By Khen Elmaleh
First published in Hebrew in Litvin, E.: The Heart is a Lonely Singer: Mizrachi Music in Israel, exhibition catalogue, 2017, Ashdod Museum of Art, Israel. English Translation by Tom Pessah.
Let’s start with some fair disclosure: I did not grow up with Mizrahi music at home. Mizrahi music was always played in the neighborhood, in celebrations, in the environment in which I grew up; but at home, the presence of R&B and American hip -hop was
If we are looking for a sexy journalistic article title, you could seriously consider something along the lines of “When the Yemenite Quarter Met Harlem” or “Lod, Corner of Compton;” But instead I will try to draw similarities and parallel processes between what is called “black music” and Mizrahi music, or any other musical genre that is anti-hegemonic in its essence. In this way we can perhaps learn a thing or two about ourselves, about Israeli society and the power relations that exist within it.
In Nissan Shor’s documentary series “Top of the Pops” (Makom ba-Tzameret), which deals with the history of Israeli pop, the fourth chapter was devoted to the effect of “black” music on our pop. In that episode there is an interview with Silverdon, a reggae and dancehall artist, who was a pioneer of the genre in Israel. Silverdon was the stage name of Gili Binyamin, native of Ashdod, who had gained recognition and success in the nineties in Israel and even in reggae and dancehall’s homeland – Jamaica, where he frequently stayed. Since then, Binyamin became religious and abandoned the reggae scene; but in this interview, against the backdrop of ships of the Ashdod port, he offered a fascinating analysis of the reggae audience in Israel at the time: “Anyone who served in the army in the 1980s can testify that many so-called “arsim” (derogatory term for Mizrachi men) kept in their car, between Zohar Argov and Haim Moshe, a cassette of Bob Marley. You make some kind of connection: this is something black, which belongs to a rejected group; so it was possible for people who came from the ‘hood to adopt this kind of music.“
Silverdon’s analysis is faithful to the reality that I knew around me, as anyone who grew up in a Mizrahi-majority community or neighborhood knows. It is very easy to identify the local musical models by the soundtrack emanating from passing cars. Almost overwhelmingly, I can testify that in these spaces Bob Marley was a legend, and of the same status as Zohar Argov. Ofer Levi and Tupac blasted out duets from mobile and home amplification systems virtually every day.
I tried to express this soundtrack and this harmonious experience in every arena in which I operate, whether as a DJ or on my weekly radio program in Galgalatz.
Describing a state of mind or consciousness as a DJ – this requires technical skills, correct musical choices, and the ability to connect them and place them in such a manner that will convey the story I wanted to tell, as part of the set. Music is a means that serves the purpose. On the other hand, presenting a radio program that requires talking is another story.
As a result of the program, for the first time in my life I needed to provide words and define what I am doing, or what I was accustomed to conveying until then through music. Then I had to face the question of how to connect Jamaica, Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, New York and California without getting lost around the globe without using existing, flattening terms such as “world music.“
Thus, quite naturally and without much thought, the term “music from the global periphery” became a fixture and was regularly used in every program. Somehow I felt that the term “periphery” manages to capture the essence of the music produced and consumed by those who are on the “margins” of society, anywhere in the world. Because when you look at the history of Mizrahi music in Israel, you can, as I said, find many similarities and processes of development parallel to those of the African-American community and music in the United States.
And if we’ve reached definitions, let’s begin with the question: Why is there no “white music” as there is “black music”? And why is there no “Ashkenazi music” (in Israel) as there is “Mizrahi music”? The answer lies in the prevailing perception of what is the rule, who determines it, who sets the tone, who has a transparent identity that represents the values of the collective.
Usually this is the one who does not need definitions, since they are above definitions. They set the definitions, because their point of view and position in the social hierarchy allows them to do so: they are hegemonic.
Opposite him there will always be the “others,” those whose identity is inconsistent with this (hegemonic) identity and does not represent the aspirations of the collective. The others usually receive extra-collective definitions such as “Mizrahi music “- that is, not Israeli, or black music, which is defined by of the music itself, but by its performers, creators and the audiences associated with them.
Hegemony’s need to mark the “others” created over the years, albeit unintentionally, elusive characteristics associated with the musical genres he sought to define. These additions require us to re-trace our steps, and to try to define from the beginning the term “Mizrahi music”, which has already been removed from the musical context and entered the realm of sociology.
When I am asked what Mizrahi music is today, I say that this is music that is produced by Mizrahim and consumed by Mizrahim, with no stylistic limitations and with no adherence to traditional musical doctrines. It is the audience that defines Mizrahi music, just as the term “Mizrahi music” was originally coined to define its target audience. For me, this is the most valid definition, because this genre has developed away from its musical roots in the Arab countries, and it’s a genre that now reacts to world musical trends in the most innovative and up-to-date way in Israel – so that musical definitions and frameworks are irrelevant to it; The only way to capture its elusive essence is to define it in sociological terms, according to the identity of those who create it, and the identity of their audience.
Identifying a musical genre with a particular audience is a crucial point, and there is often a correlation between the identity of the audience that consumes the music and the attitude that this music receives in the cultural arenas that determine public opinion. For example, one can see a complete correspondence between the attitude toward Mizrahi music and the processes undergone by the Mizrahi group in Israel.
In the days of Mapai’s rule – with one television channel, institutional radio stations, and committees making decisions in all areas of culture – Mizrahi music received a tiny broadcasting slot and a generally dismissive attitude. This was clearly related to the class- and socioeconomic status of first-generation Mizrahi immigrants. Later, the second and third generations succeeded somewhat in breaching the walls of the ghetto and establishing a stable Mizrahi middle class, also thanks to the change of government and the economic system, in which demand and ratings became the determining factors, rather than committees. Together with these social and political changes Mizrahi music managed to occupy new sites that it never set foot in earlier, and it gained popularity and massive visibility, thanks to the audience that voted with its feet. But although Mizrahim made economic and class progress over the years, the relationship between them and Ashkenazim in positions of power still does not reflect their proportion of the population. Likewise, Mizrahi music, as popular as it is today, continues to suffer from an acute shortage of symbolic capital which could enable it to take its proper place as a legitimate cultural manifestation.
The correlation between the attitude towards the music and the attitude towards the group that consumes it is not unique to Israeli society and Mizrahi music. In 2014, the film Dear White People was released in the United States, dealing with racial relations between blacks and whites in an American college and with the intra-racial nuances of the local African-American community. In one of the scenes in the film, during a poker game between a group of mixed students, one of the white students speaks of contemporary black music as inferior and cheap compared to quality black music, deeply rooted and “authentic.” His example is the music of T-Bone Walker, a guitarist and blues singer who was active from the 1930s, and died in 1975. One of the black students resents the comparison and the indices of quality, and asks why does it take whites decades to like something that blacks already liked back then – and then the whites behave like they are the ones who discovered it? This scene reveals a truth that can be used to explain the local scene, in which one can identify today a similar attitude towads past Mizrahi singers and towards classical Arab music.
It is no secret that when Zohar Argov was alive and active and relevant to the Mizrahi audience, the Ashkenazi hegemony rejected him and ignored him, almost contemptuously, except for the yellow details and low points in his life. But since his death, from the safety of thirty years distance, Argov’s music has become legitimate in almost all the arenas which had rejected him earlier. It seems that the musical “statute of limitations” adds value and prestige to musical products that were considered of inferior, bad quality in real time. In the same way the music of Umm Kulthum, Farid al-Atrash, Abdel Halim Hafez and other giants of classical Arab music have become over time a standard of quality, beyond specific sectors, and is indicative of refined musical taste of the listener, especially when compared to “today’s Mizrahi music.” Yet in the past, before it became the object of nostalgia, my grandfather and his ilk would listen to such music quietly, almost secretly, for fear or shame of being identified with something that was considered so inferior.
So what is the decisive factor that made Umm Kulthum, Zohar Argov and T-Bone Walker valued and quality artists overnight? The answer is simple: they became less relevant to the Mizrahi, Arab and African-American audiences, because they were replaced by new artists and styles.
It’s the same abroad: anyone who has been to a blues concert in the U.S. over the last thirty years knows that the audience is mostly white and that the only blacks in the performance are the musicians on stage. It’s the same with jazz music, which was developed in black bastions by black musicians who were not even allowed to enter white entertainment venues. Now it is used as background music for openings of exhibitions and art events, it’s taught in institutions of higher education, and it stars in prestigious festivals around the world. One more proof of the fact that the treatment of music depends on the audience that consumes it in real time.
The distance between the Yemenite Quarter and Harlem or between Lod and Compton is not that great, so when I play Omar Adam alongside Kanye West or Nancy Ajram alongside Beyonce, I mostly take into account the essence, without artificial distinctions of permitted and forbidden, or of high vs. inferior quality.
I will end with a friendly recommendation for readers: don’t wait thirty years to enjoy what Mizrahi music has to offer today; Challenge the deep-rooted perceptions and social constructions dictated from above, because music is an exact mirror of society and its power structures, of the sum of stereotypes embedded within us. Expose them, destroy them, in order to build a culture and a society that are more just and egalitarian
As a DJ, Khen Elmaleh ties middle eastern identities to multiple, diverse global influences, blurring distinctions between East and West, High and Low, mainstream and underground. In addition to her musical career, Khen hosted a weekly radio show for a year on the Galalatz radio station, and together with Ron Cahlili she creates documentary films about Israeli society.