Musical Diplomacy Between Turkey and Israel

The music of Yinon Muallem, who is now the cultural attache in Israel's Istanbul consulate, embodies all that can be good about Israeli-Turkish relations.

Yinon Muallem handed me his latest CD, "Nefes" ("breath" in Turkish ), on the cover of which he had scribbled the brief inscription, "In friendship." The truth is that, without being acquainted with one another, the two of us have for many years been the friends, even the lovers, of the same city: Istanbul. While Muallem, a talented musician, composer and arranger, expresses his feelings for it with music, I express them with words.

More than a decade ago, I visited what had once been my mother's home in Istanbul and which is today a coffee house and concert hall that bears the name Gitarcafe. The owner at the time, Sumru Agiryuruyen (who also performs on Muallem's latest CD ), said to me, "Yinon Muallem was here just yesterday." At the time, I had no idea that the Israeli-born Jew is one of the most admired musicians in Turkey and that he has made a name for himself as someone who has breathed new life into classical Turkish music and given it a new relevance.

Meanwhile, Israel wisely decided to utilize Muallem's popularity and, during this difficult period in Israeli-Turkish relations, appointed him cultural attache in the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul. So now there will be somebody who can strum the last few strings that have not yet frayed between the two countries, and play a pleasant-sounding melody that might help cover up the diplomatic boorishness that has taken hold.

It could be said that Muallem anticipated the need to heal this rift: He decided to make his home in Turkey because of his love for Turkish music and because of a desire to learn from one of the masters of the oud how to play that instrument. After moving there , he married a Turkish woman (whose name is Dilek; her voice can be heard in one of the tracks on the album ); they have a son, Rast (which is the name of a makam, an important melodical or compositional tradition in Middle Eastern music ) or Can (which means "soul" in Turkish ). In Turkey, Muallem has produced several albums. One of them is called "Klezmer for the Sultan."

His father, David Muallem, is a retired judge and Israeli musicologist who is the author of a basic text on Middle Eastern music, "The Maqam Book: A Doorway to Arab Scales and Modes," which was published in English translation by OR-TAV Music Publications (2010 ). Although he has followed in his father's footsteps, Yinon has distanced himself from the theoretical tenor of his father's approach and, in his compositions, blends various classical Middle Eastern genres with one another as well as with jazz and world music. The result is a light and highly contemporary texture that nonetheless preserves the beat of the decisive rhythm that dominates Ottoman music. At the same time, he can jump in the air like a little boy trying to grab hold of colorful balloons.

Recently, at Beit Avi Chai, a cultural and social center in the heart of Jerusalem, I saw him perform in a show entitled "Istanbul-Tel Aviv: Music without Borders," which sums up Muallem's years of wandering between these two cities with an ensemble that has loyally stayed at his side for years. Playing the darbuka, his constant companion, Muallem provided the beat.

As devotees all know, a special interlude characterizes every performance of Oriental music. During this interval - called a taksim, a major element in classical Arabic and Turkish music - one of the musicians launches into a sophisticated improvisation while the others lay down their instruments. This solo naturally demonstrates that musician's instrumental prowess.

At Beit Avi Chai, all the artists who appeared on stage with Muallem were definitely in the master artist category: Yaniv Raba, oud; Roei Fridman, percussion; Harel Shachal, clarinet; and Asaf Rabi, bass. A special guest artist from Turkey joined them: Vulcan Ingebuz, who plays fret-less guitar and the Sufi ney flute. As befits his name, he poured his breath into this long flute with all the intensity of a volcanic eruption.

It is customary that, after the audience applauds the taksim player, the entire orchestra resumes playing the melody with which it began. Some of the musical passages heard at this particular event were joyful and fast-paced; often they were combined with jazz (as demonstrated by a young pianist, Guy Mintus ), such as in the lively, Western-Oriental improvisation of the well-known Israeli song "Hava Nagila," which in this case became "Hava Nargila." There were also sad passages, played at a slower tempo: For instance, the orchestral dirge that Muallem composed in memory of those who were killed in the November 2003 terrorist attack on two synagogues in Istanbul.

One of the persons killed in that terrorist attack was a distant relative of mine - Yoel Cohen Ulcer, a young Jewish man who worked as a security guard in the Beth Israel synagogue. When people learned of this horrible disaster, there was the feeling that it would lead to an end of the Jewish presence in Turkey. But life resumed. And then the situation deteriorated once again, then life returned to routine - just like Middle Eastern music, which is based on constant repetition and moves from order to the disruption of order and a sort of chaos.

Mutual influences

Yinon Muallem displays particular skill in his arrangements of Jewish piyyutim (liturgical poems ) and of Spanish-Jewish romanceros (romance songs). (A singer with a powerful voice, Mor Karbasi, joined the artists on stage in Jerusalem and performed a number of these songs, arranged by Muallem. ) His prowess as arranger is reflected in his ability to convey the fact that both the piyyutim and other parts of the Jewish liturgy draw their inspiration from the gentile milieu in which their creators lived. In fact, in general it can be said that the liturgy and piyyutim have also influenced that environment, to the point where today it impossible to say which was the first to influence the other.

It was no coincidence that during the recent concert, two Bratslav Hasidim broke into a dance in the courtyard where it was taking place. Indeed, one could easily envision them as whirling dervishes, like the ones seen by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav when he stopped over in Istanbul in 1798 on his way to Palestine.

At any rate, "Nefes" has now come out in Istanbul and its melodies accompany the thoughts that have constantly been going through my mind recently about the Middle East's future. Perhaps a worst-case scenario can be delayed slightly by those who try to emphasize - albeit in an attempt that appears to be doomed from the start - the common ground shared between two countries that appear, on the surface, to be enemies.

Perhaps in an effort to calm me down, Muallem sent me an e-mail from Istanbul, to which he returned immediately after the show. He had paid a visit, he wrote, to the magnificent Pera Museum in the center of Istanbul, and spent a few minutes contemplating a well-known 19th-century painting: a self-portrait by Turkish painter (and archaeologist ) Osman Hamdi Bey. In it he is dressed in the garb of a dervish and, as is the custom of the dervishes, he has an ancient drum and a Ney flute hanging from his neck. At his feet are turtles, which, Muallem explained in his e-mail, symbolize the slow decision-making process characteristic of the Ottoman Empire. Each turtle is looking in a different direction and the painting seems to be saying, "There is no single, unique direction" - indeed, an aphorism that reflects the thinking in the Middle East.

Maybe it will be the chaos that will save us in this era as well.