The Arab Jewish Musical Revolution

November 7, 2021

Subscribe to our monthly news

Through Joseph dorman

A small but vital musical revolution has taken place in Israel.

Over the past two decades, a small group of Mizrahi Jews – Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent – returned to their Arab Jewish roots and began to transform the country’s popular music scene.

Israeli music, long dominated by Western forms of rock and pop, suddenly permeated with musical influences from Arab countries like Morocco, Iraq and Yemen, merging sounds and rhythms into something exciting.

The songs of these artists are inspired by influences such as traditional Andalusian and Arab Jewish melodies, blues, jazz and music from Africa and Latin America. And they often feature lyrics in Arabic and Hebrew, sung in a cacophony of Hebrew and Arabic accents, scrambling one language into the other.

In the Middle East, where nationalities and their borders are often jealously guarded, this new form of Mizrahi music involves breaking down cultural and musical walls with significant abandon.

The best known of Mizrahi artists, like the rocker Dudu Tassa, have made careers in popular Israeli music, while others, such as the singer Neta elkayam, have forged iconoclastic paths from the start. In some cases, the musicians are more popular outside of Israel than in Israel, finding audiences in the Arab Middle East and Europe.

Mizrahi migration

For the most part, the performers are second and third generation descendants of Jews from Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Yemen who arrived in Israel in the decade following the 1948 War of Independence, doubling the people of Israel.

According to Yuval Evri, an assistant professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies in the Marash and Ocuin Chair in Ottoman, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish studies, Mizrahi Jews have received an ambivalent reception in Israel.

On the one hand, he said, they were seen as the fulfillment of Zionist hopes, part of the gathering of Jews that Israel’s founders dreamed that the creation of a Jewish state would make possible.

At the same time, said Evri, these founders, mostly Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, looked down upon Jews in Arab countries because of their darker skin tone and affiliation with Middle Eastern culture and Africa.

They also took with them the Arab cultures they had lived in for centuries – deeply problematic in a country that was still at war with the surrounding Arab states.

To “disarabise” these Jews, Evri said, the Israelis coined a new term for them, Mizrahi, meaning from the East. (The term Sephardic refers to Jews who moved to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, but the terms are often used interchangeably now.)

The Mizrahim grew up in an Israel whose dominant Ashkenazi culture was rooted in Eastern Europe.

The government wanted these immigrants to assimilate, Evri said, which meant conforming to Ashkenazi cultural norms and removing their Arab Jewish roots. But by putting them together, the government ended up strengthening their sense of cultural identity, Evri said.

These younger generation musicians are now “determined to reclaim their Arab roots,” he said.

Revive Arabic

With the arrival of Mizrahi immigrants in the 1950s, half of the country spoke Arabic.

But according to one 2018 report by Sikkuy, an Israel-based nonprofit, only around 9% of Israeli Jews describe themselves as having knowledge of Arabic. Three years ago, the Israeli parliament downgraded Arabic from an official language of the country to a language with “special status”.

“But Arabic is not only the language we come from, it is also one of the main historical and current languages ​​of the country,” said Evri, himself the son of the second generation of Jews. Iraqis. “If you want to understand the history, geography and culture of Palestine-Israel, Arabic is essential.

“Generations of young Europeans have learned English by listening to American and British rock bands. It is now possible that young Israelis in the future will turn – or return – to Arabic thanks to this new movement in full swing. boom, “he added.

TJE asked Evri to take us on a tour of some of his favorite Mizrachi singers and songs.

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

Elmaliach, whose family is from Morocco, rose to popularity in the early 2000s and is a forerunner of the Mizrahi musical revolution. His songs are inspired by piyyutim, Jewish liturgical poems, by Moroccan rabbi David Buzaglo, considered one of the greatest liturgical poets of the 20th century.

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

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

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

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

In 2016 he said Before, “I live on the border” between Jewish and Arab culture. In this song, Evri said, Yehezkel “takes a traditional and beautiful 17th-century piyyut from Syria and brings Arab and Jewish traditions into a conversation with each other.”

Dudu Tassa, “Walla Ajabni Jamalak“(Your beauty captivated me)

Tassa describes his music as a mix of Iraqi, Middle Eastern and Israeli rock which he has dubbed “Iraq n ‘Roll”. “Tassa is personally the closest to me because he sings Iraqi music, which I remember from 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, stars of popular Iraqi Jewish music in the mid-20th century known as the Al-Kuwaiti brothers, after which he named his current group.

Neta Elkayam, “Taali” (Go on)

Elkayam grew up in one of the developing southern cities of the country, 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.

A few years ago, she embarked on a project to recover the music sung by recorded Moroccan Jewish women as they were temporarily gathered in transit camps en route to Israel in the 1950s.

“Taali” was originally written by popular 20th century Algerian singer Salim halali who was himself a Jew. Elkayam sings it in Moroccan Arabic. “The first time I heard Neta sing it was this song, Taali,” Evri said. “I was taken by her beauty.”

A-Wa, “Hana Mash Hu Al Yaman”

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

“A-Wa is an example of how new Mizrahi music remixes Arab and Jewish cultures and overturns national borders,” Evri said. The song below is about their grandmother who longs for Yemen and complains about Israel.