MUSIC Ararat gave Bangalore a taste of Israeli jazz, with its myriad influences

Ofer Peled, whose family migrated to Israel from Poland, has been working in the United States and Israel in jazz and other genres of music.

On March 18, his current band Ararat was in Bangalore at the invitation of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations to show what Israeli jazz is like, how it mixes seamlessly with various ethnic streams of music that have contributed to his country’s culture, and chiefly to enjoy themselves in exploring these musical blends.

Peled played soprano saxophone, a Turkish flute, and another kind of flute. His colleague Neria Moyal played an Egyptian flute, the Australian didgeridoo, and sang; Gershon Weissrfirer played the oud (another Egyptian instrument strummed like a guitar), and Avi Agababa played a number of percussion instruments including the Latin American cajon (a box on which one sits and whose sides one beats with one’s hands) and a large drum which Peled said Agababa had picked up from Pakistan. It looked like a large version of what roadside monkey trainers use to get their monkeys dancing, called a damru in north India (and Peled’s name for it sounded like dambuk), and sounded by small hard spheres tied to it by strings that hit the skins as the trainer shakes it, while Agababa beat it with his hands.

Moyal’s family was from Morocco, so between him and Peled they contributed songs to the repertoire from North Africa and Eastern Europe, including gypsy music and also the klezmer of Eastern European Jews, but also music from the immediate West Asian neighbours of Israel, especially Egypt and Yemen. These are all countries where there are, or were before Israel was founded, sizable Jewish populations, hence have contributed to Israeli music.

The bulk of what Ararat performed was thus Israeli jazz, grounded as it was in all these ethnic streams of folk music with a strong overlay of the solo improvisation that characterises jazz. Rhythm figured strongly in the bill of fare, it being a hallmark not only of jazz but also of these folk musics, as did dollops of verve and passion.

Ararat started with a Bulgarian (possibly gypsy) rhythm-based number in a brisk tempo, with solos on oud, soprano sax and Egyptian flute (Moyal did not sing on this one).

They followed with a pulsating piece based on a Moroccan religious chant that Moyal’s father taught him. Peled performed solos on soprano sax and flute, while Moyal contributed a vocal improvisation redolent of Indian classical music, and also blew the didgeridoo.

A Yemeni song, an Andalusian liturgical poem, and a klezmer piece followed, all of them affording scope to the musicians to launch solo improvisations on sax, flute, oud, percussion and vocals. Most of the numbers were brisk-paced and lilting. Peled’s sonorous sax and flutes and Moyal’s powerful voice stood out, but the others pitched in just as well.

The programme was supposed to end with six numbers, preparing for the finale, but the guests for the finale were stuck in a traffic jam, so the group gave us three more numbers, which however, were folk rather than jazz, being devoid of improvisation. At least one of them is something I remember from my youth listening to Western pop; it was probably imported from West Asia and was also plagiarised in a Hindi film and has a Turkish flavour to it.

The guests then arrived: Pandit Narasimhulu Varavati on clarinet and D.C. Venkatesh on tabla. They started off the final piece, a Hindustani composition beginning with an alap, followed by a section on which Ararat joined in, first Agababa and Moyal and then the others. They treated us to several solo improvisations, by all the musicians, including a round of Varavati, Peled, Weissrfirer and a singing Moyal taking turns in call-and-response, and another of Venkatesh and Agababa in call-and-response with the former using both tabla and vocal percussion alternately.

This finale was the highlight of the evening, and perhaps surprised some in the audience by the ease with which it blended Indian classical music and jazz, but not yours truly. Both genres of music being strong in improvisation and in rhythm, and jazz not being rigid in the structure and form of composition, there was no problem, and it was all good jazz – mainstream, Israeli or Indian. All six musicians were totally at ease with one another and the audience loved it.