Oud: The sound of the Middle East

November in Jerusalem saw the start of a very funky cultural event; the International Oud Festival.Yes, Oud. A stringed instrument, similar to a European lute, commonly used in Middle Eastern music, according to the all-knowing oracle, Wikipedia.The Oud festival creates some fantastic cultural crossovers, with Hebrew lyrics and poems being set to Middle Eastern music and beloved Arabic songs being played to the tunes of Hebrew melodies.The festival, in its eleventh year, comprises two weeks of nightly performances of Middle Eastern music, with various ensembles featuring instruments such as the oud, qanoun, nai (or ney) darbouka and others.If you’re trying to imagine what these various performances and ensembles sound like then just recall any movie or documentary you might have seen involving the Arabian peninsula, or conjure up images of desert oases, spice-bearing camel caravans and devout pilgrims prostrating themselves on prayer rugs. Now put those scenes to the music of your mind’s ear and you should get something like this.One of the standout performances of this year’s festival was the Nightingale of Baghdad concert, performed by an ensemble led by renowned Israeli musician Yair Dalal and which your faithful correspondent was lucky enough to hear. The performance was a heady collection of Iraqi classics, with vocals sung by Yossi Baghdadi, Dalal Salam and Haim Ankri.It soon became clear that the majority of the audience was comprised of Iraqi Jews because as soon as the first piece began, the crowd began to sing along in Arabic with Haim Ankri, the first vocalist to perform. It was really quite amazing to hear so many people singing with the ensemble to tunes and songs they’d heard and loved growing up. An old lady sitting next to us knew the words to every piece and a man in front of us who was born in Baghdad clapped and sang throughout the whole performance.Other performances during the festival included that of the Beit Aba ensemble, led by another famous Oud and Qanun musician, Elad Gabbai. The ensemble presented traditional פיוטים (piyyutimJewish liturgical poems) set to music from the region of Kurdistan which, for a long time, had a large Jewish population. Jews from Kurdistan moved en masse to Israel after the establishment of the state in 1948 and have had a deep influence on Israeli culture and music, a fact which Beit Aba paid tribute to through their performance.The Oud Festival is such a highlight of the Jerusalem cultural calendar because it is a truly multicultural event which is able to transcend political barriers. Many of the performances include ensembles comprised of Jewish, Arab, Turkish and Indian musicians in which collaboration together helps expose the rich musical heritage of the Middle East to Israeli audiences.In addition, this year saw the Arab-Jewish Youth Orchestra perform at the festival. Conducted by Taiseer Elias, the orchestra combines traditional eastern instrument with classical western ones and creates an unbelievable symphony of the two musical cultures.The festival is so prestigious that dignitaries like Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, foreign diplomats and Israeli politicians are often to be found opening this musical extravaganza and attending the performances. If you’re ever in town during the festival (perhaps while learning Hebrew!) then be sure to attend at least one of them. It’ll get you hooked on the tantalizingly beautiful sounds of the Middle East and you’ll be sure to come back again and again.

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