Eyal Sela plays world music.
That his native Israel is embroiled in conflict with its Arab neighbors does not change his objectives; it simply makes them more poignant. That his music embraces Arabic influences is not a polemic on domestic politics; it is simply a reflection on what sounds good to Sela. Any statements he makes appear on the peripheries, such as an upcoming European tour he has scheduled with Palestinian oud virtuoso Adel Selameh, a cross-cultural collaboration that could only be so lucky to serve as an example for the rest of society.
Before that, however, Sela will take part in Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center's 17th annual Jewish Music Festival with his band, Darma, on Sunday, March 10 at U.C. Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium. The Consulate General of Israel is a co-sponsor.
"The meaning of my music is connecting cultures," he said on the phone from Israel. "I'm dealing with three or four main musical cultures: the Turkish Balkan, the Arab Middle Eastern or Egyptian, and the Indian — and for me, blending the cultures is the most interesting thing. Music itself brings cultures together."
Sela's instruments range from bansurui (Indian bamboo flutes) to Norwegian osterdal (a type of clarinet) to the Irish penny whistle to the Turkish clarinet. The rhythms he employs come from a variety of Middle Eastern hand drums and his melodies from across the Asian continent.
Classically trained in Israel, Sela was an accomplished classical and jazz musician when he turned to world music 10 years ago. He likened the transition to learning an entirely new language, comparing it to "being a baby again."
And in transition, he reached for any sources of inspiration. So while he can easily cite classical influences such as Bach and Mozart and jazz influences such as Bill Evans and Charlie Parker, the people from whom he now draws inspiration remain largely unknown to him.
"When I first started, world music was not so developed," he said. "So I had to go search out special kinds of music and cultures. You find cassettes in the market. You go to people and ask them some questions, and they give you a cassette of third-hand music that they heard. And often those cassettes have no labels, just incredible sounds. This was not institutional music."
A decade later, however, world music labels are enjoying more popularity than ever. Through the Internet, fans can pick up locally distributed CDs from around the world, bringing wider consciousness to the scene. In this regard, Sela feels fortunate to be from Israel, which already has numerous cultures ingrained in its society. They come both from within the Jewish community — Jewish emigres from places such as Morocco, Iraq and Eastern Europe have all lent their flavors to the musical landscape, and from the multiplicity of non-Jewish societies surrounding it. "All these cultures blend together in Israel, so musicians are more likely to work upon those cultures and to try to make something out of them," he said.
By comparison, Sela feels that American fans are much more moved by the music he makes, due mostly to the fact that such sounds are not generally a part of the popular idiom. "In the United States, people seem to have a stronger experience with my music, because it's new for many of them.
"People will come to me after a performance, and they are strongly affected by emotion. They don't tell me it was groovy, and they don't tell me it was great; they tell me that it affected them emotionally very much."
Part of that emotion is derived from the specific sounds Sela seeks out. On his most recent album, "Darma," he combines his various flutes with a variety of Middle Eastern and Greek instruments. Among them is a jumbush (a Turkish instrument similar to a banjo) for which Sela had to recruit one of only two people in all of Israel who knew how to play it. "You just have to know the ethnic scene and who plays what," he said. "Otherwise you can't produce ethnic music."
Darma the band consists of four other musicians: guitarist Yossi Ron, Tajik oud and jumbush player Gershon Weiserfirer, bassist Noam Topelberg and percussionist Yenon Muallem, who plays a variety of instruments, including zarb, bandir and doumbek. Their brief tour will take them to Los Angeles; Boulder, Colo.; and Vera Cruz, Mexico. Sela last appeared in San Francisco last April, though he didn't have time enough to explore the city.
"One thing I found," he said, "is that if you climb up the hill, you find out that 300 meters up it's much, much colder than at the bottom."