Music

The unassuming home of world music

The Confederation House hosts unique festivals with a tune all their own.

A band performs during the Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival in Jerusalem.A band performs during the Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival in Jerusalem.A band performs during the Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival in Jerusalem. (Photo: Confederation House)

An unassuming, beige, brick building in Jerusalem houses one of today’s most ambitious venues for world music. The Kalman Sultanik Confederation House, retrofitted out in a restored 19th-century dwelling and rebuilt with all acoustic requirements and professional equipment, plays host to a wide variety of musical artists and festivals that mark it as a central location for adventurous sounds.

Every year, program director Effie Benaya travels to WOMAX, the World Music Expo, and Babel Med in Marseille, France – two of the largest global music festivals, searching out new acts to host. Some acts come for one-off performances, but many come for the Confederation House’s two major festivals; its annual International Oud and Ethiopian festivals that attract artists and audiences from throughout the Mediterranean, Europe and Africa.

It may seem odd to build an entire festival around the oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument related to the lute – an early ancestor of the guitar.

“The [Oud] festival is a unique project that creates a bridge,” Benaya told From the Grapevine. Jerusalem, he says, is “a focal point of where so many cultures meet and merge,” and the oud, used throughout a variety of communities, symbolizes those transnational connections.

Musicians perform on stage during the International Oud Festival in Israel.Musicians perform on stage during the International Oud Festival in Israel. (Photo: Confederation House)

The idea of founding a festival just for oud music started 16 years ago when Benaya invited oud and violin virtuoso Professor Taiseer Elias to pay homage to three great female singers – Layla Murad, Fairuz and Umm Kulthum. “The concert was received with such enthusiasm and excitement that I immediately decided to initiate a festival,” said Benaya.

Elias, a self-taught musician who ultimately earned his Ph.D in musicology, is tremendously grateful for the festival. “The festival is somehow the only opportunity to play my music and expose it,” he said in 2014. “There’s nothing like this anywhere else.”

Whereas the Oud Festival bookends one half of the Confederation House’s annual schedule, the other half is anchored by the International Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival, which celebrates the heritage of Israel’s Ethiopian community. The community came with a rich, and internationally celebrated, tradition of music. Entire musical collections have focused on popular Ethiopian music, including the ongoing – and now up to its 29th volume – Ethiopiques series. The wide variety of sounds and styles from Ethiopia, from the saxophone grooves of Getachew Mekurya to the Ethio-jazz of Mulatu Astatke, makes the Hullegeb Festival a fertile location to celebrate one of Israel’s distinct communities.

“One of the main goals of this festival,” said Benaya, “is to provide a platform for [Ethiopian] artists to work and create, and to give a wide exposure of their rich culture and tradition so that Israeli audiences will get to know them better and enjoy their wonderful, unique art. We aim to put the Ethiopian artists in the center of the artistic scene.”

In 2013 the festival hosted Mahmoud Ahmed, one of Ethiopia’s greatest living musicians, to perform. The Confederation House subsidized tickets for numerous local Ethiopians who packed the house to celebrate one of their home country’s most beloved performers. A previous festival spotlighted one of our favorite young artists, the charismatic Nina Simone-esque Ester Rada, who combines aspects of Ethio-jazz, soul, punk and folk grooves.

Right now the Confederation House dedicates more resources to spotlighting Ethiopian culture than any other venue in the region, and they aim to become an official center for Israeli-Ethiopian art, broadening their focus to theater, music and dance. Plans are also in motion to bring the Oud Festival to New York and Turkey, making it a truly international program.

This fall the Confederation House will celebrate “On the Wings of Raga,” a two-day festival dedicated to classical Indian Music, Sept. 9-10. Their annual International Oud Festival will take place Nov. 12-21, and the Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival will take place Dec. 16-23.

“We are very excited particularly about these events, which emphasize our place as a professional cultural institute that focuses on a unique musical field which is not the mainstream,” said Benaya, who encourages people to visit and hear for themselves. “It is one thing to read about it, and another thing to personally experience the magic."

Mordechai Shinefield has been writing about music for over a decade for a variety of periodicals including Rolling Stone, Spin Magazine and the Village Voice. His tastes in music run the gamut; Malian desert blues and palm wine music from Sierra Leone, leftfield electronica, Middle Eastern folk metal, sun-soaked psychedelic folk, avant garde free jazz, vaporwave, and even some top 40.

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