The Beat of Becci's Drum
"In a time and place where there is so much destructive energy, you need something that will flip to the other side. In our playing together, Arab and Jew, we are making the world a better, happier place. And when you're happy, you don't want to destroy."
What is a nice Jewish girl from Melbourne doing in a circle of twelve Arab musicians in Jerusalem? Australian immigrant Becci Fleischer is the only Jew in her class of Middle-Eastern music at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance.
"There's one Arab woman in the class - and all the rest are men," says Fleischer in her Ein Kerem studio, whose floor is covered with colorful mats, and decorated with her guitars, oud, tambourine, bells and large silver darbouka. A large poster of the Jewish-Arab musical group, Bustan Avraham adorns one of the walls.
Fleischer's involvement with Middle Eastern music started quite by chance, in 1999, when she came on a three-month visit to her family who had made aliyah some time before.
"I had been an aid-worker with Oxfam in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands for seven years. At that time, I played guitar, but music was just a hobby. When I came to Israel I was looking for something more creative."
Fleischer, now 32, soon found herself gigs at nightspots, including Jerusalem's favorite, Mike's Place, playing folk music with a friend. She spent her first year here studying Hebrew in ulpan.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do - but my brother introduced me to Susie Schneider, Director of "A Still Small Voice," a correspondence course in classic Jewish Wisdom. Susie also learns with people on an individual basis in her home in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter. I went to her the first time and we studied traditional Jewish texts. But that didn't speak to me. So she said, 'come back and we'll just talk.' Susie was instrumental in giving me the courage to listen to my heart and follow my passion. In Australia, I never thought I could follow music, and particularly ethnic music, as a career, but Susie taught me to listen to my own inner voice rather than the voices of everybody else."
After a year of studying Hebrew, Fleischer enrolled in Bar Ilan's School of Ethnic Music, studying Arabic singing.
"At Bar Ilan, all the voice students have to learn drumming, too, and then I realized that I use my guitar like a percussion instrument, playing rhythm more than melody. I wanted to study Arabic Music because it's the closest I can get to ancient Jewish music - they have the same roots. Unfortunately, my singing course stopped in the middle when the teacher died early during the year, but I kept on with the drumming."
Fleischer wanted to become more professional after her year at Bar Ilan and she enrolled at the Rubin Academy for Music and Dance. There, she has worked on projects together with students in the fields of classical music, jazz and composition. Together with an Israeli Arab and a visiting English student, she has recently submitted a choral work on the subject of world peace in a competition organized by the University of Oregon School of Music.
"We took lyrics from Jewish and Arabic prayers of peace, a tune from the liturgy of the Italian Jews, and an Arabic maqam [mode] and together with the Arab oud player and the English student of composition, we wrote a piece for twelve voices," she explained.
"As musicians and artists, we often feel helpless at the complexity of the problems that stand in the way of peace, and it is through our art that we can respond. The war in the Middle East cannot be solved by politics or military might, but music is a way to explore co-existence. When you create music, you build communication and community because you can't work alone. In a time and place where there is so much destructive energy, you need something that will flip to the other side. In our playing together, Arab and Jew, we are making the world a better, happier place. And when you're happy, you don't want to destroy."
Fleischer has taught Middle Eastern percussion in elementary schools in Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem. She continues to teach at Jerusalem's Yakar Center for Tradition and Creativity, and she also teaches groups and individuals privately. She starts her lessons with a warm-up of the players rather than their instruments and, integrating her knowledge of the Alexander Technique, she teaches her students how to release body tension and how to use their body properly.
"You can't play any instrument properly if your body is all hunched up," and she demonstrates how most new students sit before releasing tension. "You have to feel relaxed and free to get a good sound," she explains.
She notes that the vast majority of her students are women. "I thought percussion was a male domain until I started teaching. Now I see that there is a natural attraction of women to rhythm. It connects us to the natural rhythms of our bodies and it awakens some deep spiritual place within us. Drumming is associated with women since Biblical times. Look at Miriam leading the women after the crossing of the Red Sea, singing and playing the timbrel (tambourine). The Book of Psalms talks of the young women beating tambourines. And in post-Biblical times we have Judith who killed the Assyrian military leader. She, too, led the women in a song of praise with tambourines."
Between her studies, her teaching, and a three to four hours of practice every day, almost all of Fleischer's waking hours are devoted to music.
"My dream is to become a virtuoso performer, an excellent teacher, and some day, to start my own ethnic music school, where Middle Eastern, Persian, Turkish, Indian, and other world music will be taught, and where a cross-pollination of musical cultures can take place, thereby creating new musical forms," she says.
At the rate she is going, Becci Fleischer's dream will indeed become a reality.
This piece was first published
in the Jerusalem Post Magazine,
12 April 2002
in the Jerusalem Post Magazine,
12 April 2002