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Festival is oud of this world

by josh November 18 2008
MusicThings to do

Samir Mahoul

The annual International Oud Festival kicks off this year on November 20 with a tribute to the golden age of the oud, and from there staggers nightly performances in venues through the city during its two-week run. Highlights include a musical exploration of the link between kabballa and Sufi Islam; Turkish giants of the oud Erkan Oğur and Ismail Demircioğlu; and the world premier of a performance by ethnomusicologist Maureen Nehedar, who will sing traditional Persian Jewish ballads from the oldest Jewish Diaspora community in the world.

The festival closes December 4 with a first: a performance of oudacious music from the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, whitch borders on Pakistan and marks the eastern boundary of the instrument's traditional influence. It's no Goa techno, but it should do.

Zohar FrescoPerhaps the most famous of Middle Eastern instruments, the oud, is that lute-like piece that resembles an overweight guitar with a broken neck. Plucked from Sicily to India and all the provinces in between, the instrument has become emblematic of Arab culture. As it has spread into Israeli hands, and, like falafel and hookah, it has become an easy go-to when looking for a cultural touchstone to talk about ethnic sounds and bridging traditions. Hence the Confederation House-organized festival, which brings harmonious music to the very front lines of our culture clash.

Tradition holds that the origin of the oud isn't so tranquil, though. The Bible attributes the birth of music to Yuval, son of Lamech (the great, great, great grandson of Adam), but Arab legend tells a slightly different story, in which Lamech accidentally kills his other son Tuval-Cain (after accidentally killing the original Cain) and hangs his body to dry in a tree, with the skeleton serving as a model for the first instrument. We don't want to know how they think the tuba was invented.

Even if you don't believe all that jibber-jabber, scholars believe the oud still stands as one of the oldest instruments known to civilization, dating back over 5,000 years. The ones being played today are probably considerably newer, but the sound certainly harkens back to a simpler, clichéd time, as many a Jerusalemite will hear during the festival.

Most of the concerts run between 80 and 120 NIS, but before you go saying the price is oudrageous, remember the famous saying about how oud music isn’t free. Or was that freedom? And If you're Ashkenazi and just not connecting to the flavor, no need to fret. Chanukah is right around the corner.

Photos of mystical composer Samir Mahoul, performing on December 1 (top), and of master hand percussionist Zohar Fresco, performing November 26, courtesy of the Oud Festival.

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