Monday, November 27, 2006

"Without you, I am half a person," or the State of Muzika Mizrahit

Ofer Levi: "You and I, that's love from heaven ..."
!אני ואת זו אהבה מהשמיים, אני ואת זה החיבור הכי נכוווון

Muzika mizrahit
(literally, "eastern music") is a genre beloved by many Israelis and despised by even more. Drawing on the musical traditions of the Mediterranean and Middle East, it combines lyrics about heartbreaks and undying love (for boyfriends, girlfriends, and mothers) with infectious tunes and beats. Well-known singers include such luminaries as Kobi Peretz, Ofer Levi, Sagiv Cohen, Moshik Apiah, Sarit Hadad, Eyal Golan, Shlomi Shabbat, and many others - please don't be angry at me for omitting your favorite one! Old-school favorites include Margalit ("Margol") Tsanani and Zohar Argov.

A typical specimen of the genre includes liberal use of the terms neshama (literally, soul, as in neshamah sheli, "my soul" or "my love"), kapara (atonement offering - I will leave the explanation to someone else, in the interest of time), and biladayikh ("without you"). The most common language nowadays is Hebrew, usually with proper enunciation of the letters 'ayin and het. But singers may also be heard bursting into Greek, Arabic (of various regional flavors), Turkish, and Farsi.

To the chagrin of some residents of the country, young diaspora Jews tend to go crazy about the poppy but exotic songs. However, among the more fashionable segments of the Israeli population, putting on a mizrahi disc can be as devastating as playing a country music album (though the genre's real American equivalent is probably r&b).

The stereotypical male fan of this music is the ars (literally, "pimp"), who is roughly equivalent to the American guido or the Canadian gino. Females who listen to muzika mizrahit are often derided as freykhot. Needless to say, these stereotypes are loaded with socioeconomic and ethnic prejudices.

Whereas in the United States, listening to hip-hop has long become acceptable and is no longer automatically sneered at, muzika mizrahit is likely to provoke immediate censure by the self-appointed guardians of civilization in the Levant. There is a deep-rooted fear among many Israelis about exposure to the "primitive," and muzika mizrahit undoubtedly carries associations of primitiviyut. The more overtly racist of these bullies will refer to the music as "Arab" in some way or other - a damning indictment for these people. Indeed some of the people who enjoy muzika mizrahit also have a liking for "Arabic music" - a category that ranges from the pop tunes of sexy Lebanese singers such as Nancy Ajram and Elissa to 'Amr Diab (from Egypt), rai singer Khaled (Algeria), all the way to the classics, such as Umm Kultum. But outside of the Arab sector, not many young Israelis listen to these.

The big radio stations, such as Galatz (Army Radio) and Galgalatz (Army Radio with more music) do not play very much muzika mizrahit, except for occasional cross-over hits. Rather, its main purveyors have been regional stations. Unfortunately (for those who like it), however, a two-year-long royalty dispute is preventing many artists from being heard even on these stations. There is quite a bit of concern in the industry about the viability of the genre, and some, such as Ma'ariv's former mizrahi music critic Dudu Cohen, cited in a Ha'aretz feature on the industry, see the signs of its degeneration in the hits of the past few years:
"As for success and the audience's demands, there's no knowing what will happen in the future," adds Cohen. "In terms of music quality, the big money in this industry appeals to quite a few entrepreneurs and interested parties with no artistic pretensions. At this rate, it won't be long before songs with lyrics like Balbeli oto, al ta'asi lo heshbon, - mix him up, don't take him seriously - become mega hits. Oops, actually, that's already happened [Cohen is referring to a very popular song by Kobi Peretz]."
For those who want a listen, try searching on YouTube - here's is one sample of Kobi and here's another: balbeli. Oh, I forgot to mention that the video production standards tend to be a little on the cheesy side. The online radio station Radio Noshmim Mizrahit [Breathing Mizrahit] is also a good place to start.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find the Hebrew version of the Ha'aretz article linked above, but it is worth checking out the second reader response to the English piece. Under the subject line "Good lets [sic] hope it stays like that," SJ writes:
Well duh !
dont we get enough of Mizrahi music when some arsi drives past in his souped up BMW with the winodw open to the screaching and whining of some "Mizrahi artist" who seems to have an obsession about his mother, lila and "at yafe".
Please people its 2006 and this rather cheap ugly version of Arabic music belongs in the trash can and not on the airwaves.


Carmia said...

You forgot one of my favourites, Haim Moshe! LOL, I know you told us not to be angry, but I had to put him in there.
Anyways, it's funny because the other day, my roommate's boyfriend (who, for the record, does not live here) was on my case about listening to Mizrahit and telling me to turn it off, in my own house!
Also, yesterday, in the Carmel Centre, there was an old guy with a keyboard busking, singing Mizrahi hits with a thick Russian accent. That was interesting.

Anonymous said...

You miss out a huge segment of mizrahi music, thereby sort of misfiring your argument.

What about ...Yair Delal, "Boustan", Lubna S'lame, Majda ElRoumi, Fairouz, Yousou N'dour, Ilana Elia, Souad Massi, Lahakat Sfatayim , the Bedouin rock band "Lenses" etc, to mention just a few.

There is a whole world of Mizrahi or Arab or "oriental" or what ever you want to call it, music out there.

The musicians you mention are a few wildly popular ones, liked by many, disliked by as many. Perhaps by some for racist reasons.
But perhaps some of us, who really love music, Arab music included, do not like some of the musicians mentioned by you , just because it is not to their taste. Perhaps because of silly lyrics, perhaps, because of bad singing or musical arrangements or for whatever reason.
It's a pity you write only about a very specific type of Arab music.

Amos said...

Hey Yudit,

I just saw Lubna perform here in Berkeley together with Shlomo Gronikh. She was pretty good, although the English songs were rather cheesy.

I'm not sure what you understood my argument to be, but I deliberately focused on the "wildly popular" artists without making any claims to be comprehensive. Those other musicians are great, but I think you'll agree that most of them are not household names among people who listen to מוזיקה מזרחית. I also doubt that many of them would refer to this genre as a specific type of "Arab" music. My post was mainly about the status that this particular genre of music has in Israeli society.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm just one of those diaspora Jews who likes מוזיקה מזרחית, whether popular or "high culture" (or whatever the best term should be). Here in Ithaca Yair Dalal has come to perform several times, and he's been wildly popular.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone,

Nice discussion! I like both types of Israeli "Oriental" music, Haim Moshe as well as Yair Dalal. With regards to popular singers like Kobi Peretz et al, their music is actually much closer Greek/Turkish music than to Arabic. A great bulk of the big Mizrahi hits of yesteryear and today are Hebrew-language covers of Greek "laika" (popular bouzouki-based music)hits. For example, the song mentioned in the article, "Balbeli oti" is based on a Greek tune. Of course, Greek popular music is very close to other types of Eastern Mediterranean music (Turkish, Arab) so I guess the "Oriental" is still a good description.

Turkish "arabesk" music is another important stylistic influence...a good part of Ofer Levi's repertoire is based on Turkish "arabesk" melodies...though "Ani veat" is actually a Greek song originally (which becomes apparent in the Hebrew-Greek version Levi recorded together with Israeli "Greek" singer Notis)!

Thanks for listening!

Amos said...

Thanks for sharing, anonymous! For readers who want to check out more מוזיקה יוונית ("Israeli" Greek music), some of it in Hebrew and some in Greek, most of it multilingual, check out Radio Yassu (lit. "Hello") on ExtraTV. For those who don't read Hebrew, scroll down to where you see a list of radio stations. In that list, click on the 4th link from the bottom, רדיו יאסו.

Anonymous said...

Hi again,

Radio Yassou is a great web station! As for video clips, youtube has a lot to offer (just search for "mizrahi" or the artist's name).

Here's a sample of a style and a singer (Ofer Levi) that many non-fans would categorize as "trashy Arabic" Israeli music. I personally love this guy, I think he's one of the best singers of "arabesk" there is...I actually prefer him to Ibrahim Tatlises from Turkey, who is a *huge* star in this genre.

And, it should be "Balbeli oto", of course. Speaking of errors, I thought it was funny that the guy who complained about "arsim" who play ugly music through their car windows wrote "at yafe" Hebrew is pretty limited, but shouldn't it be "at yafa"??;-)

Amos said...

Haha. That's one of my favorite Ofer Levi songs! Thanks for the link!

Yes, you're right, it should have been "at yafah." The person who left that comment wasn't very good at English either though. :) Alright, back to work.

Anonymous said...

Sharif the Druze had done some Mizrahi hits back in the old days, though most of his songs were mainly Arabic. The line between Mizrahi music and Arabic music can get very blurry, since Mizrahi music has Turkish, Greek, Arab and Persian (as well as North African) influences. Zehava Ben has also produced some great Mizrahi albums. When Sefardi "chazzans" chant in the temple, it sounds like Mizrahi music.

STEVEN E. said...

My day is not complete with out a dose of "MUZIKA MIZRAHIT". For a mixed sample of some of the best you can try - "With MIZRAHIT the sun always shines".
Steve, Palo Alto

Anonymous said...

Amos, where do you live that mizrahi music is called primitive these days? I have heard people who are not mizrahi not like this music but never be "racist" about it.

Amos said...

I live in New York and most people here couldn't care less.

There are many people of all backgrounds who don't like this music. And no, of course not everyone who dislikes the genre is racist - that would be as ridiculous as arguing that everyone who hates hip hop carries a deep-seated prejudice against African-Americans.