THE ARTS 03.19.10
THE ARTS 03.19.10

For openers, a dervish: Jewish Music Festival kicks off 25th year with some whirled music

Shortly before his concert at a 2008 interfaith conference in Seattle, Israeli-born musician Yuval Ron sat across the dinner table from an irate Palestinian from Ramallah.

“The guy started immediately attacking me,” Ron recalls, “saying, ‘You come from a racist country [Israel] and you don’t respect human rights.’ I didn’t even say anything.”

He didn’t have to. During that evening’s performance by the Yuval Ron Ensemble — which blends Jewish and Muslim music from the Middle East — Ron saw his adversary cheering. After the show, the enthralled Palestinian invited Ron and his group to play a gig in the West Bank.

Ron hopes to bring the same kind of universal understanding when his ensemble opens the 25th annual Jewish Music Festival with a performance on Saturday, March 20, at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley. The festival continues through March 29, and will reconvene in July outdoors at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens.

Though he often performs with as many as eight musicians, for this performance Ron will make it a quartet: a singer, percussionist, woodwind player and Ron on the classical Arab string instrument, the oud.

He is also bringing his friend Aziz, a dervish of the Sufi tradition. Aziz will accompany the ensemble with the whirling movements that have made the dervishes world famous.

Just don’t call it dancing.

“He is a dervish,” Ron says emphatically, “which means like a monk, a member of the [Sufi] order that came out of Rumi, who started the practice in the 13th century. They use this ritualistic turning movement around their heart in the direction the planet turns around the sun. It’s not a dance. It’s a prayer movement.”

Yuval Ron on the oud, which he will be playing in Berkeley on opening night of the Jewish Music Festival.

Though authentic dervishes (and their imitators) have performed before global audiences for years, Aziz and Ron do those artists one better: According to Ron, his ensemble is the first and only to combine Sufi Muslim dervishes and Jewish prayer.

In addition to traditional Sufi Turkish music, the group will play a setting of  “Avinu Malkenu,” which employs the same musical mode as the Sufi melodies.

“I weave those together from Jewish to Muslim prayers,” Ron says. “There’s a reason why they move seamlessly: They are made from the same building blocks. The prayers are used to express similar emotions.”

Reactions to Aziz and the ensemble’s performances range from “You are doing the work of God” to “I was getting nauseous just looking at it.”

Ron remembers another adverse reaction to his band, this time from a Jewish concertgoer who wondered why the ensemble played so much Arab music. Ron saw this as an educational opportunity, explaining that only two songs he performed were of Arab origin. The rest, sung in Hebrew, emerged from Jewish communities in Morocco, Tunisia, Spain and elsewhere in the Sephardic world.

Ron is a jazz guitarist from Tel Aviv, but he became enamored of traditional Middle Eastern music — and the oud — after spending a lot of time in Bedouin tents.

“I visited the Sinai Desert as a kid,” he recalls. “I  met the Bedouins, saw the oud for the first time there and fell in love with it.”

Ron made friends with the Bedouin, and would visit them every summer for years. He became so trusted he was even allowed to have tea with unveiled Bedouin women, an almost unheard of honor for an outsider. “The music was my passport,” Ron adds.

Though entranced by the oud, Ron wanted to formalize his music education. In 1985 he moved to Boston to study composition at the Berklee College of Music. He later moved to Los Angeles to launch a successful career scoring music for TV and film, including the musical comedy “West Bank Story,” which won the Academy Award for best live action short in 2007.

But that’s just the day job. He says his passion has been the Yuval Ron Ensemble, which he formed in 1999. The goal from the start was to blend Arab and Jewish music to bridge cultural divides. The group has performed around the world and recorded several albums.

“I feel the impact we do with the ensemble is affecting people and the world in ways I never could have dreamed of,” Ron says.

He also believes that audiences take in a subtle message about Israel and Israelis when they see him and his Muslim colleagues playing on stage in perfect harmony.

“I’ve been working very consciously to improve the image of Israel in America just by the way I am and the way I do things,” Ron says. “It’s good to break the stereotypes.”

The Yuval Ron Ensemble performs at the Jewish Music Festival at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 20, at the JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut Street, Berkeley. $20-$25. Pre-concert public talk 7-7:30 p.m. Information and festival schedule:

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.