By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST – With his “sacred Middle Eastern music” one of Yuval Ron’s goals is to contribute to peace in the Middle East.
Ron, a world-renowned musician, composer, educator, and peace activist, and his Yuval Ron Ensemble will play a combination of Middle Eastern and South Asian music in “The Seeker of Truth” a “concert of unity” presented at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center on Feb. 23.
On Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. Ron will also present “My Heart is in the Past: Sacred Hebrew Music of the Middle East,” a free demonstration at The Arts Block Greenfield.
Ron plays the oud, or the “Middle Eastern lute” as he calls it. At the UMass performance, he will be backed up by vocals, woodwinds and ethnic hand drums.
There will also be a whirling dervish on hand. This kind of dance comes from the Sufi tradition, a mystical Islamic practice.
Ron says his goal is to use this sacred music – which includes Jewish, Christian and Islamic Middle Eastern traditions – to build bridges between people of different religions and cultures.
“We are trying to create light,” Ron says of his ensemble. “We are trying to create hope.”
A native of Tel Aviv, Yuval Ron started taking guitar lessons when he was 12. He studied classical guitar, then got into blues, then electric guitar and rock music, then jazz.
When he was 17, he and friends travelled to the Sinai desert.
The Sinai “was part of Israel at that time, so there was no issue of visas or going through the Egyptian border or anything like that. For us it was like the ‘Wild West,’” he says. “We spent time with the tribal people there – the Bedouins, in places that are extremely remote – no electricity, no roads, nothing…The Biblical settings of people living in the desert with the cattle and with their music. And that is where I met the oud, and I fell in love with that instrument.”
He bought an oud from one of the Bedouins and started learning some of their music.
“I would just sit around the fire at night with them and play along…Bedouin music, Bedouin folk songs.”
After serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) where he served in the entertainment troops, playing his guitar with some of the musical groups, he worked as a composer for theaters in Israel including Habima, the National Theater of Israel.
He later decided to move to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music. For several years he was based in Boston and worked up and down the East Coast composing and playing music for theater and dance productions.
He had brought his oud along with him from Israel, but didn’t play it regularly.
“I never, ever thought I was going to do anything professionally with it, I didn’t think there would be any interest in it. Then in the ‘90s after I moved to Los Angeles, I started missing my roots and where I came from and the land and the sound of that land. And I picked up the oud again and I started playing. I found in the ‘90s that there was a lot of interest in the sounds of other lands and what we call ‘World Music.’”
He had begun to score music for television shows and movies and began incorporating the oud into some of the scores, including one for “West Bank Story” a take off of “West Side Story” featuring Israeli and Arab characters, which won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film.
He formed his ensemble in 2000 and began playing his oud with musicians playing other traditional Middle Eastern instruments.
“That is where I closed the circle, back to that time when I was 17 sitting in the desert playing,” he says.
Even after the Sinai was given back to Egypt, Ron would visit the Bedouins on some of his trips back home to visit family.
“Still the Bedouins were the same Bedouins in these remote places and being with them and spending time on the dunes of that specific desert I felt very much connected to a very deep place in my own collective consciousness and subconscious and my own identity,” he says. “I felt that the way the Bedouins live in tents is the way our ancestors lived — Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all of the biblical figures we learned about in school. That is how they lived and the music was probably not very far from what we would call the primitive tribal folklore songs of the Bedouins that I learned when I was 17 in the desert.”
He has done much research into ancient Jewish music from the Second Temple — “the way the Levites would use instruments and what kind of music they may have had. And I use the oud to try to revive an ancient sound of Jewish music, a sacred Jewish music.
“I have studied the Babylonian Jewish tradition that is carried on by the Iraqi Jews, one of the most ancient traditions and also the Yemenite Jewish tradition, one of the most authentic Jewish music that there is,” he continues. “I have also studied in depth the Moroccan Jewish music, which carries another strain of Andalusian tradition and Syrian tradition that comes from Spain.”
Ron has also studied and performs Christian Middle Eastern and Muslim Middle Eastern music and performs all three with his ensemble.
“Our focus is the three Abrahamic traditions, the three traditions that came from Abraham,” he said. “And that is a whole other interesting part of the research I’ve done for 30 years — finding there are so many similarities in the building blocks of the music in those three traditions from the Middle East.
When Ron talks about Christian Middle Eastern music he is referring to the music of the Egyptian Copts, the Armenians and the Maranites. The Islamic music he presents is from the Sufi tradition, mystical Turkish Islamic music and dance, including the dance of the Whirling Dervish.
“I present in my concerts the commonalities among those traditions,” he explained. “It is a commonality in the lyrics, the musical building blocks, and the instruments. I use that in order to encourage people to see how similar we are, rather than how we may think how different we are… I try to use these findings and examples to try to lower the Nationalistic feelings between the three traditions, which of course have a very, very long history of clashing and of animosity. It is just my way of trying to contribute to a better vibe among these people.”
Yuval Ron will perform at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center Concert Hall on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. Reserved tickets are $25 and $35 and youth (17 and under) are $10. Tickets can be purchased online at fineartscenter.com or by calling the Fine Arts Center Box Office at 1-800-999-UMAS or (413) 545-2511.