The Rise and Fall of Mizrahi Music
Posted by Jew from Jersey
30 December 2012
There is very little literature on the subject of Mizrahi music. In Israel there is none at all, even though it is an exclusively Israeli phenomenon. A number of headlines focused on the more sordid details of singer Zohar Argov’s drug addiction and death in prison in 1987, but nothing was written about the music he perfected and popularized. Since then, a few scattered articles have appeared in the United States, mostly written by American Jews and published in obscure academic publications, that focus on Mizrahi music. None that I know of focus on the lyrics. This is strange, since musicologists have pointed out that there is nothing new in the music itself. I think it is safe to say that Mizrahi music is over by the turn of the twenty-first century. Like everything else in Israel, it happened very fast. It is perhaps a good time to assess what it was and what it sang about, before it is completely forgotten.
Recordings Not for the ConnoisseurMizrahi music was never taken seriously in Israel. I know Israelis who are great connoisseurs of classical Arab music, but Mizrahi is gutter music to them. “Mizrahi” means “eastern” in Hebrew and these purists are quick to point out that Mizrahi uses western musical scales and western instruments. I believe them, since I know little about these things. As far as I can tell, Mizrahi music is derived largely from Greek music far more than from Arab music. Many Mizrahi hits are simply Greek pop songs with Hebrew lyrics. A number of Greek artists have caught on to this and wisely, instead of demanding royalties, have begun aggressively marketing their own recordings in Israel. Greek singer Glykeria has even recorded an album in Israel, Sweet Sorrow, on which she sings in Hebrew (which she doesn’t understand) and performs duets with Israeli artists. Still, connoisseurs of authentic Greek music would probably treat Mizrahi with purist derision as well. I know too little about music theory to say exactly what Mizrahi is. On a cultural level, it is definitely two things: it is hybrid and it is pop. It contains Greek, Turkish, north African and western influences in such an admixture that no purist would condone it. It is produced solely for commercial purposes on such a crass level that no musicologist or anthropologist would deem it an authentic object of study. They are probably right and these academic fields would probably be degraded by stooping to such levels. However, I who am neither a musicologist nor an anthropologist am free to degrade myself as much as I like in this respect.
Musically, Mizrahi contains only the most superficial accoutrements of Eastern or Arab music. The most noticeable of these are the nasal singing style and the vocal ululations known as silsul. There are also the frilly string instrument lacings that often echo the vocal parts. As purists point out, the instruments and scales are western. The frilly string bits are played by electric guitars, not by ouds or fretless string instruments like violins that allow for quarter tones. The nasal singing style and the silsul are quite distinctive, though. You never hear singers of western pop using them. Furthermore, Mizarhi singers always use a recognizably Middle Eastern pronunciation of Hebrew that puts to rest any doubts about their ethnic origin. This is of no interest to musicologists, I imagine. Mizrahi is essentially western (Greek?) pop with filly guitar bits and an accent. It is hybridized (to the purists, bastardized) pop for mass consumption.
Why is it Hybrid and Commercial?The highly hybridized and highly commercial nature of Mizrahi can be traced to its origins. It began as music played at family celebrations of Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean origin. Typically, they arrived in Israel in the 1950s in utter destitution. They worked hard to secure a better life for their children and by the 1970s many began to prosper. This included lavish festivities in honor of their children’s weddings and bar-mitzvas. Yet, although they were no longer living in transit camps or slums, their particular cultural tastes were not catered to by highly centralized mainstream Israel. This created a demand for musicians and singers who could perform the wedding music of eastern ethnic groups. The early Mizrahi artists were amateurs who depended on pleasing their customers. Many of their customers were Morrocan. Many were Yemenite. Many were Iraqi, Persian, Greek and Turkish. None of these markets were big enough for a given singer or band to play only to a certain ethnic niche. In order to make a living, they had to learn to play the favorite songs of natives of all these countries. They often curried favor by learning to sing the songs in the original languages and even speak a few phrases in each language or dialect. I’m not quite sure how the Greek influence came to dominate so much, but the repertoire of any Mizrahi act had to include some elements of all of these influences. Economic necessity also dictated small bands with cheap instruments. This ruled out the oud or the string section, which is probably what their customers really wanted. The musicians, who had grown up hearing the classical recordings their parents had brought from the old country, learned to mimic those sounds on the synthesizer and electric guitar. Drummers learned to mimic classical Middle Eastern percussion on 5-piece drum kits. These young performers, most of whom had little or no formal musical training, were also under the influence of western top 40 radio that their parents hadn’t known. The result was what came to be known as Mizrahi. Mizrahi vocalists were able to preserve traditional vocal styles to some extent more than the musicians. They often sang favorite songs of the older generation in the original vernacular. But they often translated them into Hebrew as well, or more often set the tunes to completely new Hebrew lyrics. By the late 1970s, a cottage industry of writers and lyricists, many of whom were managers and promoters, were crafting new Mizrahi songs in Hebrew out of whole cloth, or at least by cutting and pasting old classical and new Greek songs. Some singers even did Mizrahi renditions of mainstream Israeli hits.
In 1970s and 1980s, when Mizrahi music was being created and its most memorable hits were being crafted, no Mizrahi artist had a record contract with a major label. They were not even played on the radio. They made all their money performing at private engagements. Their managers often released the music on tape, but the tapes were never sold in music stores. They were sold in stalls in markets and bus stations. The tapes were very cheaply made and often self-destructed in your tape player after only a few playings. The inlay cards contained only a picture of artist and a phone number through which you could book the artist for your event. The music became known either as “wedding music” or “cassette music.” By 1982 at the latest, you could not travel by bus or taxi, or even walk down any residential street in any town, without hearing it blaring. All of it, however, was being propagated by cassettes that could not even be bought it record stores. Singers who were household names like Zohar Argov, Haim Moshe, Shimi Tavori, and Moshe Giat were never on the radio or TV, which at that time were all government owned. They sometimes appeared in magazines or weekend supplements, although the focus of these articles was usually the singers’ extravagant lifestyles. The performers themselves were the last people to think they should be taken more seriously. I think only songwriter Avihu Medina said something at the time in an interview to the effect that it was outrageous that government-funded Israel radio had a whole station “The Voice of Music” that played only classical music. By Medina’s reckoning, this station catered to no more than 2% of listeners, while Mizrahi music, which catered to over 20%, was essentially boycotted on the airwaves. Indeed, such a situation could only exist in a socialist country. Not only was all mass communication government funded, but the government saw as its rightful role to promote culture among the people. Mizrahi, as any musicologist will tell you, is not culture. This was beginning to change by the mid 1980s, largely due to privatization and relaxing of government controls. After that, Mizrahi music would crest commercially and ever after be a shadow of its former self.
How popular was Mizrahi music in its prime? When I was in basic training in 1991, soldiers in my company, their first night away from home, began to sing The flower in my garden written by Avihu Medina and made famous by Zohar Argov. It was after curfew and we slept in tents of ten guys each. No one could sleep. We were all scared, but ashamed to let it show. Most of us were only 18. When the singing started, we couldn’t even see who was singing, but the entire company knew the words and everybody joined in. I doubt hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, would have met with such success. It certainly would not have provided such comfort.
Taxonomy of the Mizrahi SongSo what is Mizrahi music about? What are the words of these songs that so many Israelis learn by heart? What is the content of this non-government funded, non-culturally approved popular art form? What do the texts of this highly successful mass product actually say? Every song I have ever heard can be classified in terms of the following four categories:
1) The song of unrequited loveThis is by far the most common, comprising perhaps almost half of all Mizrahi songs. Middle Eastern men suffer constant torment at the hands of women. This state of affairs is epitomized in singer Avner Gadassi’s classic Men Cry at Night. Some of the most successful Mizrahi songs of all time are of this type: Zohar Argov’s Marlene and Elinor and Avi Peretz’s It’s Hard for Me. Singer Ofer Levi made such a specialty of this kind of song that a joke tells of his wife coming home and finding him crying and asking: “Ofer, honey, what’s the matter?” To which he replies: “Quiet, I’m recording!” In these songs, women spurn men so cruelly and callously that men’s lives are not worth living. They stumble aimlessly, hoping only for the faint chance that the women who have tortured them so much will look upon them one last time. They are somewhat reminiscent of the American blues songs that tell of “evil” women, but they lack the anger and revenge themes that are common in the blues. There is no Mizrahi equivalent of “Get off my life, woman, I don’t love you no more.” There are no smokeless forty-fours and no “Hey Joe” scenarios. Some songs are a little more complex like Zohar Argov’s Wife which tells of a bitter divorce. There is no anger though, just wallowing in sorrow. Women can suffer too. Zehava Ben sings in Fire Fire: “All my life is just suffering. I don’t even have the end of a rope left. There is no more hope in me.”
It may be circular to argue that latecomers like Sarit Haddad are not truly Mizrahi because they have songs that are confident and chirpy and bright like Haddad’s Like Cinderella: “Don’t call me a snob because I’m not putting on airs. I don’t take everything I find. I want a nice boy, to take his hand and walk with him forever.” I think Mizrahi had already ceased to exist by the time Haddad came along in the late 1990s. In any case, no Mizrahi singer before 1995 ever sounded so darn well-adjusted about their love life. They are either despondent and dejected or manic and lustful.
2) The song of ecstasy and celebrationThis song may sound antithetical to the song of unrequited love, but it is not. This kind of song is not about happy adjusted love, it is about wild abandon of an intensity unlikely to last. These songs are the original wedding songs that Mizrahi music was created to cater to. Many of the songs are very old, translated from or sung in the original Arabic. Most Mizrahi artists probably had to sing the classic Great Rejoicing Tonight in some language at some point in their careers. Some of these songs are evocative of the poetry of “The Song of Songs” and some even contain scattered quotes from it or from the psalms.
3) The song of loyaltyEvery Mizrahi singer will at some point pledge their loyalty to something beyond themselves. This usually means parents or ethnic heritage or some mixture of the two. Ethnic heritage is often largely religious, although the loyalty is usually pledged to the tradition or at most to God’s commandments, and not to God Himself. Some Mizrahi singers, like Ofer Levi and Moshe Giat, later underwent religious rebirth and began singing religious music. But this is and always was a different industry with different studios, different marketing channels, and a different fan base. There are no Mizrahi songs that are chiefly concerned with exalting God’s name, as the Jewish prayers are. Nor do these songs sound much like American Christian music. They are more solemn than celebratory. They are not about personal salvation or even anything personal. They are songs of reaffirming age old allegiances which run largely through one’s parents and ethnic roots. Some are purely and narrowly ethnic, like Zohar Argov’s Yemenites’ Vineyard. Some are only broadly ethnic like Zehava Ben’s Queen of the East. Some are purely familial. Almost everyone has a song about their mother. Usually it is the son who does the exalting with an implied sense of guilt over how thankless he’s been in the past and how he will not let the parent down in the way he lives his life. Zehava promises her mother she will not leave her grandchildless. Fathers are less frequent although Zohar Argov sings powerfully of a long dead father: “My father, my father, do you not know that my soul thirsts for your prayer, for your song on the night of the high holy days. You bowed to the Lord in prayer and he heard your singing.” There is some fear that the son’s prayers will not be heard as his father’s were. After Zohar’s death, his brother Betsalel Argov released a song called Come Back, My Brother. Zehava had a song called: Lost Soul that worries about the fate of a wayward sister. She also released a duet with her real-life sister. One glaring gap is that there are no songs of loyalty to husbands or wives. There are songs of loyalty for children and these are usually very coddling. In What about the Child? Zehava sings of her devotion to a fictitious son whose parents have recently divorced in a way very reminiscent of Tammy Wynnette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E. However, I still have not heard a Mizrahi equivalent of Stand by Your Man. There are some songs for children whose fathers were killed in wars and a number of songs for sons home from the army. These songs are not pro-army, although they are not anti-army. They don’t even necessarily regard the fighting son as heroic. They regard him as our little baby who will pampered every minute until he has to return to his base. There is no Mizrahi equivalent of Toby Keith’s American Soldier.
There are no Mizrahi songs I know of that are outright patriotic or declare loyalty to the state. There is no equivalent of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. Some singers sing about their hometowns. Shimi Tavori entreats his listeners to join him in Afula, which is sort of the Israeli equivalent of Peoria. Shimi was born with the last name Tawili, but renamed himself after Mt. Tabor of biblical fame, which overlooks Afula. There are many songs about Jerusalem, not always sung by Jerusalemites. The 1967 war song Jerusalem of Gold has been done in the Mizrahi style. Zohar Argov, who hails from the humdrum coastal town of Rishon Letsiyon, sings passionately of Jerusalem in A Day Will Come. However, this song, like Jewish longing for Jerusalem in general, is more religious than national: “A day will come when we will drink together to life in the holy city of Zion, Jerusalem.” There have also been a few songs dedicated to soccer teams. These are usually more celebratory than the religious or familial songs, but they are also to a large extent about loyalty to one’s team. Many soccer teams are closely associated with certain neighborhoods and some are even associated with certain ethnicities. Betar Jerusalem is almost an ethnicity unto itself.
4) The song of fickle and unknowable fateThese songs often tell tales of rich and popular men who end up in the gutter. Zehava sings: “What a world. It has no mercy in it. See how a man can fall from the heights.” Sometimes they are more abstract, like Zohar Argov’s A Man Goes: “A man goes. He is like a flickering candle. And no one knows why this is and how.” Yoav Yitzhak’s hit of the 90s It is Time to Forgive contains the line: “I lift my two eyes upward to ask for answers to the questions. There is no reply and no man knows if we will meet at the road’s end.” Some songs, like Haim Moshe’s Let the Time Pass, are not as depressing, but convey a similar message. Some songs explicitly admonish against placing one’s trust in the future. In Secret of the Zodiac, Zohar Argov sings: “No man can know nor can he prophesy.” However, unlike in Bob Dylan’s I am a Lonesome Hobo, no reason is ever given why people fall from grace and never arrive at their destination. Nor is any way mentioned by which people can avoid such a fate or know about it in advance. As the Zohar Argov song Let Us Not Ask (Hidden Things) puts it: “There are hidden things we can neither understand nor know. There are even things that happen for no reason. We need not investigate and question everything. Sometimes it is even permissible not to know everything.”
Some songs buck these trends, but not many. Most are some kind of combination of two of the four categories. A few songs are of a kind of storylike quality that doesn’t overlap with any of the other themes. These songs are relatively few in number although some of them, like Black-haired Girl and Two Lillies have been recorded by many, many different artists. Also of this type is Zohar Argov’s Far Away in the Woods.
However, two very popular songs of the late 1980s are of another nature entirely. Eli Luzon’s hit What a Country contains the refrain: “What a country. A very special one. The government squeezes. The country gets squeezed.” It is not exactly a protest song, but it expresses a clear sense of exasperation, mainly with corruption and economic hardship. It also expresses resentment, not towards eretz yisrael the country, but towards the medina, the state. This sense of resentment is met again in To be Human, which like many of Zohar Argov’s other hits, was written by Avihu Medina. Here the resentment is clearly not so much over economic unfairness, but social humiliation. Each verse ends with the singer begging to be allowed “to be human.” The refrain goes: “I came into this world. No one asked me what I wanted, what my heart desired. I came into this world and everything already existed. Like everyone else, I’m only human.” This song was actually used in 1988 in a TV ad for a new political party focused on social issues. Like other parties of this type that appear in every Israeli election cycle, this party did not get enough votes for even one Knesset seat. The use of the song, though, sent the message of the party’s platform far more efficiently than anything they could actually have said in the ad. One might be forgiven for having expected Mizrahi to become the music of a new social movement.
The Mizrahi LegacyThere had always been something criminal about Mizrahi music. From the beginning, it had been underground, unavailable, and unaccepted. Its most noticeable use beyond its original function as wedding music was its use as a badge of defiance by youths of the ethnic underclass. On the surface, many of these youths who dressed provocatively and often engaged in criminal activities seemed completely at odds with the lyrics of these songs that were so traditional, religious, and family-oriented. Yet, to them there was clearly no contradiction. A good is example can be seen in the 1982 movie Under Your Nose, where the scar-faced, leather-jacketed, cocaine-snorting thief Herzl carries around a boom box blasting Zohar Argov’s latest. His partner in crime, Sami, sports a gaudy, oversize gold Star of David that hangs prominently out of his shirts. Of course, there was never anything overtly resentful in Mizrahi lyrics, at least not until 1987. However, the overt staid traditionalism was not really something traditional at all. It was not a component of the old wedding celebration songs that the music was originally based on. The older generation of immigrants were for the most part highly tradition minded, but not overtly so. They didn’t write songs about it. Their traditional lifestyles did not fare well in the new country, however, and their children largely failed to conform to them. The songs were a reaction on the part of the younger generation to the humiliation and threat they perceived leveled by the state and the majority against their parents and their traditions. The loyalty to tradition heard in the lyrics is at least somewhat vicarious. You could feel tough listening to Zohar Argov sing about his father’s devotion to God in the same way you could feel tough listening to him singing about demanding respect from society. The two were intimately related. Ten years later, who could feel tough listening to Sarit Haddad chirp about “friends in all different colors”?
As the country became less centralized, the margins also became less marginalized. Mizrahi music began to be integrated into the newly forming commercial youth culture. After all, it had what all youth culture values most: defiance and partying. Its fierce ethnic nature was gradually lost as the original conditions of the first generation of immigrants’ children faded from the scene. Children of immigrants who wished to fully embrace their traditional roots underwent religious rebirth and became orthodox. In this case, they certainly stopped hanging out on street corners and listening to loud music. Children of immigrants who opted for secularism gradually lost their pretensions to traditionalism. In short, the feelings of resentment were by no means lost, but they now had to be channeled through purely religious or purely political means.
The message of social resentment was not heard again in popular song until the early 1990s, when it resurfaced in a number of songs by Kobi Oz of the band Tipex (not a Mizrahi group). But Oz was not angry. He almost seemed to be acting someone else’s role, even if it was one he understood well. Furthermore, he seemed to understand something that had never been mentioned in the earlier songs. What the singer wanted was not something tangible. It was not money or even jobs or high office. It was pride. In A Song about Neighborhood Distress, Oz sings: “Even if you stand by my side, it will never be enough for me. If you try to help, it will only increase the distance between us. If you repaint and plant flowers outside, inside I still hurt.” This says quite a lot about the world Mizrahi music grew from. The neighborhoods and towns the singers pledged their loyalty to, where their beloved families and traditions resided, were not considered nice places. It was always hard to separate out whether the stigma was due more to the small budgets the state allocated them or the cultural disregard the mainstream held them in. In Gathering Dust, Oz retells the history of his town: “‘We’ll build new buildings here, and bring some people who’ll fill the houses with their lives.’ So said senior ministers in a sleepy voice, and ran to deal with emergency situations.” Mizrahi itself is representative of this state of affairs. It was a local outgrowth of the neighborhoods and it was ignored for years by the rest of the country. In the intervening ten years, the country’s economy had improved greatly and many urban renewal projects were launched to give the old neighborhoods a new look. Oz is suggesting that this was too little too late, the new generation had grown up feeling just as slighted as the old one. In The Stream’s Dump, he describes residents smashing up stairways and playgrounds, confident that the authorities will renovate it all again next year. Yet at the same time, the new generation had little interest in reproducing the old culture or even Mizrahi music.
Oz might have been a Mizrahi singer had he been born 10 or 20 years earlier. He is the son of immigrants from Tunisia and grew up in the dusty town of Sderot. He showed musical promise at a young age and played at many weddings and bar-mitzvas... as a DJ. His musical influences included all of those of the previous generation, but also American Hip-Hop. His routine also involved a lot of humor, which is one thing Mizrahi music was always in sore lack of. In Last in the Bottom Ten Percentile he even makes fun of the social resentment he champions elsewhere: “And besides that I also st-stutter, because I was booed at my bar-mitzva. And I was circumcised twice and other babies threw oranges at me. And my parents cheated at checkers and so destroyed my future. And they never bought me any gum and that’s why I’m such a loser. I’m miserable. I’m pathetic. I’m the last in the bottom ten percentile.” Unlike Mizrahi singers, Oz loves to sing about simple boy-girl relationships. He also has songs telling young Israelis to slow down a little and enjoy the simple things in life. Oz also makes fun of his parents and older family members and their traditions. He respects them, but is unsure he is willing or able to carry on their heritage. There is some ambivalence. Some of his songs show a clear bitterness towards family members and neighbors who have moved to the big city, gotten high-paying jobs, and left the old ways behind. In Remember Where You Come from and Where You’re Going, he sings: “We’ll always remember you here in the neighborhood. We used to be family. Here, come see the picture.” Is he talking about himself? Oz likes Mizrahi music, but would feel silly performing it straight up. He loves his mother, but is not going to self-righteously attest to it in front of his fans. Oz, a master of the mixer and the sound studio, also uses far more elaborate arrangements and production than were possible in the old Mizrahi days. This includes use of string sections and classical Middle Eastern instruments, whose dearth in the old days gave Mizrahi its unique guitar and synth style. Oz is a stranger to the cheapo tape cassette. His CDs are some of the most elaborately designed on the market. Nearly all of Tipex’s CD covers feature the hamsa, a traditional good luck charm. But Oz clearly means it as symbol of kitsch as much as a symbol of the old ways and superstitions. Oz’s music is what has been called in Israel in recent years “Mediterranean,” a sort of Mizrahi lite. The event of Mizrahi lite and Oz’s generation’s ambivalence about tradition underscore the changes that had taken place since Zohar Argov’s death.
The Beginning of the End By the late 1980s, Mizrahi artists were appearing on TV variety shows and Mizrahi music was played on the radio, although usually only on special programs. The advent of pirate radio stations in the early 1990s made the music easily accessible to the non-cognoscenti and the CD revolution around the same time made new Mizrahi releases available in normal stores. By that time, a lot else was changing. Mizrahi artists were actually starting to perform their own venues, instead of getting booked at family events. This probably had something to do with the fact that the big names in Mizrahi were by now well out of the financial reach of most people, who began to opt for the cheaper services of platter-spinning DJs. Mizrahi singers were even beginning to appear with multi-artist tours and festivals, billed together with non-Mizrahi artists. Some of them even had music videos on TV. Margalit Tsanani, one of the early Mizrahi chanteuses, now had her own talk show and advertised a new line of hummus products. What had been an underground phenomena was rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the mainstream.
This merging with the mainstream was abetted by an equal and opposite trend within the mainstream itself. The first two crossover artists were probably Boaz Sharabi and Yehuda Poliker. Sharabi was a singer and songwriter of Yemenite origin who wrote and played his eastern influenced pop to very small audiences. Then, in 1984, his song Give Me a Hand appeared as the theme song in the movie Beyond the Walls. The movie attracted relatively large audiences for a locally made film. Give Me a Hand was played on an acoustic guitar, but used the nasal singing style and accent of Mizrahi. It got a lot of exposure and airplay and even TV time because of the movie. This helped break down the stigma surrounding the Mizrahi style and accent. It also got Mizrahi fans listening to something that was not really Mizrahi. Yehuda Poliker was the child of Greek immigrants who had made his name playing straight up rock in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then in 1985 he released an album called Eyes of Mine that featured popular Greek songs translated into Hebrew. But it was Greek pop played with rock instruments, which made it sound familiar to Mizrahi fans. This record got more Mizrahi fans into rock and more rock fans into Mizrahi. All of Poliker’s many recordings since then have had a recognizably Greek flavor. In retrospect, some credit should go also to Alon Olearchik, an Ashkenazi with an active imagination who had played bass in the popular band Kaveret in the early 1970s. Olearchik had spent 10 years in the United States, but returned in 1985 with his finger on the national pulse to release a Mizrahi sounding single A New Boy Comes to the Neighborhood that reached a very wide audience. None of his other songs in subsequent years were nearly as successful, although a number of minor hits such as Two Parts inside the Whole and Ben Bassat had a Mizrahi feel to them. He went on to produce for Tipex and Israeli Arab singer Amal Murkus.
The grey area between Mizrahi and mainstream was narrowing. In the late 1980s, two first cousins of Persian ancestry, Meir and Ehud Banai, began their long careers as singers and songwriters. They were not overtly ethnic in any way, but their rock was different. It had more unusual minor chords and more songs about families. They were the first Israeli rock artists who didn’t immediately remind you of some western rock artist. Shlomi Shabat, on the other hand, peformed music that was recognizably Mizrahi, but was more of a singer/songwriter in the Western tradition. In 1992, the thing came full circle when two new groups, Ethnix and Tipex, served up uniquely eastern styles of rock that had not been heard previously. The lead singer and guitarist of Ethnix, who had previously played straight up rock, described how this came about in Yoav’s Kutner’s TV documentary of Israeli rock The End of the Orange Season. Cable TV first became available in Israel in 1992. The singer and guitarist had been watching an Indian cable channel where an Indian rock group was performing. The group were dressed in western clothes, held western instruments and played music that sounded very western, except that it was in Hindi. The Israelis found this humorous, until one of them remarked to the other: “Wait a minute, we must look like that, too.” It occurred to them that when they see an Indian dressed in traditional clothes playing a sitar, they didn’t laugh. Subsequently, everyone began discovering their roots. Miki Gavrielov, who had played bass and composed for veteran Western-style rocker Arik Einstein for two decades, now released an album of Turkish music. Even Ariel Zilber, an Ashkenazi who had cofounded the legendary prog-rock group Tamuz in the 1970s, came out with Mask of Smoke, his own musical interpretation of the East.
By the mid 1990s it seemed that Mizrahi might take over the mainstream. It might even reach other countries. All Israeli singers had tried to break into the international market, but none had succeeded with the sole exception of Ofra Haza (she sings the part of Moses’s mother in Prince of Egypt). Haza, who was of Yemenite parentage, had sung mainstream pop in Israel, but broke into the European market in the late 1980s doing a kind of middle eastern disco that didn’t go over too well at home at the time. There was reason to think that the new Mizrahi artists or the newly orient-oriented mainstream could do better abroad than the westernized singers. Singer Ishtar had some success in sales in Europe and even in Arab countries singing with the Spanish group Alabina. Transsexual diva Dana International, another musical Yemenite, who started his/her career singing Whitney Houston in Arabic, represented Israel in the Eurovision in 1998... and won. Closer to home, singer Sharif, billed as “The Druze boy” successfully performed in Jordan. Zehava toured Europe with the Haifa Arabic Music Orchestra performing classical Arab songs. The concerts were well attended by European Jews of north African origin and apparently even by some Muslims. Even more impressively, Zehava performed with her regular band on the West Bank and attracted large audiences of young male Palestinians before the tour had to be discontinued due to Hamas bomb threats. The only singer who made it in America at all was Achinoam Nini, a graduate of the Rimon school who sang artsy folksy songs to limited audiences at home. Nini looks typically Yemenite, though, and this was a major factor in the marketing of her American debut album Noa, produced by Pat Metheny. She later had some success on the American college town circuit.
It is possible that Israeli music and culture could have penetrated the world further if not for the change of political winds in 2000. However, it is pretty clear that by that time Mizrahi had ceased to exist in any meaningful way. It had disappeared into a mainstream that was become more orientalized anyway. Zehava Ben got married in 1997 and became semi-retired. She still records occasionally, but she is no longer a trendsetter. The same can probably be said of most other living Mizrahi artists. But Zehava was the last bridge from the old to the new. She was the only new Mizrahi star of the 90s who had sold her first release on cassette in the bus station, before the days of cable TV, talk shows, and music videos. She had been Queen to Zohar’s king. Sarit Haddad has a good voice, maybe a better voice than Zehava, but she is the product of a completely different industry. It’s not necessarily that she makes more money. Some of the old wedding singers did quite well, and in any case no one in Israeli music makes that much. What can I say? She represented Israel in the Eurovision in 2002 and no one thought it strange. Could you imagine Zohar Argov in the Eurovision? Heartthrob Eyal Golan is a pet project of Ethnix lead singer Zeev Nehama. His music is no more Mizrahi than theirs. Lior Narkis... well, I don’t wish to say anything unkind about anyone. Of course, there is a difference between Tipex and Eyal Golan: Kobi Oz admits his music isn’t Mizrahi. Zeev Nehama knows it but doesn’t admit it. Eyal Golan maybe doesn’t even know it. It’s not their fault. The milieu no longer exists. Maybe the fan base doesn’t either.
It seems silly to mourn the passing of Mizrahi music as the loss of an authentic art form. Everyone always said there was nothing authentic about it musically. However, it was definitely an authentic popular art form. It grew from the grassroots with no help from a socialized, centralized music industry that saw no need for it. All of its attributes were the result of necessity in the efforts of a small group of amateurs to satisfy the demands of a mass public. The response of the artists and entrepreneurs was direct. There was no marketing, no polling, no testing. The only advertising was hand-posted flyers. The result resounded deeply with an entire population, maybe a million people, that the state industry had failed to plan for. I won’t argue that the result was unique in any artistic way, but it probably represents the people the way they wanted to think of themselves rather well. I think the proof of this is in the way the music served as a badge of identity for at least one entire generation. No industry engineered musical trend has ever been able to do this, no matter how much money it made. Mizrahi music was also free of ideology or artistic posturing. It had no articulated philosophy, no intellectual movement, no rich patrons. It was not discussed in salons. Mizrahi music was not a new fad. It was something of an old fad, a reassertion of an older identity and values. It spoke of a fierce loyalty to family, neighborhood and tradition. But it was also fiercely partygoing, sensual and had a rebellious streak. Maybe more art would be like this if it were created in such an environment without big business, without government intervention, without intellectual critics, and without artistic pretensions.