western than the previous ones, and then that it is somewhat more pop, but it is evident that he rejects the use of these general labels.

In the end, he says: “Maybe the issue is that this album is more an album of songs.”

'Not a day goes by on which they don’t write to me, ‘When are you coming to perform in Iran?’ It’s very moving'

Mark Eliyahu. ' I hear songs in my head, but I don’t have the words for them.'

But it contains only two songs, and all the rest are instrumental selections.

“That makes no difference. I hear songs in my head, but I don’t have the words for them. I know the meaning of the song, but every time I write words, or I ask someone to write, it distances me from what I’m imagining. The words shackle me. They can’t express what I really feel in in these sounds. It brings down the sounds, gives heaviness to them. In this album, the approach is that these are actually songs.”

As opposed to melodies.

“Exactly. Without composition-related sophistication. Instrumental, without transitions and the building of structures. Simple songs. Stanza-refrain. The simplest love songs possible, with as few notes and development as possible. Only this emotion. I feel like doing complex things in the future, half-hour works. I’ll get to that some day. But this is what I had to say now. Love, connection. It’s simple, and there’s no need to complicate it.”

What is that thing?

The desire to create simple songs, "verse-chorus," led to the creation of music that in some senses, is like pop music. But it’s not just that Eliyahu, on his own initiative, has drawn closer to Israeli pop; it’s also Israeli pop that has drawn closer to Eliyahu. It’s a fascinating process that has been going on for over a decade, and reached new heights in recent years.

Israeli pop star Omer Adam, with whom Eliyahu has collaborated.

When Eliyahu started out in Israeli music, after returning from his studies in Azerbaijan, the kamancheh was unfamiliar to Israelis. “I remember that I would come to places with the kamancheh and people would look at me and say, ‘What, are you crazy? What is that thing?’” says Eliyahu.

“Nobody was familiar with that sound. Nobody thought it belonged here, they treated me like someone playing an Azeri, Persian, Turkish instrument. They would even say, ‘He’s an Azeri player.’ But I never felt that I was one. I always felt that the kamancheh is connected to our origins as Jews, as Israelis. Something from our ancient culture, an instrument that the Levites played. Something that’s also ours.”

Determined to spread the sound of the kamancheh in Israel, Eliyahu started to appear on songs by popular singers. The kamancheh sound at the opening of “She’eriot Shel Hehayim,” one of Idan Raichel’s biggest hits, paved the way, and soon numerous pop singers invited Eliyahu to play in their recordings.

Eliyahu was featured in several of the biggest (and most beautiful) Israeli hits of recent years, including Omer Adam’s “Basof Hakol Holef” and Yishai Ribo’s “Halev Sheli.” Today, the kamancheh is an integral part of the sound of Israeli pop.

“Today, it’s less urgent for me to play in pop songs, it’s already happening. It’s a snowball,” says Eliyahu. There are also quite a few more kamancheh players on the landscape, many of whom studied with Eliyahu. “It has become a very present instrument. It’s in the family of Israeli music. That’s very exciting.”

Eliyahu is now in the midst of a performance tour to launch “About Love.” He has an incredible band (his father, Piris,who plays the tar; pianist Haim Weiss; bassist Yankale Segal and percussionist Rony Iwryn) and he performs with it in large halls and amphitheaters, venues which host pop singers, not instrumentalists.

On May 19, he is set perform at the Mini Israel amphitheater in Latrun; on May 30, at the Zman Piyut Festival in Tel Aviv; on June 11, at the Mediterranee Festival in Ashdod; and on June 22, at the Shuni Amphitheater in Binyamina. The main launch for the new album took place about a month ago at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv, before an audience of 2,400.

It’s almost unbelievable – instrumental music, starring an instrument that until a decade ago was unknown in local culture, and the Bronfman Auditorium was full.

‘It’s great that the music reaches hearts and touches people.”

Israeli musician Idan Raichel, who featured Eliyahu on one of his hits.

Your audience was built gradually over the years. It’s not a sudden success, and still, there’s a jump here. Could it be that the success of “Tehran” is related to that? (Eliyahu wrote the soundtrack for the Kan TV series.)

“I don’t think so. I received lots of feedback about the music of ‘Tehran,’ but not something that brings you to the forefront, because there’s no face there. I don’t feel that I gained an audience because of ‘Tehran.’ Not in streaming and not in performances.

“Everything happened naturally. I didn’t invest too much in public relations. There were no moves like reality TV that promote you immediately. I enjoy it. I don’t get chased by paparazzi. I think that more than anything else – more than the pop hits on which I played, or all the other things – the explanation is that these sounds are organic here. It’s where everything starts.”

If in Israel the largest auditorium where Eliyahu performs holds 2,400 people, in Turkey, he says, the smallest hall in which he plays contains 5,000 people. He adds that his upcoming tour in Turkey, set for next month, will include a performance in a hall that holds 10,000 people.

Big in Turkey

Turkish fans have been following Eliyahu’s music for several years. Eliyahu says that his first tour in Turkey, which was organized after he became aware of the large response in Turkey to his music on YouTube, was supposed to include just three performances, in small clubs in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

“But 24 hours after sales began, the performance in Istanbul was sold out,” he says. “We added a second performance, which was also sold out immediately. We added a third, and that’s how it continued. The Turkish audience showered me with love. They received me like a real guest of honor. During the next tour, we moved to larger halls already.”

During the period of COVID-19 lockdowns, Eliyahu also hit the upper tiers of Turkey’s charts. Two songs that he recorded with Turkish pop artists – “Kul,” with singer Cem Adrian, and “Uzaklara Savrulalim” with the duo Perdenin Ardindakiler – were huge hits there, and were also among Spotify’s 50 most viral songs globally. “Kul” has almost 50 million streams on Spotify, and “Uzaklara Savrulalim” has over 25 million.

In both cases, the Turkish artists were the ones to approach Eliyahu and suggest a collaboration. Eliyahu knows Adrian, who is a pop star in Turkey, from his performances in the country. When Adrian wrote to him and suggested that they record a song together, he gladly agreed. The request from Perdenin came out of nowhere, and the two were unacquainted before the pandemic.

“I get a lot of requests and most of the time nothing happens,” says Eliyahu. “When I got the email from them, the moment I pressed ‘play’ on the sketch, I knew what I wanted to play there. I remember that I recorded here in there studio. There was a flood. I sent it to them. And then it was released and within a few days – millions of streams, number one in Turkey, the 50 most viral songs on Spotify. It’s fun to record something alone, in the rain, and suddenly, boom! A worldwide phenomenon.”

Does he ever encounter hatred, or even just criticism, in Turkey and in Azerbaijan, another mostly Muslim country where he is popular and performs often? “Never,” he says. “Not in Turkey, not in Azerbaijan. Never. Not a word. Not even during the last war in Gaza. And everyone knows that I’m from Israel. It’s amazing to see again and again that music is love, it’s connection. There’s no room for hatred around it. It’s possible that there are people who write things on YouTube. I don’t read it. Who reads it?”

Next month, in addition to his performances in Turkey, Eliyahu will launch his new album in Azerbaijan, too. He says that during previous visits, he was surprised to discover how common his music is in the country’s public spaces. “You hear it in the shopping malls, in the marketplace, on television,” he says. “When I came to study in Azerbaijan, there were 15 kamancheh students in the entire country, compared to 300 studying the tar.

“The kamancheh was nearly extinct. Students in the academy said to me, ‘Are you crazy? Why do you want to play that instrument?’ That’s no longer the situation. Today, I see lots of young people in Azerbaijan who play the kamancheh. It’s become cool to be a kamancheh player, and these young people play in my style, not in the traditional Azeri style.”

Another country where Eliyahu’s music is heard and played is Iran. He recalls the response he has gotten from Iranian music lovers. “A really hysterical movement,” he says. Thousands of people from Iran follow him every day, while thousands also hit unfollow, apparently because they’re afraid. "Lots of Iranians write to me privately, send me videos.”

As an example, he shows a video in which dozens of students from a music school in Tehran are playing a work by him and his father on percussion instruments. “My fan page with the most traffic in the world belongs to a boy from Tehran,” says Eliyahu. “Not a day goes by on which they don’t write to me, ‘When are you coming to perform in Iran?’ It’s very moving.”

Mark Eliyahu performs at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium.

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