Thursday, March 10, 2011
Israel's Music Wars
By Steven Plaut
Well, no one ever denied Israel was a strange place, and it is
particularly strange this week, as music is suddenly the country's
lead political controversy.
Let me explain.
Occasionally I spout off about Israeli music. In my humble
opinion, music is the cultural area in which Israeli artistic
achievement is the most remarkable. Israeli theater is poor and
Israeli cinema is little more than a human rights abuse of viewers.
Israeli TV productions are even worse, mostly idiotic soap operas and
"reality" shows. Israel has some dance troupes that are not bad. It
has a thriving literature in Hebrew, except it is hard to separate it
from the moonbat leftist politics of most Israeli writers. It has
some interesting painters and sculptors.
But Israeli music is a cultural gold field! It is almost as if
the only area in which Israelis allow themselves a display of actual
emotion is in music. And Israeli music is a cornucopia of many
different brilliant styles. Israeli music ranges from the "camel
music" or desert songs of the 1950s, to the Russian genre that was
strong from the 1930s on, to Brazilian and French and Italian styles
transformed into Hebrew music, to religious themes in many different
religious styles of music. Israel produces world-class classical
music, or rather it performs it (not composing much of it).
But without a doubt, or at least without any doubt from me, the
two most important and most impressive original musical styles in
Israel are "Eretz Yisrael Yafa" ("beautiful land of Israel" songs) and
"Oriental" or Mizrachi music. The first of the two is simply
indescribably beautiful, both musically and in terms of the lyrics.
The latter is a lively mix of musical themes that are partly inspired
by Greek, Turkish, Spanish, and Arabic music. Many of its best
writers and performers are Yemenite. Avi Medina, perhaps the best
writer of all, is an indescribable artistic icon.
In many countries musical styles have high (but not perfect)
correlations with socioeconomic, educational, and even political
identity. For example, Country-Western music in the US is largely
associated with rednecks, working-class people. Few college
professors (besides me) listen to it. Ditto for bluegrass, although
it has its urban and campus followers. Motown, soul, rap, hiphop are
largely but not exclusively embraced by blacks. American Folk is for
leftist yuppies and vegetarians. Salsa has broken out of the barrio
and is now embraced in a broad "multicultural way." Jazz seems to cut
across class and race and income. Loud "pop" rock and roll is
universal, at least for people below the age of 30. Broadway show
music is supposedly the passion of homosexuals, or so the stereotype
asserts. And so on. Conservative Fox News plays country music,
while leftist CNN does not.
Oriental music has long been controversial in Israel. The snooty
leftist Ashkenazi elite has always hated it. For decades it was
banned from radio stations, back in the days when all radio stations
were state run (most still are). It was largely "underground" music,
sold in cassettes and disks at the old Tel Aviv Central Bus station
and in other back alleys. But it conquered large segments of the
population, so much so that by the 1980s no self-respecting Sephardic
wedding could be conducted without lots of it. Slowly, reluctantly,
it made its way into the establishment radio stations and television.
Oriental music resembles country-western in the US, not in any
musical sense but rather in its class associations. It is beloved by
the Israeli version of rednecks, the blue collar and the working
class. Most Oriental singers and performers are Sephardic Jews. Some
are Ashkenazi and a few are Arabs. I have even heard a few Yiddish
songs sung to Oriental accompaniment. Not all Sephardic performers do
Oriental music. Some of the most famous – Shoshana Damari for example
- would never have been caught dead singing anything like it. Arik
Einstein, Israel's leading Ashkenazi bohemian singer, does the
occasional Oriental song.
And Oriental music is still hated by "educated" Ashkenazi yuppie
elitists, and especially leftists.
But the class and ethnic associations with musical styles in
Israel are complicated, partly because Jewish ethnicity itself is
This week, all of Israel is buzzing over comments by singer
Yehoram Gaon denouncing Oriental music in a student newspaper put out
at Ariel college. Gaon denounced all Oriental music as "garbage that
even Satan could not invent." What made his comments even more
newsworthy is that Gaon is himself Sephardic, and so it seemed a bit
like Jeff Foxworthy denouncing country music. But Gaon is not a
Mizrachi version of Sephardic. He is a Samekh-Tet or Sephardi Tahor
or "Pure Sephardic," which in modern Hebrew refers to people from
old-time Sephardic families that moved to Jerusalem, in some cases
right after the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain. Parts of my wife's
family are Samekh-Tet. For my own part, I am mongrel Ashkenazi, and I
adore Oriental music! (Of course, I also like country and bluegrass,
Jewish redneck that I am, so do not place too much store in MY
The media are all speculating about what drove Gaon to denounce
Oriental music, some suggesting he simply voiced his own frustration
as a non-Mizrachi Sephardic Jew being too often lumped together with
the "Oriental" singers. Gaon's singing is more Israeli folk, and he
has produced and sung a lot of Ladino music. Ironically, he may best
be known for his role in an Israeli musical film in which he plays
"Casablan," a greasy tough from Morocco living in an Israeli slum.
As Mizrachi as they come!
Hours after the story of his outburst broke, numerous talking
heads in the local media were either denouncing Gaon or endorsing his
opinions. Perhaps the loudest endorsement of them was from Israeli
poet Haim Hefer (who is Ashkenazi). Every TV show, radio show, and
newspaper has been obsessed with the "debate" for the past two days.
Ironically, in the middle of all this, the country had a live
demonstration of the very WORST kind of music produced in Israel.
Most Americans have never heard of the Eurovision Contest, a song
contest for mainly EU countries. It once made ABBA famous (no, not
Abba Eban). Every year the world's worst pop music is produced and
performed for the contest. Israel always sends "representatives," and
in the prelims before the Euro contest Israel has its own horrid local
competition and face-off to see who will go. If I were a bit better
organized, I would just take a vacation outside of Israel during
Eurovision season. During the weeks of Eurovision hype, one should
never turn on any pop Israeli radio show or take any bus in which the
driver has the radio turned on.
This year, the "winner" that will go to Europe as Israel's rep is
the "transgendered" thing "Dana International," who already was sent
to an earlier Eurovision contest. The song that "Dana" sings is so
awful that I finally found something that makes me cringe even more
than watching Ellen DeGeneres try to dance at the opening of HER show.
The great irony of course is that "Dana" is the darling of the
politically correct Ashkenazi yuppie elite, the very same people
jihading musically this week against Oriental music. This is not to
say that there is no bad Oriental music. There is some. There is
also some bad classical music. But there is no good Eurovision music.
2. Just a fast thought. You know how lefties always like to claim
that what they seek is socialism that will provide "cradle-to-grave"
Well, it occurs to me that socialism has generally been much more
successful at producing graves than cradles….