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This semester we will be exploring a set of complex cultural realities. As one of our textbooks states in its opening sentence:

The study of Israeli culture is one of the most challenging fields of inquiry among those relating to the investigation of nation-states that arose during the 20th century.

And yet, reality is always even more complex than how we posit it, even academically. This is why we will continue to read news from the Middle East every week.

Yesterday, the Israeli press reported on a “scandal” that happened in the Palestinian city of Hebron (Southern West Bank). Two Israeli soldiers on patrol joined a wedding party. In full military gear, they danced with the crown, to the sound of Gangnam Style. Here’s a link to the Jerusalem Post article, where I first read this news (which since last night has spread to news sources worldwide).

There’s a lot to deconstruct here, trust me…

There are some excellent resources available online.

The National Sound Archives of the National Library of Israel have published a playlist of early sound recordings, streaming online, including among other things two recordings of the boys choir conducted by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn in Jerusalem, recorded in 1922. You can listen to it here.

The Spielberg Film Archive of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has an excellent YouTube channel, which includes seventy film clips documenting life in pre-1948 Palestine (for a total of almost 28 hours of online video).

Any respectable course on music in Israel must tackle the topic of musiqah mizrachit (מוסיקה מזרחית), and so will ours. Extensively. For so many reasons: musical encounters, cultural conflicts, minority/mainstream cultural dynamics, “Orientalism,” the Israeli “Black Panthers,” cassette-tapes, bus stations, and more…

For now, enjoy Zohar Argov:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7jROV_XRa8]

At first sight, a veeeeery WaltDisney-esque Song of the Grape Pickers, 1955. The analogy with Snow White’s Hi-Ho holds only insofar as one begins taking into account the real agricultural achievements of the State of Israel, and, even more importantly from our perspective, the role of the early pioneers (chalutzim) and their lives in the Jewish agricultural communes (kibbutzim) in shaping national culture in Israel. Music, and song, and dance, played a central role in all this. We’ll have a week to discuss it. And a whole semester to look at the way in which music relates to, describes, and challenges, the evolving notions of “Land of Israel” (eretz yisrael).

The mother of all Israeli songs (SLI, or “Songs of the Land of Israel), with hauntingly beautiful lyrics (by Naomi Shemer) and an interesting story, to be explored in detail later (the melody is apparently not original; the song itself came to define the Six Day War of 1967, among other things). A very important aspect of this song is that it does embody, in its own 1960’s folk-music way, the multi-millenary Jewish longing for Zion (Jerusalem). In this course, we are devoting a week to this topic, as expressed through poetry and song throughout the Jewish Diaspora for centuries.

The Nachal army ensemble, 1967: a deconstructionist’s dream. Also, a nod at the role of the army in shaping national and musical culture. (A lot) More on this to come.

Idan Reichel, the star of many Jewish organization-sponsored events in North America and beyond; and a true game-changer in the “world music” circuit. This song, which quotes Psalm 130 (mi-ma’amaqim, also known in its Latin incipit, De profundis, or “from the depths, I called you, god”), mixes world music styles, ethnic (mostly, African) sounds and languages, with a Biblical theme.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), conducted by Zubin Mehta, performs Israel’s National Anthem (Hatikvah, “The hope”) on top of Masada, the site of a famous and tragic battle between the Jews and the Roman army in ancient Palestine, in a concert held in 1988. The IPO is but one examples of the building of musical institutions (orchestras, academies, broadcasting stations, festivals, competitions, etc.) since before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and of their role in shaping national culture. It also has an interesting connection to the San Francisco Bay Area, since the first fundraising event to establish the IPO (then called the Palestine Orchestra) was held in San Francisco in the 1930’s. (BTW, we are devoting one week of class to the many, and interesting, musical connections between Israel and the Bay Area, also with the help of an esteemed guest, Cantor Roslyn Barak, learning about her experiences  living in Israel, performing with the Israel National Opera, the Jerusalem Symphony and the Israel Philharmonic). I chose this video excerpt for a few notable (and slightly wicked) reasons. Note how the audience sings along, and how everyone stands, including the orchestra – except for those who cannot. The violin (solo played by Ori Kam), is in itself a fundamental Jewish musical icon. However, the distortions to the sound caused by the digital transfer from a VHS tape give this recording an involuntary Jimi Hendrix quality that I could not resist to point out.

Fiddler on the Roof, in Hebrew, staged by the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. From Yiddish, to English, to Hebrew… What are “Jewish languages,” and what is their relationship with music (and sound)?

Essential. Palestinian and/or Arab-Israeli (bring on the hyphens…) rap band, DAM, singing in Hebrew and Arabic about their relationship to the Land (of Israel?). During the class, we are going to explore the role of sounds and music in defining and opposing ethnic, cultural, political, and military conflicts. We are also fortunate to be assisted in this by Professor Ben Brinner (author of Playing Across a Divide) and members of the band, Bustan, who will join the class in March.

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