Israel's Eastward Beating Heart (Review)

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November 2, 2010

When you begin researching a topic, it is difficult to know what you’ll find. Similarly, when individuals try to build a nation-state, they can’t know what they’ll create. Both of these statements prove significant to Amy Horowitz’s life, as described in her book, Mediterranean Israeli Music and the Politics of the Aesthetic (Wayne State University, 2010). While in Israel in 1984, she discovered something striking while making her way between buses in Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station. In contrast with the finely nuanced musical performances that she was recording for her research, Horowitz heard the blasting and distorted sound of a cassette mixing with the amplified voice of a stall vender hawking it. Despite the interjection of the vender’s voice and the tape’s poor sound quality, its combination of an unusual vocal style with a mélange of different sounds, including Greek Bazouki, Flamenco horns, and Western beats, proved striking. Before she located and boarded her bus, Horowitz had purchased a Zohar Argov cassette and taken her first plunge into part of Israeli life still little-known in the United States nearly thirty years later. Soon Argov’s music, as well as that of other performers of Mizrahi music, became the subject of Horowitz’s doctoral dissertation, which her current book revises.

Mizrahi music, also referred to by the equally confusing moniker Mediterranean music, has its origins with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. While the Eastern and Central European Jews who established the State of Israel had intended for it to serve as a primary haven for persecuted European Jews, the Holocaust devastated this population. After the immigration of a significant survivor population, Israel’s leaders turned their attention to other world Jewish communities in hopes of gaining additional contributors to efforts to fulfill Jewish millennial aspirations. In a surprising show of identification, hundreds of thousands of Jews from throughout the Middle East and Asia uprooted themselves from locations such as Iraq and Yemen, where their ancestors had lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. While they had previously identified as Jews of a specific location, such as Persia, Syria, Egypt, or Morocco, these Jewish immigrants, with their arrival in Israel, were grouped together under the designation Mizrahi. Rather than the ethnic bifurcation of Jews into Ashkenazim and Sephardim familiar to many Americans, with Jews divided between those who trace their origins to German speaking lands and those who trace their origins to the Iberian peninsula, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim constitute the two primary Jewish ethnic designations in Israel. Mizrahim, which means Easterners in Hebrew, does not designate a common heritage. Rather it refers to Jews whose ethnic background is other than Ashkenazic. While these Jews brought diverse musical traditions with them to Israel as part of the “ingathering of the exiles,” the discriminatory settlement policy that led to the residential concentration of these purported “primitives” in separate neighborhoods and towns brought about the conditions for musical innovation. Soon a hybrid combining elements of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Western music together with primarily Hebrew lyrics was born that paralleled a blended form of Israeli identity that coming into existence.

During the first few decades of statehood, Israeli society remained firmly under the control of a ruling elite that had taken painstaking efforts to plan its every aspect, including its musical tradition. Combining Hebrew lyrics written by leading poets and lyricists, including Natan Alterman, Yaakov Orland, and Haim Hefer, and the East European folk song tradition, Israel’s Ashkenazic founders developed a national sound that they considered reflective of the healthy modern character of their new state. Sung collectively in both formal and informal settings, songs of the “Land of Israel repertoire” played an integral role in efforts to acculturate new immigrants to their new society and its values. These songs, as well as the promotion of classical music performed domestically by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra’s world-class performers under the leadership of the eminent American Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein, promoted a Western orientation to Israeli music.

Simultaneous with the gradual penetration of rock music and its seemingly decadent character into Israel society, Mizrahi music was beginning to develop. Many people point to the aforementioned Zohar Argov, who was of Yemenite origin, as a pioneer of this sound, but Horowitz interestingly points to the contribution of other less well-known figures to its development. Yemenite Jews had already begun to immigrate to Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century, and, by the state period, many were Israeli natives who simultaneously maintained a strong connection to their ancestral homeland and its musical traditions. Raised in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite neighborhood Kerem Ha-Temanim, performers like Yosef Levi, who performed under the name Daklon, began to familiarize themselves with other Mizrahi musical traditions. Performing at weddings and other special events these performers would freely mix between various musical traditions to create something distinctly Israeli.

While the developing Mizrahi sound was as authentically Israeli, if not more, than the Land of Israel repertoire, it ran counter to how the Israeli cultural elite wanted their nation to be perceived. As a result, major companies took little interest in its recording and distribution. With little or no radio time dedicated to its live performance either, one needed to attend special events or clubs to even hear Mizrahi music. The Phillips Corporation’s development of the portable cassette recorder in the early 1970s changed this.

Although record stores still refused to stock Mizrahi music, it began to be sold on cassette in stalls set up in high traffic locations like open-air markets and bus stations frequented by less affluent Israelis. Mizrahi music, with its incorporation of distinct aspects of the various musical traditions of Eastern communities, provided the Mizrahi community with something to unite them besides exclusion and discrimination perpetrated against them by Ashkenazim and it gained widespread popularity amongst Mizrahim. As Mizrahi music’s denigration by the Ashkenazic cultural elite increased with its growing prominence, Mizrahi Jews, who were becoming increasingly politically active during this period, embraced it all the more.

The hybrid sound that began to be produced by denizens of disadvantaged Mizrahi neighborhoods and towns further challenged the cultural status quo by reflecting an individual’s ability to simultaneously maintain various seemingly contradictory forms of identity. For example, Zohar Argov’s song “Perach Be-Gani” [A Flower in My Garden] combines a Yemenite vocal melisma involving the singing of more than five or six notes during the singing of a single syllable, a muwwal, a feature of Middle Eastern music involving a detailed improvisation on a sound at the opening of a song, Hebrew lyrics evocative of the Song of Songs, and rock elements, to hint at an identity with Yemenite, Middle Eastern, Israeli, and Western layers. For those who believed in the need for a single overarching Israeli identity, even the hint of such an identity proved threatening, but to many Israelis such an identity, as well as the music expressing it, proved pleasurable and liberating. As Horowitz convincingly shows, Argov’s premature death was subsequently exploited within Israeli society to express the sacrifice incurred by those pioneers striving to promote a multilayered form of identity better able to reconcile an individual’s Diaspora past with Israeli norms, as well as regret of those who had taken too long to accept this type of identity and its ability to mend the rift between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim.

The Argov myth helped pave the way for the movement to the mainstream of a new generation of performers who drew on the musical example of the emergent recording artists of the 1970s to further develop the Mizrahi tradition. The career of Zehava Ben, the daughter of a Moroccan-born Jewish musician who grew up together with her parents and nine siblings in a Beer Sheva housing project, exemplifies this shift and the music’s continued development. As a child, Ben imitated Argov’s Yemenite melisma and used tapes of Argov and other Mizrahi singers to learn more about Middle Eastern and North African music and how it could be most effectively combined with Hebrew lyrics and Western elements. Her bestselling first album Tipat Mazal (A Drop of Luck) drew heavily on contemporary Turkish music, but was nonetheless featured prominently on Israeli radio. This signaled an increasing openness to Mizrahi music and what it represented. Many Mizrahi Jews viewed the subsequent granting of regular airplay to Mizrahi music as a sign of increased respect. Simultaneously such airplay introduced Mizrahi music to Ashkenazic listeners, many of whom developed a growing appreciation of it, while also bringing successful artists of Mizrahi origin to explore their musical heritage after development of their careers through exclusive performance of Western genres. In Ben’s case, this increased openness and acceptance led to her challenge of the traditional boundaries of Israeli identity shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords when she recorded an album of Arab songs from the repertoire of the famed Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. The album was warmly received at home, as well as in the Arab world, signaling the possibility of bridging between Israeli society and its Middle Eastern neighbors, as well as between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. With the outbreak of the Second Intifadah realization of these possibilities was unfortunately deferred into the distant future, but Israeli society’s growing acceptance of its Middle Eastern or Levantine features, as reflected in Mizrahi music’s movement to the mainstream, challenges those who would portray Israel as a Western creation incapable of acclimating to its Eastern environment.

While Horowitz’s use of critical theory frequently muddies the clarity of the narrative that she sets out to present, her compelling book successfully presents a loving and nuanced portrait of contemporary Israeli society and culture unfortunately all too rare in academic and popular writing about Israel. The acting director of Smithsonian Folkway Recordings, who received a Grammy for her co-production of The Anthology of American Folk Music, Horowitz proves to be at her best when she analyzes music. For example, her succinct discussion of the mainstream rock band Ethnix’s hit song “Keturna Masala” (When Luck Returns) carefully depicts the aesthetically beautiful but tense relationship between Eastern and Western elements taking place in a single song.

Horowitz correctly recognized that basic knowledge of the artists, musical works, and issues, she discusses would enhance her study’s pedagogic effectiveness. Rather than letting the lack of such a knowledge handicap her book’s reception, she supplies a nineteen song CD accompanied by concise and insightful remarks about each song in one of the book’s appendixes. Together with the transliterated and translated lyrics to twelve of these songs provided in an additional appendix, these songs and remarks offer a study aid to unfamiliar readers. Alongside seminal songs performed by Zohar Argov and Zehava Ben, Horowitz presents a number of songs written, composed, or performed by Avihu Medina, a leading proponent and developer of Mizrahi music who features prominently in her study. Yet the CD also offers a number of less well-known tracks likely unfamiliar to all but highly versant aficionados of Mizrahi music. The hauntingly beautiful “Hekhan Ha-Hayyal” (Where is the Soldier) by Ahuva Ozeri, an artist who achieved widespread acclaim in the seventies before departing the musical scene for an extended period due to health reasons, shouldn’t be missed. Less aesthetically significant, but perhaps more culturally significant, an Arabic-Yiddish rendition of the Yiddish classic “My Yiddishe Mame’ by the Algerian-Jewish performer Salim Halali points to the hybrid and incorporative possibilities of Mizrahi music, while Palestinian Israeli singer Samir Shukry’s “Mi-Mosheh ve-‘ad Muhamad” (From Moses to Muhammad), with its Hebrew lyrics, points to Mizrahi Music’s ability to offer an effective forum for underrepresented voices in Israeli society. While seemingly a mere study aid, the supplementary CD deserves attention in its own right.

The products of extensive research, Horowitz’s book and its accompanying CD are a must for those interested in a fuller understanding of Israeli and Jewish music and culture.

Philip Hollander is an assistant professor of Israeli literature and culture at University of Wisconsin – Madison.

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