The Mood of the Oud

An Arab instrument finds popularity in Israel.

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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

Politically speaking, the state of Israel remains largely cut off from the surrounding Arab world. On a cultural level, however, Arab elements continue to animate many forms of Jewish expression that, originally rooted in Arab countries, have been transplanted into Israeli society. The most conspicuous example is music.

The great musical tradition that grew out of the Islamic conquests of the 7th century was itself a cultural mélange, a fusion of the pre-Islamic songs of the Arabian Peninsula with Persian music distilled in light of musical theories from classical Greece and India. To all of this would be added a distinctive Spanish flavor from the centuries of Islamic dominion in Iberia. In the continuous give-and-take that comprises cultural exchange, the Arab tradition in turn influenced music throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, to the point where it is now possible to speak of seven main strains that have descended from the Arab-Islamic core: Middle Eastern (roughly corresponding to the lands of the Fertile Crescent), Persian, Central Asian, North African, Turkish, Indian, and Bedouin.

The Jerusalem Oud Festival

Amazingly, however, there is only one country in the Middle East where all seven traditions still thrive: Israel. And the one place where they can all be heard is the Jerusalem Oud Festival, which originated in 1999 with the modest intention of exposing Israelis to some of the wonders of classical Arab music. Eleven years later, the festival has earned an international reputation and includes a roster of first-rate musicians from around the globe.

Why the oud? Known as the "sultan" of Arab musical instruments, the oud is the father of the lute and the grandfather of our guitar. A string instrument with a pear-shaped body and a deeply resonant tone, it represents and embodies the richness of the Arab musical tradition. Indeed, the 2010 festival, held November 11–25, included a tribute to one of the great oud players of the 20th century, Farid al-Atrash (1915–1974):



Al-Atrash was not only a virtuoso instrumentalist. He was also a prolific composer of over 350 songs and a popular vocalist who starred in 30 movies and is still extremely popular among Israeli Jews who grew up with his music in their homes. Farid's movies, made in Egypt, were thin on plot but thick with romantic songs. Through the mid-1980s they were shown on Israeli television on Friday afternoons. Today, Israeli payytanim, Jewish liturgical singers, are still transforming Farid's melancholy melodies into devotional hymns.

Farid al-Atrash sings Nogoum El-Leil, "Starry Night": 

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Aryeh Tepper

Aryeh Tepper completed his doctorate in Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in July, 2010. He presently writes for Jewish Ideas Daily.

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