Oud Festival 2011: My Sweet Canary

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Mehtap Demir and Yota Nega - My Sweet Canary, Oud Festival 2011/Photo: Omri Barel

There’s a good argument for presenting Roza Ezkenazi, dead now 30 years, as one of the great undiscovered treasures of the Levant. An exponent of Rebitiko – the Greek “blues”, as it is often described – the tremulous yet insistent quality of her voice still retains a magnetic quality, even when filtered by vintage recordings and archival footage.

Eskenazi and her music were the subject of a concert at the Jerusalem Theatre last weekend, part of the ongoing International Oud Festival. Paying tribute to the Sweet Canary – as the recent musical documentary of her life is entitled – were three outstanding vocalists of the Mediterranean – Yota Nega of Greece, Mehtap Demir of Turkey and Israel’s Yasmin Levy.

Eskenazi, born to a modest Sephardic Jewish family in Istanbul something over a century ago – she was a little flexible about the precise details of her birth – moved to Thessaloniki as a child. In this respect, the composition of the concert was apt; with singers from both Greece and Turkey, it allowed for reflection on Eskenazi’s musical heritage in full, as well as emphasizing how much the cultures of the Levant have in common with one another.

A multi-instrumentalist and singer, Mehtap’s dramatic mannerisms thrust passion and raw emotion to the evening. Dressed in glittering, sweeping turquoise, her voice darted and swept from the stage to the rafters. One moment with eyes pressed shut, the next twirling coquettishly in rhythm with the music, she teased a visceral, appreciative response from her audience. Dressed in black, Nega’s husky, deeper vocalizations served as appropriately grounded counterpoint to Mehtap’s melodrama. She was subtle where the Turkish singer was pointed; perhaps a little muted at first, whilst Mehtap was always effusive. But both soloing and duetting, the two worked together well.

Yasmin Levy - My Sweet Canary, Oud Festival 2011/Photo: Omri Barel

Levy struck the perfect balance between her fellow chanteuses. Dressed in diaphanous black, she cut a curiously fragile figure on stage at first, an impression reinforced when she spoke, in a soft undertone. But once she opened her mouth to sing, the range and richness of her voice swept aside illusions of diffidence.

In fact, the three shared very stage little time together, but this actually worked for the best. For one thing, Levy’s stage presence is so commanding – and the expectations of her home audience so high – that there was always the risk of her eclipsing the concert as a whole. As it happens, her appearance, much more than a cameo but not quite a third of proceedings, gave excellent perspective and a topical flavor to proceedings.

My Sweet Canary - Oud Festival 2011/Photo: Omri Barel

The singers were backed superbly by a 10-man orchestra of Oud, Bouzouki, Percussion, Violin, Guitar and Kenan. Perhaps paradoxically, the orchestra occasionally threatened to drown out the singers during the more exuberant numbers. But when it mattered, their virtuosity and subtlety added depth and feeling to an enchanting evening.

My Sweet Canary, a film by Roy Sher, at cinematheques across the country from 9th November.

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