A week after virtuoso Israeli guitarist Itamar Erez returned home in late August from a concert tour of Turkey alongside Turkey’s leading name in world music, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, diplomatic ties between the two countries hit an all-time nadir.
“I feel very frustrated,” Erez tells Israel21c. “So much cultural interchange will now suffer.”
He has performed in Turkey dozens of times in recent years, “and never encountered a single problem until this year. I have always felt welcome there. The extremist organizations try to create chaos — this does not reflect the mood of the majority of the Turkish people.”
Erez wants to help heal the wounds.
“I want to organize an event that will bring Israeli and Turkish people together,” he says. “One idea is an evening in Israel featuring Israeli musicians in favor of friendship. The other idea is to try to arrange something with Turkish musicians — either bring them here or play together in Turkey, but I know this will be very difficult.”
Music, he says, can be a bridge between the two societies. “This is not a cliché. Music is truly a language that cuts straight to the heart. I don’t think it’s my role to get involved in politics. I don’t understand the politicians. The people I do understand. I have many friends in Turkey, and respect their culture. They are very similar to Israelis in many ways. They also have a lot of pride.”
In June, Erez’s Adama Ensemble was forced to cancel a performance at Akbank Sanat Jazz Days Festival in Istanbul after the festival management received threats from various sources. Erez was attacked via his Facebook page.
“After that concert was canceled, I received lots of supportive emails and Facebook posts expressing sorrow over the cancellation,” he says.
His musical career began with the piano at the tender age of six, and he quickly emerged as a precocious talent. “My parents were supportive and the whole family began classes together, but they dropped out after two months when I started playing Mozart sonatas,” Erez recalls.
Surprisingly, he didn’t take up the guitar until he was 15. “I became totally focused on playing, and dropped out of school in the 11th grade in order to make music.”
Erez studied classical and jazz guitar under private teachers, then spent his military service as a member of the Air Force Orchestra. At 21, he performed at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat.
But Erez’s musical horizons lay beyond Israel, and he left for Germany, where he studied classical composing at the Hochschule Music Academy near Cologne for three years, followed by a one-year post-graduate course in composition at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
After returning to study at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, he was awarded the Prime Minister’s Creation Prize for composers in 1997, at age 32.
“I was focused on the piano in those days and neglected the guitar, until I had an opportunity to go to Canada. During the first year there, I used the prize money to compose music. But I gradually realized that this direction was not what I wanted to do. Then one day I saw a guitar lying on the floor of a yoga center, and picked it up. I just started playing around — people’s reactions were amazing. For me it was a turning point.
“Until then my approach had been intellectual. As a classical musician, you don’t write for other people so much, and perform to tiny, select audiences. When I picked up that guitar again I realized I was making music not just for myself. What I want to do is bring people together with music, express something beautiful — not so much from the head.”
Multitude of influences
The cosmopolitan makeup of Vancouver provided the inspiration for Erez to return to guitar playing.
“In Vancouver I met many musicians from different backgrounds. I played with an oud player from Baghdad, with a French percussionist, and I befriended a Syrian musician. Slowly I gathered the right people and formed the Adama Ensemble in Vancouver, playing a combination of world music and jazz. We began rehearsing the music I wrote, made the ‘Desert Song’ CD in 2006 and performed in about 20 concerts and festivals.”
He moved back to Israel in 2007 with his Canadian-born wife Lisa, formed the second Adama Ensemble with local musicians, “and had great feedback.”
Last year, the Adama Ensemble released “Hommage” to excellent reviews worldwide.
“Omar [Tekbilek] is a guest musician on the CD, playing the ney [a Middle Eastern forerunner of the flute]. The songs are dedicated to musicians who influenced me.” The album, distributed worldwide digitally and in European stores, is selling steadily.
“It’s not easy to make ends meet as a musician in Israel,” says the father of two young children, with some understatement. “I’m not prepared to compromise. My direction is abroad — collaborations with other musicians. In October I’m going to Germany to perform four shows with the percussionist Yishai Afterman. [Swing guitarist] Lulo Reinhart [great-nephew of Django Reinhardt] will join us. Then there’s a project together with [Italian pianist] Stefano Maurizi to start in the fall.”
Erez’s fertile musical relationship with Tekbilek began with a nonchalant comment by percussionist Shlomo Deshet, who mentioned to his friend that the Turkish musician was looking for a guitarist.
“I sent him some of my music, then we met in London — we had 10 minutes to go over the music before rushing to a BBC studio to record live — just me and Omar. After that I slowly became part of his ensemble. We played together at [London’s] Barbican Centre, after that in Moscow, two weeks in Australia, India, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and mostly in Turkey.”
During Ramadan in August 2011, the duo gave three concerts in Istanbul. “I’ve also played in private events where Omar participated. In one such event, a traditional wedding in Ankara three months after the flotilla, [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan was sitting 10 meters from me. I told Omar that maybe it’s best not to introduce me as an Israeli. When he did, there were two seconds of complete silence, followed by extremely warm applause. Then Mr. Erdogan came on the stage and shook my hand. I thought it was a nice gesture — he didn’t have to do it.”