Arab Music Hits an Unexpected High Note

`I believe in action as an opportunity to breach the inequality,' says Amer Nakhleh, head of the Beit al Musica in Shfaram, which in September will become the country's first Arab conservatory.

Posters announcing an international jazz concert are not a common sight in the Haifa Auditorium. Not often does that the northern city host an international star, drawing hundreds of people to the hall. Such posters in Arabic - that's really an exceptional phenomenon. And hundreds of Arabs and 150 Jews streaming in together to hear jazz guitarist Jesse Van Ruler on a cool May evening - that's real news.

Musician Amer Nakhleh of Shfaram, who initiated and produced the concert, was full of excitement at the sight of the auditorium that was filling up: "It's hard to describe the satisfaction. There's almost no such thing as an audience coming to a performance in Arab society, and 150 Jews who are coming as well, that's not to be taken for granted. After all, they test us all the time, look at us from afar and test us."

Nakhleh, a guitarist, oud player and teacher, runs the Beit al Musica in Shfaram, where the only festival in Israel for Arabic music and jazz began five years ago. The first such musical and production achievement of its kind, it showed the determined community musical work of many years. But this achievement is dwarfed by the dream that Nakhleh is about to realize in September - a seeming impossibility in Israeli terms - the opening of the first conservatory in an Arab city.

The word "conservatory" suggests a spacious multi-story building, with many rooms from which emerge the sounds of pianos, metal wind instruments and sets of drums. But the four tiny rooms that greet the visitor to the Beit al Musica in the center of Shfaram immediately demonstrate the difference between this conservatory and its Jewish counterparts. The four rooms are located in a basement of a commercial building, and another, somewhat more spacious room has been turned into a substitute for an auditorium.

It's small but pioneering: Enthusiasm among those working here is high, and they see before them the cultural fate of an entire society.

"If you can't express yourself culturally, you don't exist," says Nakhleh, in a free translation of an Arabic proverb. "Members of the Arab sector don't have an opportunity to express themselves. To succeed, we have to insist on our rights the hard way, because we aren't equal citizens. I never fought for the existence of the conservatory through political means. I believe only in action as an opportunity to breach the inequality. Not to claim `The Arabs don't have one, so we deserve it,' but to prove that we meet the required standards: certified teachers, professional work, good infrastructure, a good curriculum - in spite of the impossible conditions; and that's why we deserve it."

Aryeh Reuven, the supervisor of conservatories in the Ministry of Education, has followed the development of the conservatory for over a year: "The workers and the teachers are excellent," he says, as is the curriculum that has taken shape there, which includes a unique combination of Western and Arabic music." Reuven will provide the umbrella of supervision to the Shfaram conservatory beginning in September: "I'll be happy to declare it the 40th institution in the network of conservatories, and the first in an Arab community," he says.

The only cloud overshadowing the festive announcement is the difficult situation for conservatories in general: "The budget was cut to NIS 7 million annually, and thus we are losing our ability to influence what is happening in the institutions," says Reuven, who has only a half-time position. "Dozens of institutions turn to us and ask to come under our supervision so that they'll have a professional pedagogic framework, but there's no point in dividing such a tiny budget among them."

"This situation is still far better than what's happening in the Arab sector," says Amer Nakhleh. "In the center of the country, the children learn to play from professors and senior teachers from the academies; they participate in an orchestra, study for matriculation in music theory and development of listening skills, sing in a choir, play in chamber ensembles. All that costs thousands of shekels a year for each parent - even after a subsidy from the conservatory. Do you think that a socio-economic level like ours enables us to invest such sums in the children?"

No budget

The Arab sector has suffered since the establishment of the state from a suffocation of any musical infrastructure. The report "Musical Groups in Israel 2002," which was published recently by the Ministry of Education and contains a survey of the groups supported by the ministry, testifies to that: "Of 17 music festivals, including the Rehovot Jazz Festival, the Black and Blues Festival and Days of Music and Nature, not even one Arab festival received support." Among 22 adult choirs and six children's choirs, there isn't even one Arab choir to be found, and the same is true of the six music centers and master classes. The Orchestra of Arabic Music, under the baton of Suheil Radwan, is the only one of the 22 orchestras and two operas that is supported by the Ministry of Education, and of the 70 groups that are supported by it in all. The picture becomes even clearer if you add the neglect of music education in the sector - few schools have a music teacher, and music is not studied at all after sixth grade.

Why has the field been shortchanged? Maybe the Arab community itself is equally to blame, for not creating a demand for music?

Nakhleh: "It's hard to get things moving with no budget. Hundreds of talented children drop out of private music lessons because they have nowhere to continue, so until the politicians wake up and understand that there are human beings here, we have decided to fight this spiritual oppression on our own: We organize cultural exchanges with Europe, raise money from foreign embassies, and send players to courses in the United States through the volunteer work of dozens of people, over many years. It's no great honor to the government that stands aside and has no part in it."

Amer Nakhleh studied at the music academy in Jerusalem, in the regular classical track, and at the same time studied the oud with Khaled Joubran. "Anyone who wants to get to the academy, and to succeed there, must grow on a strong musical foundation," he says, "and that's what we're trying to give the children here."

When he returned to Shfaram, his birthplace, he refused to teach music at the community center. "It's an excellent institution, but it doesn't see music as it is - an art and a science that one studies for years, preparing for the matriculation exam out of disciplined study habits, in order to continue to the academy, and that's why there's a need for the best teachers."

Here is where the Beit al Musica association goes into action. The association was established in 1996 to promote the culture of music as a way of life among the Arab population in Israel, and to turn music from the privilege of a restricted group into the right of the entire public, and primarily the children. "The initiative came from educators, intellectuals and artists," says Nakhleh, "but the problem is that in Israel the budgets aren't necessarily in the hands of people to whom art and the spirit are important. The distribution is not professional, and many interests are involved in it."

You're not afraid to say that?

"Afraid? I have nothing to lose, because in any case we don't get anything."

The children in the conservatory don't seem to be aware of Nakhleh's struggle for survival; he has been teaching in the institution for eight years on a volunteer basis. He warmly welcomes them, each one individually, to a children's concert on Thursday afternoon. Tamer Hourieh, 18, a talented oud player who is studying for a five-point (the highest level) matriculation exam in music, plays a selection by Mohammed Abdel Wahab; May Aboud, 16, plays the first movement of Beethoven's "Pathetique" symphony; Tony Barhum fetchingly plays a little song on a qanun, the most complicated instrument of all, while his teacher, Wafa Balan, who has won an American-Israel Fund fellowship, watches with concentration. She joined the ensemble, which includes two violins and a darbouka, in two selections rich in rhythm and sound, for the finale. It's impressive to see what a high level of playing these children have attained, and how much love and identification with the music their performance radiated.

"The musical quality is what makes it possible to have an egalitarian dialogue, rather than a dialogue from a position of inferiority," says Nakhleh, "and cultural musical existence provides an opportunity to get to know the other side. I don't believe in cooperation under the label of `coexistence.' That's absurd. I believe in the idea - cultural familiarity and rapprochement through music - but not in the way it's done."

Nakhleh himself plays in at least two excellent ensembles, but in the center of the country but nobody hears about them: "We aren't invited except under the heading of `coexistence.' Today only people who have such a label receive support - a phenomenon that does not stem from a desire to advance the Arabs, but to exploit them. Real coexistence is possible only when you aren't inferior, when you're on the same musical level; and perhaps the proof is the three Jewish students who come to study Arabic music in our conservatory. If you present your culture properly, they'll always come."

Great support

Lunch in the Abul Jaqi restaurant, which has a beautiful view, ends with an energetic slap on Nakhleh's back from the owner. "My son studies with him," says the man warmly, "and that is great happiness."

Nakhleh:"The parents demonstrate involvement and provide great support. They come to the concerts and the festival, and I'm very proud, because that's not to be taken for granted. We have to present the music to them, to try hard, to bring it to their doorsteps and into the classrooms. It's a new culture for most of them - the concert itself, and not necessarily the Western music. We are trying to create a core group. How many children in the Jewish sector get to hear classical music? Ten percent? If we reach 2 percent I will consider that tremendous success. After all, it can't be done all at once. It's a process. You can see how the audience is being built up from year to year."

In the conservatory, which has 150 students (Nakhleh: "There is simply no more physical space for teaching"), there is a department of Arabic music. From Nakleh's point of view, that's the most important department. The classical music that he studied in the academy in Jerusalem developed his listening ability to and his technique of adaptation, and promoted his understanding of the works and the ability to analyze them.

"Nevertheless, I feel that we have to promote our own culture first of all," he says, "to teach classical music, definitely, but not at the expense of Arabic music, and certainly not as an exalted entity"