Archives for posts with tag: orientalism

This week we get to focus on one of the “hot” topics in the study of music in Israel: the rise of musiqah mizrachit, Israeli Oriental music, from the old Tel Aviv bus station to the charts.

In overall terms, we’ve already encountered the issue of Jewish orientalism. It’s a loaded topic, which goes back almost two centuries (and to German Jewish culture), and that also finds its interpreters among unexpected popular culture icons. See for example how Danny Kaye and Harry Belafonte interpreted Hava nagilah back in 1966:

The theme of Jewish orientalism was also appropriated by non-European Jews, such as the Algerian-French musical legend, Enrico Macias:

…on the basis of a long tradition of Jewish musical practice–involving classical and popular music alike–in the lands of Islam. Listen for example to Macias’ predecessor, Algerian legend, Lili Boniche:

In Israeli terms, the issue of musical orientalism has to do as much with the development of local musical genres and of cultural “authenticity” as it has to do with politics. It is a musical culture that combines Jewish tradition with Arabic music and with pop and rock styles. As a culture expressed by Israeli Jews with roots in the lands of Islam, this music has given some of the most marginalized elements of Israeli society a voice (quite literally), and a way to be “heard” beyond music itself.

Musiqah mizrachit, or Israeli oriental music, has been also called musiqah shel tachanah merqazit (music of the Central [Bus] Station), or musiqah qasetot (cassette tape music), because it was first available outside of mainstream cultural outlets (like the official music market, radio broadcasting, TV, and national music festivals), and distributed instead on bootlegged cassette tapes, sold at bus stations. (Buses and collective taxis were the main mode of transportation in Israel until the advent private cars in the 1980s, and remain an essential mode of transportation until today. Israeli bus stations are therefore important hubs and places of great diversity and social exchange).

It’s hard to explain what the old Tel Aviv bus station, where musiqah mizrachit was initially sold in the ubiquitous cassette-tape format, was like, but the Israeli rock band Teapacks (or Tipex, depending on who’s reading their name) made an attempt at narrating it:

While the music of mizrachiyut (oriental Israeliness) indeed emerged out of Tel Aviv, its politics were defined by a mostly Jerusalem-based movement, the panterim ha-shechorim (yes, the [Israeli] “Black Panthers”), rebellious Moroccan-Israeli youth from the Jerusalemite neighborhood of Musrara (right on the green line), famously described by Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, as “not nice boys”:

Musiqah mizrachit has had a host of interpreters, from “purists” to pop stars.

My personal favorites:

Zohar Argov…

…and Sarit Haddad.

These days, while the sound of musiqah mizrachit still defines music in Israel, the music market is moving beyond it. See it for yourself, for instance through the excellent work of Ester Rada, born in an Ethiopian-Israeli family in Kiryat ‘Arba, whose work addresses both the East African roots of her heritage:

as well as the sounds of the “Black Atlantic“:


I always enjoy reading the proposals submitted by the students of Music in Israel for their class projects (papers, presentations and performances, as outlined in the Class Syllabus). Then, I begin thinking, and learning, from them. I divide them into groups, and created graphs to describe their formats and contents.

It should suggest where things are at, now that we have reached the middle of the Semester.

Format-wise, students were somewhat “conservative.” Most students opted for the traditional “paper” (or essay) format. Some went for collaborative class presentations. And a few (but still a considerable number) chose to produce and present a performance to the class.

Music in Israel | Fall 2013 | Student Project Formats

In terms of the topic that students chose to work on, regardless of the format of their projects, I was able to isolate four major groups: ethnographic and ethnomusicological themes, the study of art music, the study of popular music, and the relationship between music and history.

Music in Israel | Fall 2013 | Student Project Topics

Ethnographic projects cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from the emergence of Judeo-Spanish song and Klezmer music between ethnography and commercial revival, to the sacred/secular divide in Israeli (musical) culture, issues of gender, various types of fieldwork (including the “ethnography of the Self”…), the study of traditional musical instruments, of the relationship between music and food, the role of Arabic maqam in Jewish music, music education, music in the Kibbutz, and the role of music in various Jewish “ethnic communities,” from Russia and Romania to Central Asia.

Students working on popular music will be covering a variety of themes, including Jazz, world Jewish and Israeli “pop,” ethnic rock, punk rock, Hip hop, and religious rock, the impact of American music on Israel’s popular music, the work of specific artists or ensembles (including Naomi Shemer, Shlomo Carlebach, and the Idan Reichel Project), and the impact of conflict and the role of the Israeli Defence Forces in shaping popular musical culture.

Art music is well represented as well, with topics ranging from the Israeli piano and vocal repertoires, to the impact of America’s Jewish composers on Israeli music, to the important issue of “style” (Mediterraneims, Orientalism, etc.) in Israel’s musical aesthetics.

The relationship between music and history will be mainly investigated in two directions: the role of film (and especially film music) in narrating history and representing culture, and the musical representations of the Holocaust.

Perhaps we are half way done, but it looks like a busy end of semester is coming up!

Singer, dancer, and “cultural mediator” Bracha Zefira (1910-1990) appears prominently in both of our textbooks. Her musical performances and recordings remain, however, rare to find.

Israeli singer of Jewish-Yemenite origin, Bracha Zefira, in the 1930s. By אלמוג at he.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Bracha Zefira: Concert Poster (1958)

Bracha Zefira: Concert Poster (1958). Source: eBay.

Zefira was “born in a Yemenite family in Jerusalem.” (Hirschberg: 187). An orphan since a very young age, she received a school education first in Jerusalem, then in a boarding school, and eventually at the Palestine Conservatoire and Menachem Gnessin’s theater school. She moved to Berlin in 1930, where she studied theater and met Nachum Nardi, a Russian Jewish pianist. Together they toured Europe and North Africa, presenting a program that

consisted of three ethnic divisions of songs–Yemenite, Bedouin, Sephardi–as well as children’s songs by Nardi. Piano pieces, such as a Gavotte by Gluck and a Rhapsody by Liszt served as piano interludes. […]

Zefira and Nardi returned to Palestine in 1930 and immediately set up a busy schedule of public concerts. Zefira’s reputation abroad did not prevent initial difficulties; for instance, the owner of a Tel Aviv apartment refused to rent it to a Yemenite, an action resulting in angry press rebuke. […]

Zefira’s repertory and performance style caught the self-confident western-educated critics in Palestine by surprise. David Schor, devoted as he was to the cause of Jewish folk song, criticized Zefira’s oriental quality of voice, claiming that ‘she has no voice, and what little she has is blighted by the intonation characteristic of Yemenite, Sephardi, and Arabic singing.’ […]

Members of the Sephardi community, on the other hand, immediately realized the unifying social potential of Zefira’s contribution. […]

A new stage [was] reached with Zefira’s participation in the momentous inauguration broadcast of the PBS in March 1936 which marked the official recognition of the East by the establishment. […] The increased public exposure raised the issue of the purity of the ancient and proud tradition. […]

While the purists were on guard protecting the genuine heritage, the fierce protectors of the Hebrew language unexpectedly re-emerged in August 1939 and fired from the opposite direction [with] a lst-minute ban on the concert because of the inclusion of two Sephardi songs in [Judeo-Spanish] (Ladino) in the otherwise Hebrew programme. (Hirschberg)

In 1937, Zefira and Nardi signed a contract with Columbia Phonograph and went on a tour in the United States, after which the couple separated. Zefira went on to collaborate with members of the Palestine Orchestra (eventually performing with the orchestra in the 1939 Summer Series), and toured Palestine with pianist and composer Paul Ben-Haim.

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This was quite a hit during today’s wide-ranging discussion of Jewish orientalism:


In class, we touched upon the cultural history of “Orientalism“, and covered issues of Jewish (musical) “style” (and the related cultural stereotype of the “artless Jew“), the pursuit of a Moorish (architectural) style in 19th-century European Jewish culture (and the creation of a “usable past”), and began to tackle the “encounters of East and West” that characterize the soundscape of Israel since before the establishment of the State in 1948.

PS If the topic interests you as I suspect it does (based on today’s discussion), you may want to follow the links I nested in this post to unearth some additional resources.

PPS I am grateful to Sharon Bernstein for pointing me to Gershwin’s 1920 party song.

This week we explore the sources of the notions of “Orientalism” in the musical culture of Israel. Here are the week’s listening assignments.

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