Alawan Is Making A New Sound With Deep Middle Eastern Roots
Alawan’s violinist, Myriam Sarfati, tells the band's story and explains their music
Alawan, an Arabic word that means “colors,” is also the name of a septet based in northern Israel. They chose that name as a nod to the diversity that informs their ensemble—it’s also a musical pun, because it sounds, sort of, like saying, “On the one,” in English—and they draw from the vast range of traditional musics played throughout the Middle East. The group’s instrumentation, an unusual mashup of acoustic instruments from places as disparate as Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Iran, reflects that diversity as well.
“The instruments we use are very ancient,” Myriam Sarfati, the group’s violinist, says. “But the way we combine them is unique. It’s rare to see in classical Oriental music a Persian tar with an oud or a qanun as opposed to with a santur or a kamenche. The sound is interesting, and when we are arranging things together we have a lot of interesting materials to play with.”
Mashing things together is also very Israeli. Modern Israel is an ingathering of Jewish communities from around the world, and the nation’s musical culture represents that fusion, merging together sounds native to communities separated by thousands of miles in a way that seems natural and organic.
But Alawan isn’t a revivalist cohort or Middle Eastern tribute band. They play original compositions based on the conventions of the various makam systems used in the region. Their sound is acoustic and somewhat contemplative. It’s open-ended and spacious, with lush textures, interesting timbres, and plenty of room for improvisation. It’s laidback, and the vibe is very chill.
I spoke with Sarfati from her home in Rosh Pina. We talked about discovering the world beyond classical violin, how Alawan’s musical mashup is a reflection of Israel’s diversity, the emphasis the band places on improvisation, and finishing up their self-titled debut in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When did you start playing violin?
I started when I was very young. I started very normal. I did all the classical studies until I finished the conservatory. I liked what I did, but not enough, and I thought, “Maybe I don’t like music enough,” and I stopped completely. I was about 20 years old at the time. The violin finally came to me another way. When I was traveling, I heard people playing violin—and playing music in a completely different way—and for me, it [spoke to me] more than whatever music I had played. I heard [oud player and violinist] Yair Dalal. I heard him playing Arabic violin for the first time and I was astonished. I wanted to learn this. I came back to the violin in a completely different way with this new style—even the tuning of the instrument is different—and now, I have been doing this kind of music for about eight years.
For the Arabic style, do you play the violin on your lap, like a kamenche?
No. People are confused with that. The only people who play that way are Moroccan. Even in places close to Morocco, like Algeria and Tunisia, they play European style. The Moroccan violin is played upright, resting on your lap, and it became identified with Oriental violin, but no, Arabic players, and throughout the Middle East, play it horizontally.
Is that true in Iran as well?
If they play the real violin, they play it at the neck. If they play kamenche, then it will be vertical, resting on the lap.
Is it tuned differently as well?
A classical violin is tuned in fifths, G D A E, but the Arabic tuning is G D G D.
Is that so you can play open strings and drones?
The scales and makams need the sol (G) open. It helps indicate the sound of the scale when you have the G and the D open.
Did you spend time studying makams and learning that system?
Yes. In fact, all the members of the Alawan ensemble, we met while we were studying at Maqamat Music Center in Tzfat. Maqamat is an intensive classical Oriental music school. We studied there for three years really learning the makams deeply. The Arabic ones, the Moroccan ones, as well as Persian and Turkish makams. I was more oriented on the Arabic and the Moroccan.
Is that where the band got started?
Yes. We were friends before, and we studied together in Maqamat. We started as a four-piece, and then five, six, and finally seven, when we found our sound and took the name Alawan. We’re stopping at seven, and it won’t grow any more [laughs].
What does Alawan mean?
It is a play on words, and it has two meanings. In music, when you want to say, “Come in together on the beat,” you say, “On the one.” Alawan is Hebrew/English for “Al Ha Wan,” or “On the one.” Alawan also means “colors” in Arabic, which is the diversity. We represent a lot of nationalities, and we play music that combines a lot of styles and a lot of colors that we share. From all these colors in the end we make one thing, which is Alawan.
Your instrumentation is unusual, too. You don’t normally see a tar together with a violin or qanun. Did you choose those instruments on purpose, or is that how it evolved?
We are here in Israel. We have a lot of influences from a lot of places, and we learned all these styles together at Maqamat. What comes out is that we don’t play classical Persian music or classical anything, we play original music drawn from our love of these styles. If Eitam (Ben Ya’acov) is playing the tar, he’s focused more on Persian music. Same thing with Eden (Hacohen), the nay player, and you can hear it in the compositions. Every composition brings with it something that’s a bit different, and it’s a mix of something new.
You don’t look at yourselves as traditionalists trying to recreate this old music. You’re using the systems you learned from these old styles to create your own original music.
Exactly. Most of the instruments are very ancient, but it’s this combination of instruments you don’t usually see together. When we are arranging things together, we have a lot of really interesting materials to play with.
Is Alawan a pan-Middle Eastern group, meaning that you’re not drawing from just one region or style?
It is completely not one style. It’s original and for us it is very Israeli. It is something new that is built on all the old traditions of music, but it is new music that is inspired by the Israeli ear, which is that fusion of everything. Even geographically, where we live—it’s not stam [סתם, it means “mere” or “just,” but not easy to translate literally—better to just say stam]—we live in places with a lot of green, with nature, and that is what we are describing in our music. We are using a language that is really related to this place, because, ultimately, this is quite Middle East. We are speaking the language of now and here, which is the Israel of now.
Meaning that it’s very much the Israeli experience. It’s multicultural. In the West, the misconception is that Israel is monolithic, and that everybody is the same. Yet Israel is probably the most diverse place around. You’re saying that your music is only really possible because it’s in Israel.
Did anyone in the group grow playing traditional music, or is everyone new to it?
A lot of times, this music is something that you discover somehow. You feel it is so connected to you, because it is connected to the place. But it’s not coming from the tradition or the family. It’s true that in the synagogue these styles are there in the piyutim [liturgical melodies]. It’s something you definitely find in the Jewish piyutim, but that’s not the inspiration. It isn’t the reason. I didn’t grow up listening to it.
In your music, there are a lot of microtonal notes—non-Western notes that aren’t on a piano—what is the role of those sounds in your music?
Those are called quarter tones, and those notes are completely a part of the scale. When you learn these notes, everyone brings his mood, his color, and his energy, and in the scale you find these notes. But it is also very specific. In the beginning, you hear it, and the more you hear it, the more you assimilate it, and the more you know to speak with it afterwards. These notes are very special because it really is what makes the makam sound like it is supposed to sound. This microtonal note is really the color of the makam, the thing that makes the makam special is this note and where it is in the scale. [When you play that note correctly], you get the sound that you’re looking for, which is how you know you’re in the scale you want and not a different scale. To learn it, you have to dive into it, hear a lot, listen a lot, and sing it, and then you get used to it.
Are you saying that these microtonal notes are like blue notes in the blues or jazz, each player plays it differently, so much so that you can hear the players tone or personality?
It is not personal like that, it is more local. For example, in Egypt, in this specific scale, this specific microtone will be played a little bit lower, and in Syria, in the same scale, that note will be a little bit higher. It’s local. It’s like an accent. Like when you hear people from California or wherever, you hear the accent and you can tell where they’re from. These microtones also have these little variations inside.
What’s the role of improvisation in your music?
You have music that is composed, and you have the place for improvisation, but the improvisation is very important. In this kind of music, the improvisation is maybe even more important than it is in jazz. For example, improvisation gives you the feeling of the scale. You play with it, develop it, and come back. It’s more linear, and it tells the player to improvise using this scale, to understand the music. You don’t need to have accompaniment and it doesn’t need to be in the middle of the song. A lot of times, the improvisation is the song’s opening, the Taqsīm, which is a solo opening that is completely improvised. It introduces the scale, develops it, closes it, and because you did it, the audience understands it, too. Afterwards, you can start to play the piece that is based on that scale. It’s not the same, but there is an important place for this, the written music, as well as the improvisation.
Is there a lot of improvisation on your new album?
Our album is exactly that way. There are the written pieces, but the introductions are improvised. It isn’t written. It is improvised in the studio. The Taqsīm is how to develop the makam, hear the makam, and feel the makam. If you don’t do this, it’s lacking. It’s something that needs to be in the music. In every concert, [as well as on the recording], you find this type of improvisation, and then you have the written music.
Your new, self-titled album came out in March. Was it recorded during the lockdowns or earlier?
We recorded it before Corona. The disc was almost finished and we had a concert set up to debut the album. But then by Passover, Corona shut everything down. Everything was closed up. For one year everything stopped. What we did was work on the release on the internet. We made a new video—and there is another one on the way—and we really were busy with technical things. In one month, we have our real first show after all this. But the news keeps changing…
Was the album recorded live, without overdubs?
You can only record it live. It is not possible to not do it like that. It is not like rock music where you can record the instruments separately. The only thing you have is a few rooms in the studio, so you can record live but also isolate a few instruments in order to make a cleaner recording, or to to make corrections or additions afterwards if you have to. We were five musicians in one room, and then two others were separated. It depends on the instrument, some instruments need more isolation, and with others it doesn’t matter.
We recorded for four days from the morning until the night. After that we added a few additions—different lines and things that were possible to do in the studio—extra violin lines and other additions to make it interesting. We recorded at Ogen Studio with the amazing Shlomi Gvili. The studio is on Kibbutz Ha’Ogen and is close to Netanya on the Mediterranean coast. It’s a very good studio, too.
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