When we think of orchestra music, the usual suspects spring to mind: Beethoven, Vivaldi, Schumann and the like. But are their symphonies the only ones that deserve the VIP, classical music treatment?
Conductor Tom Cohen, artistic director of the Arabesque Acre Festival, doesn’t think so. His “Jerusalem East and West Orchestra” adapts Middle Eastern and North African music to a classical, Western setting.
Aside from being naturally drawn to these styles, he says, his decision to bring together Middle Eastern and Western music “also has to do with the family I come from — my origins are half-Iraqi, quarter-Polish and quarter-English — and with the fact that I come from a very specific neighborhood in Beersheva.
“On the one hand, I studied classical, Western music at the music conservatory, but on the other hand the dominant music in the neighborhood was Arab.”
Cohen, now 36, became the conductor of his orchestra at the young age of 26.
“In my childhood I was a mandolin player, and at a certain age I just felt that I was looking for something beyond that, something bigger, some sort of instrument that could offer me wider possibilities.”
Since then, Cohen’s been introducing Arabic-Andalusian music to audiences in Israel and abroad.
“Even though there were objective difficulties and challenges along the way, the one thing that was clear and consistent was the support and love we received from the audience,” he says.
“Part of the interest in this language is that we’re taking music that, for the sake of discussion, we’ll call Middle Eastern, which from a melodic point of view is very communicative and really touches the heart and soul of every listener, and we’re wrapping it up in completely Western packaging.”
This, Cohen believes, constitutes a real embodiment of Israeli music.
“I think that Israeli music should be music that combines all the traditions that exist here. Israeli music should be a blend of all these voices.”
Cohen is also the musical director and conductor of the MED orchestra in Brussels, where he now lives with his family, and the conductor of an orchestra composed of Algerian musicians in France.
He also founded and manages Andalusia orchestras in Montreal and in Morocco.
“Three years ago, a pilot from Royal Air Maroc turned to me,” Cohen explains about his Moroccan project. “And then expressed his frustration that I do what I do everywhere in the world except in Morocco.”
That pilot asked Cohen how an orchestra is founded, and Cohen sent him a detailed email describing the process. “Surprisingly, six months later he sent me an email saying, ‘Everything is ready, let’s start.’”
The money for the orchestra came from the royal Moroccan foundation, giving the project the highest stamp of local approval. The reception of its Israeli conductor was no exception.
“First off, there’s no problem in Morocco, certainly not with Jews; there’s a large Jewish community there,” Cohen says. “Beyond that, they don’t have too big of a problem with Israel, either.”
Arabesque Festival, currently underway in Acre, promotes mutual understanding.
Last year, the Moroccan orchestra performed at the Arabesque Acre Festival.
This year, too, performers from all over the world are expected to perform at the event, which will take place at the northern city’s Crusader fortress in mid-June.
The choice of Acre (Akko), home to diverse communities of Jews and Arabs, could not be more fitting for a festival promoting common roots and enriching discourse.
Cohen’s orchestra will be joined by the Firqat El Nour orchestra, Israeli-Moroccan singer Raymonde Abecassis and other local and Middle Eastern performers.
While Cohen is under no illusion that his work will bring peace to the Middle East, he does believe that it has value in promoting acceptance and understanding.
“It’s a bit too pompous to say that something as abstract as music or art can create any sort of coexistence. That being said, in a very general way there’s certainly great value to us understanding that all those dwelling in this land, whether Jews, Christians or Muslims, in many ways share the same culture and the same artistic tradition.”
Speaking of the festival, Cohen says that “there’s a strong and deep message of shared tradition and values, which is a great source of pride.”
“I would like people who were at the festival to think how many more such festivals could have been if we had peace,” he says.
“In terms of friends coming over from abroad, there’ll mainly be representatives from Morocco, and I would have been happy if there could also be some from Egypt, from Syria and from Iraq.”