Musical Bridges Between Israel and Turkey

Israeli musician Yinon Muallem, who has been living in Istanbul for more than a decade, succeeds in using his music to bring Israelis and Turks closer.  

al-monitor Yinon Muallem performs at a concert in Istanbul in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2009..
Jacky Hugi

Jacky Hugi


Topics covered

turkey, music, jewish culture, jewish, istanbul

May 28, 2013

“Cautious optimism” — that is how Israeli musician and diplomat Yinon Muallem defines the climate of tension that currently reigns between Israel and Turkey, three years after the bloody clash on the high seas between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Mavi Marmara Turkish ship carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to Gaza.

The business and tourism sectors in the two countries are waiting for a signal from the nervous pair of leaders who have waged an arm-wrestling match ever since that bitter morning in which nine Turkish activists were killed. Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel were downgraded, and the former friendship was replaced by the language of threats and defamation. Israeli tourists, who once thronged Turkish cities in the hundreds of thousands, frequented other countries.

But finally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — as well as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — understood that this estrangement was not to their benefit. Regional reality was stronger than the ego of each of them individually, and of both of them together. The two capital cities declared a truce, although since then things have cooled a bit. Now all the players on the field are standing by for the signal that will move the clock back a few years, to the era of warm relations between the two countries.

Muallem, an Israeli musician who has been living in Istanbul for more than a decade, watched the crisis from the sidelines but never stopped working. Currently, he is releasing a new album. Muallem was not the only one who made an effort to show “business as usual.” The cultural relations between the countries never capitulated to the diplomatic frostiness.

“The press was against Israel, and this was palpable in the atmosphere,” he says. “There are radical groups here who make their voices heard, but they don’t represent most levels of society. As far as the simple man is concerned, the warm relations between the two countries remained as it used to be.”

Muallem, 45, is the son of David Muallem, a Baghdad-born Israeli judge who developed a second career as violinist and musicologist. In his youth, Muallem studied mass communication, but then visited India and was caught in the spell of Eastern music. Muallem, having spent a long time in Turkey, has yielded a crop of 50 musical works, permanent residence in Turkey, marriage with a Turkish woman and a 4-year-old son who bears two names: Jan (“breath” in Persian) and Rast, named after one of the maqams (melodic modes) prevalent in Arabic music.

A music video by Yinon Mualem

“My father had great influence on my musical composition,” Yinon Muallem tells us. “After his father died when he was 8 years old, [David] Muallem grew up near his two grandfathers. One was a parliament member from Baghdad, the other was a cantor. Both loved music and the maqam. They used to invite the members of the Baghdad Chalghi ensemble to perform for them in their home; this ensemble included [Jewish Iraqi] brothers Daoud and Saleh Al-Kuwaity. It was from them that my father absorbed his love of Eastern music. When we lived in Kiryat Ono, Father had a tape recorder with cassettes of most of the concerts of Oum Kalthoum. Concerts that were recorded every month from Cairo radio. As an adolescent, I was repelled by this music; you could even say that I was embarrassed by it. But later on, when I started to become interested in Eastern percussion instruments, these musical works, such as the works of Jewish-Iraqi musicians, served as important sources of inspiration for me. Throughout the years, Father was my number-one critic, fan and supporter. I owe him a great deal.”

By profession, Yinon Muallem is a percussionist and he specializes in playing the oud. His musical style is ethnic and Turkish. Muallem is considered one of the most successful and well-known Israeli musicians overseas; unsurprisingly, he is more well known in Turkey than in his homeland and a regular local audience fills up his performances. Very recently, Muallem produced his sixth album, “Funky Dervish.”

“In real life, lots of things happen that don’t always make sense. Logic would dictate that I would be involved in Iraqi or Egyptian music, because these were styles that I was much closer to in my youth — nonetheless, I was attracted to Turkey. Several of my melodies are from the Ottoman Turkish musical genre, and when people hear them they tell me, 'It sounds as if you were born here.'”

Of his new album, Muallem says, “This album is different than its predecessors because it blends different musical instruments and styles. It contains influences of jazz and funk, on elements of Turkish and Jewish music. For the first time I used piano, trombone, trumpet, drums and electric guitar. These Western musical instruments joined the traditional ones: oud, kanun, clarinet and darbuka.”

The daily Turkish newspaper Hürriyet wrote that Istanbul is Muallem’s natural home. Turkish poet Hilmi Yavuz said that Muallem reminds him of the great Ottoman composer Yahya Kemal. Israeli music critic Yossi Harsonsky stated flatly that Muallem is the sort of musician that is rare to find in these parts: “He succeeds in synthesizing influences from Turkish music, Hebrew poetry, Sufi music, Klezmer, Ladino, Indian music — and everything sounds tightly put-together and uniform in his works.”

In his years in Turkey, Muallem recorded his albums and  established his own ensemble while at the same time making appearances with the Turkish Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra, which contains musicians from 23 countries. Muallem was invited to accompany Prime Minister Erdogan twice, on official trips to the Czech Republic and Japan. Muallem has long since been eligible for Turkish citizenship, and he intends to request it in the near future.

I have worked with musicians from Iran, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and more. I have never felt any alienation on their part. Relations between us were always warm and pleasant. That’s what it is like when music is concerned. I have never hidden my Israeliness, not even during difficult times. The media here knows that I am Israeli as well as the public that comes to my performances. Only sometimes when I’m in a cab and I realize that I’m dealing with a person who doesn’t know what’s what, I say that I’m from Spain and then he starts to say — ‘Aha, from Real Madrid, Barcelona’ — while I pray that he doesn’t speak Spanish.”

Muallem is currently hard at work on a book that documents his experiences as an Israeli musician in Turkey. To earn a livelihood, he is an importer and exporter of cultural products. Under the hat of Israel’s cultural attaché in Istanbul, he assists Israeli artists who perform in Turkey, and their Turkish counterparts who perform in Israel. In these post-crisis days, when there is still no Israeli ambassador in Turkey and tourism is only recovering slowly, Muallem and others like him fill the void.

Jacky Hugi is the Arab affairs of the Israeli army radio Galie-Zahal network, a columnist for the Israeli business newspaper Globes and the former Arab Affairs correspondent for Israel's Maariv daily. He is the author of Arabian Nights.Com.

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