Babylonian music ensemble may be forced to fold

The future of the Mizrahi orchestra, which plays music from the Babylonian diaspora in Israel, is looking increasingly bleak as public and other sources of funding dry up. Report in Haaretz (viaJIMENA):

The Mizrahi Orchestra, an ensemble of devoted musicians seeking to preserve a nearly lost genre of traditional ethnic classical music, may be approaching its finale. The ongoing lack of government and other funding that has already shrunk the size of the orchestra in recent years is now threatening to shut it down completely.

“There is no other orchestra like this in Israel – there is simply none,” asserts singer-songwriter Avihu Medina, who in essence personifies Mizrahi-Mediterranean music. “They play nearly all the [authentic] musical instruments that were heard in the Temple – no other orchestra in Israel does that. It is true that we have good Andalusian orchestras, but they represent music from one very specific place in the Mediterranean: Spain, Morocco and the surrounding area. The Mizrahi Orchestra, on the other hand, plays the music of Jews from Persia, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Bukhara and so on. This is the music of the Babylonian Diaspora.”

Mizrahi orchestra - Tchetchik - 24.2.2012

Members of the Mizrahi Orchestra rehearsing in Lod.

Photo by: Daniel Tchetchik

The Mizrahi Orchestra, usually referred to as the Maqam Orchestra (Maqam meaning “place” in Arabic) was established in 1998 by Prof. Vladimir Sabirov of the center for traditional music, which was founded by him two years earlier as part of Bar-Ilan University’s music department. In creating the group, Sabirov – an expert on the differences between Eastern and Western music – has sought to preserve the classical music popular among the communities mentioned by Medina, which has all but vanished in Israel since the establishment of the state. He managed to obtain funding, mainly from the Culture and Sports Ministry, to set up the orchestra. However, over the last three years it has nearly ceased to function due to a lack of financial resources, and its members only appear today in smaller ensembles.

Recalls Medina, who appeared with the orchestra when it was at its height, in the middle of the last decade: “I invited them to appear with me [in the middle of the last decade] in order to help them out, so that people would see and hear them. The performance was broadcast on television. You must understand that all the players are volunteers, acting out of love for [the music], but this is no way to operate an orchestra.”

The orchestra’s principal conductor since its founding has been Prof. Shlomo Takhalov, 77. Before immigrating to Israel in 1992, he conducted a similar orchestra featuring authentic traditional instruments, in Uzbekistan, and also taught at the Tashkent conservatory. Today Takhalov lives in a modest apartment in south Tel Aviv that looks like a museum of Eastern musical culture: Many instruments with unfamiliar names hang on the walls, and he is happy to demonstrate how they sound.

Takhalov is full of life and youthful energy, but his eyes moisten when the conversation turns to the bleak situation of the Mizrahi Orchestra – his “baby,” as he calls it, with a rueful smile.

I have sympathy for your efforts, but is it really so important to save the orchestra?

“When we started the orchestra, there was no repertoire of works from which to choose. Instead we had to produce new versions and reconstruct a culture that is nearly undocumented in Israel. The Mizrahi Orchestra is different from all others here.”

In its heyday, the ensemble numbered 36 musicians, including experts in 18 classical Eastern instruments, including some that are plucked (oud, dutar and tanbur ), as well as strings (kamancheh, jorza, jizak), winds (duduk, zurna), and percussion (duira, tonbak, darbuka, tabla and dhol).

In contrast to the Andalusian Orchestra, which Takhalov also conducted, the authentic Eastern instruments played in the Mizrahi Orchestra are unfamiliar to most Israelis. Seventy percent of the musicians have a master’s degree in music and a good number studied at Bar-Ilan, he continues, but despite that, most make their living from fields other than music. Many are relatively new immigrants from countries in the former Soviet Union and central Asia, who play alongside Israelis who emigrated years ago from Mediterranean and North African countries. Some of the players, Takhalov notes, are among the only experts in the country in these traditional classic instruments.

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  • "The Mizrahi Orchestra, usually referred to as the Maqam Orchestra (Maqam meaning "place" in Arabic)"

    "Place" in Arabic is "Makan", not "maqam".

    The MAQAM is a musical mode associated with Oriental and Andalusian music that contains those "quarter-notes" which Askenazi singers find either impossible or at best very difficult to sing.


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