Here comes the Mizrahi music revolution

Apart from the almost obligatory swipe at the Israeli government for ‘suppressing their Arab roots’, this Brandeis University article explains how the descendants of Jews from Arab countries have created a vibrant music scene. Joseph Dorfman profiles some of the leading players:

The cover of A-Wa’s 2019 album, “Bayti Fi Rasi.”

In the last two decades, a small group of Mizrahi Jews — Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent — have returned to their Arab Jewish roots and begun transforming the country’s popular music scene.

Israeli music, long dominated by Western forms of rock and pop, has been suddenly infused with the musical strains of Arab countries like Morocco, Iraq and Yemen, fusing sounds and rhythms into something thrillingly its own.

These artists’ songs draw on such influences as traditional Andalusian and Arab Jewish melodies, blues, jazz and music from Africa and Latin America. And they often feature Arabic and Hebrew lyrics, sung in a cacophony of Hebrew- and Arab-inflected accents, blurring one language into the other.

In the Middle East, where nationalities and their boundaries are often jealously guarded, this new form of Mizrahi music is all about tearing down cultural and musical walls with meaningful abandon.

The best-known of the Mizrahi artists, like rocker Dudu Tassa, have established careers in Israeli popular music, while others, like singer Neta Elkayam, have forged iconoclastic paths from the beginning. In some cases, the musicians are more popular outside Israel than in it, finding an audience in the Arab Middle East and Europe.  (…)

Lior Elmaliach, “Orgb ya la’ali” (Reflect from above God Almighty)

Elmaliach, whose family is from Morocco, became popular in the early 2000s and is a forerunner of the Mizrahi music revolution. His songs draw on the piyyutim, Jewish liturgical poems, of Moroccan Rabbi David Buzaglo, considered one of the greatest liturgical poets of the 20th century.

Piyyutim were sung to both traditional and modern Arab melodies by Jews in Arab countries, and the custom continued in Mizrahi synagogues in Israel. Elmaliach recorded piyyutim and brought them to a new popular audience, Evri said.

“There is a saying that in the process of erasing Arab Jewish culture in Israel, they forgot to close the synagogue door,” he said. “It is in the piyyutim that the new tradition of Mizrahi music was born.”

Ziv Yehezkel, “Ya Ribun Alam” (Praise the Sovereign of the World)

Growing up, Yehezkel learned Arabic melodies at his local Mizrahi synagogue. An Orthodox Jew, he has ventured even further in his act of cultural fusion, appearing as the vocal soloist for the Arab Orchestra of Nazareth and becoming a star in both the Arab and Jewish music worlds.

In 2016, he told The Forward“I live on the borderline” between Jewish and Arab culture. In this song, Evri said, Yehezkel “takes a traditional and beautiful 17th-century piyyut from Syria and brings the Arab and Jewish traditions into a conversation with one another.”

Dudu Tassa, “Walla Ajabni Jamalak” (Your Beauty Captivated Me)

Tassa describes his music as a mixture of Iraqi, Middle Eastern and Israeli rock music he’s dubbed “Iraq n’ Roll.” “Tassa is personally the closest to me because he sings Iraqi music, which I remember from my home,” Evri said.

Tassa opened the 2017 Coachella festival in California and toured with the band Radiohead. His third album was in part a tribute to his grandfather and great-uncle, popular Jewish Iraqi music stars in the mid-20th century known as the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers, after which he named his current band.

Neta Elkayam, “Taali” (Come On)

Elkayam grew up in one of the development towns in the country’s south, Netivot, created by the Israeli government to house the influx of Jews from Arab countries. Everything was Moroccan — the food, the synagogue and the music.

Several years ago, she embarked on a project to recover the music sung by Moroccan Jewish women recorded while they were temporarily gathered together in transit camps on their way to Israel in the 1950s.

“Taali” was originally written by the popular 20th-century Algerian singer Salim Halali who was himself Jewish. Elkayam sings it in Moroccan Arabic. “The first time I heard Neta sing, it was this song, Taali,” Evri said. “I was taken with its beauty.”

A-Wa, “Hana Mash Hu Al Yaman”

The band A-Wa (‘yes’ in Arabic) fuses Arabic traditions and lyrics with hip-hop rhythms to bring Mizrahi music to younger generations. Their song “Habib Galbi” (“Love of My Heart”) was the first song in Arabic to make it to number one on the Israeli pop charts.

“A-Wa is an example of how the new Mizrahi music is remixing Arab and Jewish cultures and subverting national boundaries,” Evri said. The song below is about their grandmother longing for Yemen and complaining about Israel.

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