Arab music in Israel: From ‘music of the enemy’ to mainstream popularity

Musician Iyar Semel plays an oud on his rooftop garden in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 13, 2017. (File photo: AP)

One Saturday in the summer of 1971, my aunt took me to her gym in Tel Aviv. The scene was familiar, like a Baghdad swimming pool in the sixties. I sat in a comfy chair and turned my little transistor radio to Voice of Israel, playing a song by Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum. My aunt swiftly asked me to turn the volume down.

This was a surprise and a shock for me. I had been in Israel for only a few months after fleeing the hell that was Iraq at the end of 1970.

Since then, Arabic music in Israel has achieved great success over the last two decades. In 2020, Israel is a place where Arabic music, thanks to the impact of immigration, has succeeded in breaking through the barrier placed before it by Ashkenazi hegemony who viewed it as the music of the “enemy.”

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Arabic was the spoken language of 850,000 Jews who came from different parts of the Arab world. Their broad contours of musical taste were somewhat similar: shaped by a scene dominated by Arab legends such as Umm Kalthoum, Abdel Wahhab in Egypt, and Salima Murad in Iraq.

Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum projected in a special tribute at the opening night of the Baalbek International Festival in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley on July 20, 2018. (File photo: AFP)

Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum projected in a special tribute at the opening night of the Baalbek International Festival in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley on July 20, 2018. (File photo: AFP)

The Arab-Israeli conflict placed a political burden on these romantic songs. This is how Jews from the East found their Arabic culture and music held hostage in their new homeland.

Part of the arts sector in Israel, Eli Greenfield said that “the real launch of Arabic music began with the arrival of Sapho, a French Moroccan singer to Israel in 1988, where she performed in the ‘Heichal Hatarbut,’ one of Tel Aviv’s grandest halls, singing Umm Kalthoum songs.”

I believe that Israel has gradually rid itself of its Arab complex over the years, especially after the signing of the peace accords with Egypt and Jordan, in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

Five years ago, the group Firqat Al Noor first showed up on the Israeli scene. The 25-member orchestra, directed by Ariel Cohen, of Moroccan origin, are standard-bearers for the traditional Arabic music once played on Voice of Israel radio.

Israeli orchestra group Firqat Alnoor's performance on YouTube of Emirati singer Hussain al-Jassmi’s song Ahibak. (Screengrab)

Israeli orchestra group Firqat Alnoor's performance on YouTube of Emirati singer Hussain al-Jassmi’s song Ahibak. (Screengrab)

No doubt, many Israelis have been exposed to the musical giants of Tarab - traditional Arab music that emphasizes long melodic notes - in the synagogue, after Iraqi-born Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef allowed religious hymns to be set to these melodies.

Festivals championing the cause of peace and coexistence in the Middle East have similarly helped the spread of Arabic music, especially Jerusalem’s annual Oud Festival—a huge pull for a large and diverse audience, including Israelis who do not have Eastern roots.

The popularity opened up the genre to mainstream platforms, including the grand elegant halls that typically play host to plays and musicals rooted firmly in the West.

The second generation of Jews from the Arab world do sing quite well in Arabic, especially in the Iraqi dialect. One new star is Ziv Yehezkel, of Iraqi descent, who has captured the hearts of the Arabs in Israel over the last few years.

Other Israeli musicians have reworking melodies of childhood into something more familiar to contemporary youth, along with reviving cultural classics for a new generation of listeners.

A lone tourist makes her way along a market street in the nearly deserted Old City of Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (AFP)

A lone tourist makes her way along a market street in the nearly deserted Old City of Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (AFP)

The Yemenite trio A-WA, made up of three sisters, is an example of this, as well as Neta Al Kayam, an artist who sings and performs in Moroccan Arabic.

Al Kayam is hosted by Al Firqa Al Maqdisiya Sharq Gharb, a band which distinguishes itself through a broad repertoire, a concoction of both classic and modern sounds.

The band is led by Thomas Cohen, in collaboration with Ravid Kahlani, who is of Yemenite roots, and one of the most famous Israeli artists performing internationally in Arabic.

Now, after Israel’s signing of the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain, we can expect to see new inspiration for Arabic music in Israel.

In fact, Firqat Al Noor has already recorded a cover of the song “Ahibak” by Emirati star Hussein Al Jasmi. The band said the performance was “in honor of the hope-inspiring peace agreement.”

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Linda Abdul Aziz Menuhin is an independent journalist and expert in Arabic music in Israel. She established the NGO Kanoon to promote Iraqi Jewish music. She is also an activist in civil society for promoting peace.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 14 October 2020 KSA 08:10 - GMT 05:10
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