Oud of thunk it: Bustan Quartet groups for music festival

For local fans of Middle Eastern music, a pair of upcoming concerts by the Bustan Quartet are akin to the Beatles getting back together.

Rounding out this fab four are former members of Bustan Abraham, the Israeli septet that pioneered a popular fusion of Middle Eastern and Western music. Made up of Israeli Jews and Arabs, the group toured the world throughout the 1990s, ultimately splitting up in 2002.

And that was that. Except for the fact that members stayed in touch, occasionally collaborated and ultimately reconstituted as a quartet late last year.

The new Bustan Quartet will headline two shows at this year’s Jewish Music Festival: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 22 at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, and 7:30 p.m. March 25 at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. The latter concert is part of Holy Harmony, a day of music co-sponsored by Sherith Israel and the Jewish Music Festival.

Bustan Quartet (from left) Zohar Fresco, Tasieer Elias, Emanuel Mann and Amir Milstein

The quartet will also give a lecture and demonstration March 23 at U.C. Berkeley as part of the music department’s free noon concert series.

When Bustan takes the stage for its performances, the quartet will play new pieces as well as compositions from the septet’s early repertoire.

Playing as a quartet gives “a freshness” to the music, says Israeli Amir Milstein, the group’s Boston-based flute player. “It sounds different. We do miss some other instruments from the original, but it does have a new direction.”

Joining Milstein are bassist Emanuel Mann, percussionist Zohar Fresco and Tasieer Elias on violin and oud, a musician widely considered one of the world’s greatest oud masters.

Milstein says the first 10 years of the band’s existence couldn’t have been more exciting. Starting with what he calls “a basketful of influences” — from Turkish and flamenco to Indian, jazz and classical Arabic —  the group recorded five albums and played around the world. 

Critics considered their style a breakthrough in world music, with U.C. Berkeley musicologist Benjamin Brinner making them the focus of his 2009 book “Playing Across a Divide: Israeli-Palestinian Musical Encounters.”

Bustan created a large, richly varied repertoire of original compositions, each of which was also used as a vehicle for solo improvisations. Working together, members created novel blends of musical elements as disparate as Arab modal improvisations, Indian drum rhythms, bluegrass banjo and flamenco guitar.

Brinner says Bustan was the “gold standard against which all other Israeli ‘ethnic’ bands should be judged. The group was unusual not only for its high level of performance but also for the insistence on instrumental pieces, only recording a couple of tracks with singers.”

Making music was the only priority, says Milstein, but others  couldn’t help noticing that Bustan brought together Jews and Muslims.

“We played many festivals under titles of peace and coexistence,” Milstein says, “but we were not interested in talking about it. We were about making good music together.”

So with such a good thing going, why break up? Even though politics never disturbed the group from within, externally Bustan could not avoid political realities.

“The European market saw Israel in a very awkward way and they did not welcome us as before,” Milstein says of those years following the second intifada, which broke out in September 2000. “All the hopes for Arab-Israeli coexistence melted, and people were not as optimistic as they [once] were.”

Factor in that band members itched to do other projects, and Bustan Abraham disbanded. Millstein stayed in touch with his colleagues, even after he moved to Boston to teach at the New England Conservatory.

The reunion opportunity arose last April when Milstein learned a different band had abruptly dropped out of a Boston music symposium. Thinking a reformed Bustan might fit the bill, he suggested to his former colleagues they get together, jam for a few days and see what happened.

“Sitting together again and starting to work on pieces was incredible,” Millstein says. “It was as if we had never stopped playing together, because we knew each other so well. Our personal relationships made it feel so natural to play together again.”

The band performed at that Boston symposium and again last November in Jerusalem. “The reaction was incredible,” Milstein recalls. “People who were old fans came up to us and said ‘We can’t believe you guys are reuniting.’ ”

It was a big night for Israeli culture, too, considering the role Bustan played in promoting Israeli music around the world.

Millstein believes that culture is hard to define, but it’s grounded in the extraordinary diversity of Israel’s people. Not only is Israel home to Arabs and Jews from more than 70 nations (each with its own musical flavor), it’s also home to immigrants from places as far flung as China, the Philippines and Sudan.

“It’s a society that has not defined a purist cultural identity, but rather a collection of everything thrown into a big pot,” he says. “It will take many more years before we can say ‘This is Israeli culture.’ Or not.”

Bustan Quartet plays 7 p.m. Thursday, March 22 at the Magnes, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley and 7:30 p.m. March 25 at Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F. Lecture and demonstration: noon March 23 at Hertz Hall, U.C. Berkeley. (866) 558-4253 or www.jewishmusicfestival.org

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.