January 20, 2019

Music Men

Shortly after the Oslo peace process got underway, composer Nabil Azzam met with Yasser Arafat and offered the Palestinian leader a new national anthem for his nascent Palestinian Authority.

The anthem, Azzam proposed, would include strains from “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, to symbolize the hoped-for amity between the two people.

The fate of Dr. Azzam's anthem is uncertain, but his composition can well stand as a metaphor for a musical life shaped equally by Jewish and Arab influences.

Much of Azzam's career has been intertwined with that of his friend and mentor, Professor Moshe Lazar, starting in Israel and continuing in Los Angeles, where both men now live.

Born into a highly musical family, Azzam, a Christian Arab from Nazareth, first met Lazar at Tel Aviv University in the early 1970s; Lazar, a Holocaust survivor, had recently been named dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts.

One of the school's affiliates was the Rubin Academy of Music, where Lazar took note of the talented Azzam, the academy's first Arab student.

Azzam witnessed prejudice against Arabs in general, but, “personally, I was treated fairly,” he said.

His attitude then, and applied since, was “to be true to myself, to respect myself as I respect others, to use humor and to use truth.”

From left: Composer Nabil Azzam playing the oud, with percussionist Butros Gattas. Professor Moshe Lazar and Dr. Azzam participated in a symposium on “The Trials and Tribulations of Portuguese Jewry” last Sunday (April 27) at UCLA.

While studying violin and conducting, Azzam became the first student to head the academy's orchestra in outside public performances. The orchestra, under its youthful conductor and with Lazar's encouragement, gave its first recital in Nazareth, Azzam's native city.

After graduating from TAU and the Rubin Academy, Azzam founded the Nazareth Conservatory of Music, with a mixed Jewish and Arab faculty.

Teachers and students occasionally performed with musicians from nearby kibbutzim. “It was a beautiful relationship,” said Azzam. “If you closed your eyes, you didn't know who were the Jewish instrumentalists, and who were the Arabs.”

Azzam resumed his studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was awarded a master's degree in musicology, in 1982. Shortly after his graduation, Azzam was offered a fellowship at UCLA and, so, along with his wife and two small children, moved to Los Angeles.

While earning his doctorate in ethnomusicology at UCLA, Azzam began to develop his own style of composition, which melded Middle Eastern and classical Western music and instruments.

As a performer, he extended his range from classical violin to mastery of the oud, a guitar-shaped stringed instrument and ancestor of the lute.

When Azzam and his family arrived in Los Angeles, they were met by Moshe Lazar. The former dean had preceded his student's transatlantic and transcontinental journey, and he now carried the title of chairman of the comparative-literature program at USC.

During the past few years, they have continued their friendship and shared their common interest in Sephardic music. Lazar is researching and writing a massive 16-volume series on Sephardic culture and history, and Azzam has composed his “Variations on Sephardic Melodies.”

Azzam is currently at work on a comic operetta, “The Man and the Rooster,” featuring a talking rooster that always speaks the truth and casts a satirical eye on the foibles of Arabs and Jews. The finale introduces a new dance, dubbed the “dora” — a combination of the Palestinian dabke and the Israeli hora.

In 1995, Azzam returned to Nazareth and formed the 50-piece Galilee Orchestra. Some of the instrumentalists are Arabs, but most are Jewish immigrants from Russia.

Its aim is to foster a new genre of music, in which Middle Eastern compositions are performed by a full symphony orchestra, said Azzam.

The Galilee Orchestra made its debut in late 1995 at the Frank Sinatra House in Nazareth and was promised future financial support by the Ministry of Culture. However, since the advent of the new Israeli government, funding has been frozen, said Lazar.

Currently, both men are trying to raise funds locally by establishing an American Friends support group for the Nazareth Galilee Orchestra. They hope to enlist the backing of prominent personalities in the Arab and Jewish communities.