The first thematic phrase of the oud rings out on the opening track of Asmar. It is warm, sonorous, intimate and full with the peculiar microtonality that makes Middle Eastern music so ravishing to the Western ear. Silence. The plucked flourish rings out again. And again silence. Then, into the piece itself, “Samai Wachi Al’ Naharein” by Salim Al Nur, a tribute to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The oud weaves and dances with the percussion developing the melody, flowing like the rivers the music emulates.
“The new CD is very special to me. It’s the most Iraqi, the most Middle Eastern,” says Yair Dalal. This musician, born of an Iraqi Jewish family that immigrated to Israel in the ’50s, has been creating music that reflects his rich cultural mix. It is Arabic, it is Iraqi, and it is Jewish and Israeli. And there is no contradiction, either musically or culturally—this is simply what he is, and what he creates.
“I think of myself as an Arabic Jew,” says Yair Dalal, “somebody that continues the Judeo-Arab tradition from Iraq, which has changed by being here, in Israel. When I play or when I compose, many things are in my head and in my spirit: the Jewish prayer from the synagogue, the Iraqi maqam which was played in the Baghdad coffee shops by the Jews, and the folk songs that we have in Arabic. And also the desert, which is my favorite place.”
Dalal’s music is greatly influenced by the ancient sound of maqam, a highly evolved system of scales, like the Indian raga. Specifically, the Iraqi maqam is like a suite, or a song cycle, called fazil. The instrumental introduction is called doulab, after which the singer will sing a few improvisatory figures as a warmup, and then launch into the singing of the verses, usually poetry from ancient sources. The singer starts to improvise on the melody, with the musicians. There are solos and motifs that are specific for each maqam. And in the end, as a contrast to the very courtly verses, there is a folk song, or pasta, something that everyone in the audience will know. This can run to about a half hour, and when finished another one starts. A concert of one fazil can take two-and-a-half hours.
Dalal has had classical training, and is very attracted to blues, but feels most free when improvising within the maqam system. “When I play, I don’t think about harmony. I listen to the melody—my soul is first drawn to the melody. In this kind of music in which we don’t deal with harmony, every one plays in unison, and then everybody has his own way to improvise, to do the taxim, a solo which can express his fee