Israeli-born but of Baghdadi parentage, musician, composer, teacher, and peace activist Yair Dalal said the first music he remembers was Iraqi, played at meetings of the Iraqi community he attended with his parents.
At age six, he began studying classical violin, but also developed an interest in pop, rock, and jazz. After joining the IDF, he stopped playing music professionally until age 28, but eventually became a music teacher in the high school at Kibbutz Samar in Israel’s Arava desert.
While working for the National Parks Authority, he spent time in the Sinai and the Negev, and began playing music with Bedouins.
He finally came full circle and started to play the mandolin-like oud, and went deeply into Middle Eastern and Jewish styles, especially Iraqi. “I composed music from here and there, trying to blend what is in my soul,” said Dalal, 59, speaking to NJJN ahead of a performance and lecture, “Baghdad-Jerusalem: Musical Encounters,” Monday, Oct. 20, at Princeton University.
NJJN: What is the nature of your music?
Dalal: It is mostly acoustic. The center of it is Middle Eastern influences — the scales, the rhythm, the instrument, the arrangement. I’ll give you the opposite example: It’s not like taking rock and roll and putting Hebrew words to it. I like blues very much and am a blues player, but in this kind of music, I will do it differently. The center will be the music from [Israel], the musical heritage we have here, and with this, Indian, Balkan, klezmer, blues, sometimes Irish and African sounds. Sometimes it connects; like a circle it connects.
NJJN: How did your interest in saving traditional music that might otherwise disappear develop?
Dalal: I have a passion for saving old music, and it comes from a passion for folk music from way back — any kind: bluegrass, blues, Irish folk, Scandinavian folk. I have to take care of the Jewish Iraqi or Jewish Middle Eastern music, and I have dedicated part of my work and life to saving this kind of music. I look for people who know it, write it, record it, write it in notes, and teach it. Now in Israel there is a whole movement which I started many years ago; people use this music in many kinds of settings and connect it with rock and roll, sacred music, and nonsacred music.
I like Bedouins and the way of life that they live. I’ve been in the desert many years of my life, so I did some musical projects with Bedouin people and I still do — beautiful, simple songs.
NJJN: You have worked to bring together Arabs and Israelis with your music, continuing to do so during the Gaza War. How did this work out?
Dalal: This is one of my goals — to bring unity, brotherhood, and more peace, because we need it here badly. This is one of the instruments to do it — to use the music as a bridge. Because of my knowledge and because I know Arabic music very well and know the language and know the songs, I can play with Arabs very easily. So we get together very easily and see music can break many walls, influences from culture, persons, views.
Music, it is like give and take, you open your heart and soul, and I learn a lot about their lives, habits, thoughts, feelings, and culture. And what is very important is that you are really creating bridges and contacts.
NJJN: During this summer’s war, was there tension between the Israeli and the Arab musicians?
Dalal: No, but I can tell you there was tension between Arabs and Jews who live in Israel, in the Galilee and Negev. We did a lot of meetings and activities, freely and voluntarily, to reduce the tension. We did some in the South and some in the North, and it was very successful; many people attended. We played together, talked, opened our hearts, because we knew that our relationships are very fragile.
NJJN: Were you affected by anger directed at peaceniks in Israel over the summer?
Dalal: People that think a little bit differently from the mainstream find themselves in a very unpleasant position. They cannot talk, express their feelings and views, cannot demonstrate; people attack them in the street. I was not personally a victim, but I allowed myself to say what I want and do what I feel because I believe in the way of conversation. I believe in the way of nonviolence, although it is very hard sometimes.
On the other hand, no one is against our soldiers, of course; we are only for our soldiers, but also with the people that are suffering in the Gaza Strip — you cannot blame children and women, from my point of view, and you can’t blame Israelis who live near Gaza because they suffer, too.
The politics is very, very complicated, but there are people who believe that force will solve the problem and people who believe that violence will not do any good. I belong to the people that believe violence will not do any good, not just between Gaza and Israel but the people who live here — Arabs, Jews, Muslims — you cannot have a society that is based on hatred.