The sound of the Levant rising

by Ulrich Gutmair

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

When Jewish families first arrived from North Africa in Katamonim, a neighbourhood in the south of Jerusalem, in the 1960s, songs in Arabic were often heard on the streets. But soon enough, Arab musical culture was limited to the wedding celebrations of the Mizrahi, or Oriental Jews. Israel’s mainstream culture estranged itself from the Arabic overtones that the newcomers had brought with them, even while the likes of senior statesman and soldier, Moshe Dayan, professed his love of an Arab tune.

In their home in Katamonim, artists Neta Elkayam and Amit Chai Cohen are resurrecting their history – their family once lived in Morocco – in the form of music from the Maghreb. In a living room packed with listeners, they play songs that once blared through the neighbourhood such as, for example, from Moroccan-Jewish singer Zohra al-Fassiya who migrated to Israel in 1962.  

Five years ago Elkayam released a video on YouTube in which she and other musicians played a piece, Taalli, originally by the Algerian singer Salim Halali. The clip was happily embraced by many Arab listeners who saw it as a love song to their shared culture. “Love from Algeria,” one of the YouTube audience, Amira Yass, wrote in a response to the video.

The new admiration for Arab music in Israel is another manifestation of what is being called the Levantine renaissance. Increasing numbers of Israelis are starting to think of themselves, not as strangers in a strange land, but as cultural participants in a region characterized by centuries-old intermingling of languages, religions and cultures.

Many Israelis live close by Arab neighbourhoods, near Christians, Muslims or Druze Arabs, in places like Jaffa, Jerusalem and Nazareth. Over the past ten years, a small and mostly unnoticed but highly productive music scene has grown, that’s dedicated itself to showing traditional music and instruments of the region into a new context.

In 2016, that sound crossed over into the mainstream when, for the first time, a song with Arabic lyrics made it to number one on the Israeli charts. For months, the tune Habib Galbi, by the band A-wa, could be heard coming from car radios, in cafes and through the speakers on local buses. The song is a traditional one that three sisters from a Yemeni family re-made in the style of contemporary dance music.

“In the meantime, the oriental sound is not only seen as legitimate, it’s become cool,” says DJ Amir Pe’er. People want to see themselves as part of a culture that is not necessarily completely Jewish.

The Levant, whose name comes from the French for “rising” because the sun rises in the east, includes all of the countries on the eastern Mediterranean and has a rich tradition in music and food. This is a tradition that has become more and more interesting to mainstream Israeli society. 

The story of the music label, Fortuna Records, run by Zack Bar, who is also a co-owner of trendy Tel Aviv establishment, Bar Teder, as well as a small restaurant, Port Said, shows just how a hip, young audience is getting into their own local culture as well as the musical history of surrounding lands.

The label made its name with the re-release of the only album ever made by an artist called Grazia. In the 1970s, the young woman from Jaffa recorded an album for the dance clubs of the time, by combining traditional music with synthesisers. At the time Greek and Turkish music was in fashion, so she sang in Turkish accompanied by psychedelic-style Moog synthesizer. Unfortunately for her she was way ahead of her time and the album was a flop. This time around, it is clearly a different story. 

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