I stepped through a portal into a time warp. I hit www.iba.org.il/zemerivri and
found myself happily surfing among the sounds of yesteryear, or yester-decade to
be more accurate.
As part of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s aim of
“giving public broadcasting back to the public,” some 10,000 songs and programs
from pre-State days up until about 1960 have been made available through a
massive digitization program.
The sounds took me to – if not a different
world – definitely a different type of world, one that set the tone for the
country in the making.
Excited by what I heard, I stepped through the
gates of Israel Radio’s Heleni Hamalka compound (a site with its own old-world
charm) to meet Menachem Granit, whose many functions include responsibility for
the radio archives and the digitization of the audio catalogue.
library of sounds is a national treasure, Granit concurs.
items (35,000 hours) have already been digitized through the project and another
10,000 items are waiting to undergo the process, which is partly under the
auspices of the National Library of Israel with the help of the Legacy Heritage
“One of the good things about Israel Radio is its archive because
there were years when we were the only ones in the field, not just when it came
to news and current affairs but also with regard to music,” notes
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Granit and I tap into the resource on the computer in his office
and randomly choose a Nathan Alterman poem-turned song, “Hashikor” (The
Drunkard) from 1945, which sounds a little the worse for wear, but whose
scratchy background adds to the authentic feeling.
is accompanied by the original label, giving as much information as was
available at the time.
“The idea is that you’ll be able to hear important
speeches by Ben-Gurion, Abba Eban and all those events recorded by the IBA and
no one else,” says Granit.
Future projects include digitizing material
from Israel Television.
Because of copyright issues, the music has to be
at least 50 years old (and, theoretically cannot be downloaded from the
Granit, who has worked at Israel Radio for 40 years, seems unaware
that he has adopted IBA slogans into his speech. “The broadcasting authority is
more than just radio and television,” he says, echoing a public service
announcement about license fees. “It is also about new
Acknowledging that there is a lot of cynicism about the
broadcasting authority, Granit nonetheless notes with deserved pride: “You can’t
compete when it comes to the experience and credibility of the IBA.”
10,000 items to choose from, and not the most convenient of search systems
(still in Hebrew only), finding the gems is a hit-or-miss affair that reminds me
of placing the needle on an old-fashioned gramophone record and seeing what
track it lands on.
Apart from the records, there are also various
segments, such as orchestral pieces, which were recorded by Israel Radio for
broadcast between programs.
The library is categorized under Events, Holy
Days and Festivals, Hazanut
(cantorial music), Songs, Bible, Sketches based on
tradition, Shabbat, Dances, Days of Awe, Music, Communities, Jerusalem and
The sounds of different ethnic communities range from songs in
Yiddish to prayers used by Kurdish Jews.
As we talk, we find, by chance,
a wonderful rendition of the Hanukka candle-lighting ceremony at the President’s
Residence in 1957, including “Maoz Tzur,” performed in the singular style of
Moroccan-born Israeli singer and hazan Jo Amar. We also come across a version of
the Pessah favorite, “Had Gadya,” orchestrated by Moshe Wilensky.
the curious finds is a 1958 recording of the Haim Hefer song called “Sela Adom”
sung by Arik Lavie, listed almost incongruously under his full name, Ariel
Lavie. A sticker reading, “Asur leshader taklit zeh
” (“Forbidden to broadcast
this record”) jumps out from the top of the label, in itself telling part of the
story of the Red Rock of Petra of the title.
The song, a paean to
Jordan’s Nabatean city of Petra, was banned because it was thought to encourage
youths to set out on the trek across the wilderness, from where, as the song
itself points out “nobody returns alive.” During the 1950s, at least a dozen
Israeli youths were killed attempting to reach the Red Rock in a kind of rite of
passage, prompting the broadcast ban of the tribute to one such
The site is aimed “at anyone who can enjoy it,” says Granit, as he
finds for me a piece by one of his favorite old-time Israeli composers, Nachum
As we surf through the site, we both note the large number of
kibbutz choirs, also reflecting the culture of a certain era.
contains the sound track of the country’s history,” enthuses Granit, just before
we find a recording of the Yemenite-style music of the Inbal Dance Troupe, whose
soundtrack is provided by choreographer Sara Levi-Tannai.
the week the site has been running has been positive, says Granit. The sounds
seem to have hit a chord in particular with older listeners but also have
potential among the younger crowd searching for its roots.
We step out of
the Web, out of Granit’s office, across the quaint courtyard, and into the
Record Library containing thousands more hours of listening pleasure.
collection contains some 100,000 singles and 80,000 LPs in languages other than
Hebrew, according to British-born veteran Israeli Mark Pollins, a music editor
and director of the (physical) record library.
There are also some 55,000
discs of classical music, jazz, pop and rock from around the world.
addition, there are 34,000 Hebrew discs and 31,000 Hebrew LPs.
to keep from plucking disc after disc off the shelf just for the fun off seeing
what treasures it holds.
Pollins obligingly climbs a ladder to hand me
the first record of the top row, an album by the recently deceased “queen of
Israeli music,” Yaffa Yarkoni.
Similar smaller record libraries can be
found at other IBA sites, but this is the central one “and it’s quite big for
Israel,” Pollins notes.
I manage to tear myself away – having barely
scratched the surface of the record archives potential – and phone Dr. Gila
Flam, director of the Music Department at the National Sound Archives at the
National Library of Israel.
She fills me in on some of the technical
details of the project (“Firstly, a librarian simply sat down for 12-15 years
and took one record after another and listed the details in a catalogue.” This
was later used to compare versions and ensure all the details were entered
correctly.) It took a while to get the funding for the digitization project
notes, says Flam.
In the spirit of another IBA licensing fee slogan,
“What about the second installment?” it should be noted that the 10,000
recordings currently available are only half of what is planned for the IBA
zemerivri project. It is also just a fraction of the National Library’s
digitization project which was reviewed in this paper on July 22 by Barry
Flam also notes that “you can learn a lot about the country from
what these songs contain... You can see attempts to educate and enrich the
Because the library’s primary aim is preservation, the
recordings have been kept, scratches and all, explains Flam. She is
understandably excited about the “rescue work” of the library which is often
overlooked by the layperson.
Researchers and the general public use the
sound archives, which received a welcome boost due to the publicity of the IBA
Other sound libraries around the world have been opened to the
public but the Israeli sound library, which will ultimately incorporate some
30,000 hours of music covering eight decades, is special not just for the scope
of communities and sounds it covers but also for providing a key to a national
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