First Lesson

First Lesson

I took a sabbatical and went to Israel to sit at the feet of a great master and learn the playing of my instrument from the source. It’s the voice of Arabic music, though there have been many great Jewish players, the instrument today is typically identified with the Arab world. The oud, ancestor to the lute; without frets one can reach the micro-tones that distinguishes eastern Mediterranean, north African, middle Eastern music.

I had made an unlikely connection with the teacher in the States and he invited me to learn with him where he lived, in one of the largest Arab towns in the Galilee.

His town is northeast of Haifa. That means that in driving to him, I drove through the three largest cities in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.

Israel is a small country, and such a trip is only about 110 miles long. But getting through the cities is difficult, and I had no idea how long it would take me to make the journey.

After I settled into Jerusalem, I took directions from my teacher over the phone. It wasn’t until I hung up and reviewed what I had written that I realized that in all his directions, through the three largest cities in Israel, through the several different geographic zones that in Israel are so close upon one another, in all the complexity of his directions that required three free hours of driving and navigating, in all those directions there was not one street name. It was all right at the bridge. . . left at the garbage dump. . .two o’clock at the rotary. . .etc. Not one street name.

I would spend three or hours with him one day a week. The rest of the week: practice in my little room in Jerusalem.

The town is named Shfaram, there are no Jews there today. Today there are Christian Arabs, Moslem Arabs, and Druze living in Shfaram. There is an ancient synagogue there and I was told by an elderly Arab man on top of a nearby mountain that there were Jews living there as recently as the early Seventies, but none since. At one time, not long after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) met there.

I started off on my first journey to Shfaram on Sunday, which is called in Hebrew yom rishon (Day One) and is so named from the account of Creation. Six days of creation followed by Shabbat, day one, day two, day three, etc. The Muslims identify their days the same way. Sunday is therefore a full day of activity in Israel, there is no such thing in Israel as a weekend, there is six days of work, one day of rest, just like in the Bible.

I hurtled through Tel Aviv and found my way onto the coastal highway that runs next to the Mediterranean all the way up to Haifa. About half way up the coast toward Haifa, the road relaxed from the tension of Tel Aviv, curved even closer to the Mediterranean, and for the first time I saw the sea. I could smell it in the air.

This is the new road, that is how it is known to Israelis. On maps it is designated by a number, two, but Israelis know it as the new road. The old road which is marked on the maps by the number four, is parallel to the new road a little inland and often you can see one from the other. The new road is under constant renovation, especially around Tel Aviv, and it would take a few more trips until I realized that the old road is faster, more interesting for sure, especially when there is traffic.

I came to Haifa. Both the new and the old roads lead to Haifa. I would later discover a road that leads to the north and avoids Haifa altogether, winding around the gentle sweep of Mt. Carmel. Haifa is the port city of Israel. It is built mostly on hills that roll down to the natural port on which Haifa is built. There are beautiful places to go in Haifa, but I didn’t stop.

Once through Haifa, I headed toward the western Galilee. Just north of Haifa, the scenery once again changed dramatically. In the distance I saw small villages nestled into the sides and on top of the hills. It was green and beautiful, open, less populated compared to the Tel Aviv – Haifa corridor I had just passed through; the air was clean, cool, fresh. I followed the signs to Shfaram where my teacher lived.

I had never been to an Arab town before. My teacher’s directions were precise but of course none of the turns were marked with the names that he gave them. I had found my way by intuition and a pretty good road map tucked into my sun visor. I found the town easily, with not one wrong turn, and it was only when I entered the town itself did I get lost. I would later find out that there are two entrances to the town, I had taken the wrong one.

I was contemplating how to turn around on the gravel path in the foothills where I ran out of road. I got out of my car to reconnoiter whether I could make a turn in the grass or just retrace my way in reverse.

I saw a man in robes with some sheep, and the thought: oh my God, a shepherd. He came up to me and we gesticulated; my Arabic not so hot, his Hebrew likewise. I showed him my instrument thinking that would lead to directions to the oud teacher I was hoping he knew, and he sat down on a rock as if he were an audience. So I played for him.

This is great, I thought. This is terrible. It was beautiful in a field with the shepherd sitting on a rock, myself leaning against the car playing some oud, he started singing with me, sheep bleating (?) nearby, where in the world am I and what’s next.

I asked directions back to Shfaram and he guided me into a U turn and a jaunty farewell as if we have been bonded in a familiar way; I could not have dreamt such a scene.

My teacher and I had scheduled to meet each other at the gas station; there were several gas stations in the town and I came to the wrong one. I drove out in search of another. Then I got hopelessly lost again in the dirt roads of the town. Everyone stared at me as I passed

I was an hour late and looking for a phone to call him (pre-cell phone era). I finally found a phone and just at the moment when I was about to exit my car to use it, I saw him in his car at the very same moment he saw me. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He had given up on me and was on his way home; we exchanged stories, and I followed him to his house.

He lived on the edge of the town (the other edge), overlooking a meadow below and the Galilee spread out in the distant east. He lived on a road with the rest of his family as is the Arab custom. It was a beautiful view. All the windows were open and the air rustled our papers on the music stand. His wife served me cola and some fresh figs and other fruit, I assumed that she spoke no English. Later I learned that she taught English in a school in Acco.

We went right to work. He began by showing me the basics, how to hold the instrument, how to manipulate the plectrum, called a reeshi which means eagle feather in Arabic, because that was the traditional way to pluck strings. We discussed the intricacies of extracting sound out of the instrument, we talked mostly in metaphor and he intuitively illustrated his points sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in Arabic (he was delighted that I read and wrote Arabic), sometimes in English. He showed me the traditional modes, called maqamat, of the music.

It was very difficult, a complete re-education for me from the way I had taught myself. It required a tremendous amount of concentration just to play through all the examples he was showing me. Learning to use the reeshi, the plectrum, was difficult because I was accustomed to playing oud with my fingers, as I played guitar. We were head to head for about two hours. He gave me a reeshi that he no longer used, made of bone.

The reeshi was especially difficult for me to use. I worked it too hard over the strings. He lifted my hand and taught me an exercise, my hand floating up and down as if lifted by a pillow of air. I practiced the exercise while driving, sitting in a chair, watching television, walking down the street, gently lifting my hand up and down isolating the motion of the hand at the wrist. Do this everyday, he said.

He heard something in my playing that I myself would not hear for months. When I began studying with him, I said to myself, I’ve taken on too much here. I cannot possibly do this. He listened to me and said, we will accomplish much in the months we have together. After every lesson, he congratulated me. I felt foolish, I could not even hear the notes at first. Micro-tones. Half-flats.

He told me to close my eyes and listen, to hear the notes first and then to find them on the fingerboard. I couldn’t find them in the beginning. Microtones are notes that we do not have in Western music, notes that are closer together than adjacent keys on the piano, or frets on the guitar. I could not hear them because I had never played them before, you cannot reach these notes on the guitar (unless you bend the strings), nor can you play them on the piano. They are not ordinarily a part of Western music at all.

Listen, he said and I closed my eyes and heard the note in my head. Then I found it on the fingerboard. It was more mental than physical. I could only find the note when I paused to listen for it. I sat there in his living room overlooking the western Galilee with my eyes closed, trying to imagine in my mind the note I was trying to find on the neck of my instrument. Then I plucked the note, and I began to find it the more I listened.

The real work of playing an instrument at this level, I realized, is internal. You have to listen, he said, then you play. One time I sat in a master class with a great Spanish classical guitarist. Someone in the audience asked him which finger exercises he used to warm up for a concert. None, he said, is not physical. Is entirely mental.

Like matter and energy, the relation of which is fixed deep within the structure of things but not perceived, the relation of mental and physical, inner and outer, clarified for me on the fretless fingerboard of my instrument.

I realized that in our time together, we exchanged not one sentence of personal information about each other. It would be this way the entire time he taught me: I would show up, we would play for two or three hours, discussing only music. He knew nothing about me; I knew little about him. We spoke only music to each other and it was through the music that we came to know as much as we came to know about each other.

He gave me my assignments for next time. He seemed genuinely delighted with me as a student, he saw that I learned quickly, and he knew how eager I was. We will do a lot, he said again. He gave me more directions, and I headed back to Jerusalem just as the sun began to find its way home in the west.

I was back on the road toward Haifa, as the darkness settled over the north, I watched the villages on top of the hills in the distance light up. I didn’t stop on the way home, I gobbled up a couple of sandwiches in the car, and I was home in Jerusalem just over two hours later.

I was not at all tired, as a matter of fact, I practiced for two more hours that night. By the next day, I had begun to read the pieces he had given me. I realized that through the music we had entered a place deeper than our differences, before the separation of Isaac and Ishmael, the music of Abraham. The oud had opened my mouth, and it was singing the world.

I ask myself now, what brought me to him? At first, it was something organic. Physical. It was love of the music. I heard these sounds for the first time in a park in Jerusalem in 1976. It was the first time I visited there. The sound I heard that day I took back with me to the States, and it eventually replaced whatever it was that I had come with.

When I returned to study music, Shfaram seemed far away from the Israel I knew. I spent three or four hours there once a week. I bounced all over town, sat in the cafes, went to the souks, hung out on the street. People stared at me at first, I’m sure wondering what was I doing there. Then I became familiar and everyone I guess assumed I was doing something for real otherwise – why? My Israeli friends mostly thought I was nuts.

Music opened all doors. After music was the relation I formed with my teacher that was meta-personal. We only spoke music but music was enough. I felt the music, a common grounding in the forms I was learning. It felt entirely familiar to me. Music. What does it mean that we met there? I am still working that question. What are the implications and – how to communicate that to others? It seemed to me that this experience should not be secret.

I was coming to know something deep within me that was deep within him, though we lived far away from each other. Within this little country, we lived far away from each other. Until music.

Peace Vigil these are the pieces