The cynics or worldly-wise may protest that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Try telling that to the Yemei Zemer faithful. The Yemei Zemer (Days of Song) Festival, which will take place at the Holon Theater April 1-4, is now in its 23rd year and does not appear to be losing its appeal to a wide cross-section of the Israeli pop, folk and rock-loving public.
This year marks Israel’s 70th anniversary of sovereign existence. Naturally, roots-oriented vehicles like Yemei Zemer are making the most of the opportunity to mine the rich seam of the “good old Israel” songbook. Over the four days of the festival, a roll call of musical stalwarts, such as Shalom Hanoch, Shlomi Shaban, Nynet, Haim Moshe, Ilanit and Einat Saruf, will perform and present renditions of perennial favorites by such celebrated writers as Leah Goldberg, Naomi Shemer, Nahum Heiman, Tirtza Atar and Hava Alberstein.
The show list includes Kossit BeKassit, a tribute to the legendary Kassit café on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, which for decades was the hub of the bohemian scene here and was frequented by such senior members of the arts and literature community as Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, Haim Gouri, Leah Goldberg, Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein. There is also a tribute to preeminent songwriter, translator and frontman of Israeli music Ehud Manor, who passed away in 2005 at age 63. Israel Prize laureate Manor was a seemingly indefatigable powerhouse of artistic endeavor, working with such leading lights of the local music scene as Nurit Hirsch, Matti Caspi, Boaz Sharabi, Shoshana Damari and Manor’s wife, singer Ofra Fuchs. And enfant terrible Yehonatan Geffen will put in a typically PC-bending appearance.
Saruf is one of the current crop of media personalities keeping the blue-and-white musical flag firmly tied to the upper regions of the cultural flagpole. The penultimate slot of the festival agenda (April 4 at 9:30 p.m.) will see Saruf team up with the 1970s and 1980s Mizrahi retro threesome The Revivo Project and veteran crooner Arik Sinai. Saruf will MC the evening and contribute some vocals herself.
Over the last couple of decades, 55-year-old Saruf has hosted numerous TV and radio music shows and has appeared in a number of movies and theater productions. Sinai and she are no strangers.
“I haven’t worked with The Revivo Project before, but Arik and I have worked together many times,” she notes.
Saruf says that digging into our past is not a new development or even “a phenomenon.”
“I think we have been nostalgic since the country came into being,” she says. “Nostalgia is part of the Israeli spirit.”
I put it to Saruf that Israel has only been around for 70 years, so it might be a bit premature to start pining for “the good old days.” She feels the “nouveau” hankering for days gone by is part and parcel of who we are.
“There was nostalgia here before I was born.
People look back on the beginnings here as the best time. I also think that way, of how wonderful things were here when the country was being built, when everything was fresh and new,” she says.
So, is this a case of blatant escapism? Is that an indication of how bad things are right now and how good they once were or are perceived to have been so? Saruf doesn’t subscribe to that faux psychological mindset.
“No, absolutely not. It’s just that this country is so young, and you can still meet some of the founders.
That is a lovely thing. You can sit with them, and they’ll tell you how things were back in the day. You can’t do that in many countries,” she says.
Saruf is just a generation or so down from the founding mothers and fathers, but she says that people of all ages connect with olde worlde Israel.
“Young people enjoy the stories. I recently appeared at the HaKfar Hayarok boarding school, with songs from the 1940s and 1950s. I was amazed at how they enjoyed the music and the tales of yesteryear. These songs will always appeal to people here,” she says.
The confluence of Sinai and The Revivo project is an intriguing one. While Sinai comes from the more Westernized side of the Israeli music tracks, the Revivo trio exclusively feed off Mediterranean and Eastern song. Saruf, whose parents hailed from Libya, says that while many of the leading writers and performers of Israeli roots music were and are Ashkenazim, there are numerous cultural strands to the genre.
“A lot of the early writers came from Russia, but there were also things shepherds’ songs, with people like Emmanuel Zamir,” she notes.
Although born in Petah Tikva to Ashkenazi parents, Zamir was one of the first musicians to explore the sonic possibilities offered by Beduin shepherd material. Saruf says that while we may be a young country, it is the synergy of local multicultural strands that enriches our musical.
“Israeli music is like a stew with all sorts of spices.
We have something from everything here,” she concludes.The Yemei Zemer Festival will take place April 1 to 4 at the Holon Theater. For tickets and more information: (03) 502-3001 and www.hth.co.il (Yossi Zwecker)
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