The aspiring voice of peace

‘War singer’ Yaffa Yarkoni’s archives have been entrusted to the National Library.

Yaffa Yarkoni 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of hte National Library.)
Yaffa Yarkoni 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of hte National Library.)
Yaffa Yarkoni, the iconic singer who died on Sunday at the age of 86, kept her recordings, video material, sheet music, photographs, press cuttings and other memorabilia in impeccable order, according to Gila Flam.
“Going into her home in Tel Aviv was like stepping into a museum,” says the National Library Music Department director. “The living room was full of her posters, and certificates and framed letters from all kinds of musicians and other people.”
Flam went to Yarkoni’s apartment a few months ago, though the singer no longer lived there. “She suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and couldn’t manage on her own. It is a pity she suffered so much toward the end of her life.”
The visit to Yarkoni’s home was at the behest of the singer’s three daughters, and the contents of her personal repository were subsequently transferred to the National Library. In fact, the decision to house these artifacts in the music department was something of an unusual move.
“I don’t normally take things from performers, only from composers,” continues Flam. “But there was something so special about the way she sang and presented the material.”
Yarkoni’s attention to detail made things easier for Flam and her fellow archivists. “She had everything organized according to chronological order and different categories. You could say she documented everything throughout her life.”
The singer put a lot of effort into cataloguing her effects.
“She had special large albums, measuring 90 cm. by 50 cm., made for her, and had a made-to-measure cabinet built to store them in,” says Flam. “There are about 20 albums with special leather-effect binding. They are all arranged according to years, and every single photograph has a caption in Yaffa’s handwriting, explaining where the picture was taken and what she did there.”
The written, musical and visual documentation dates from before the creation of the state and includes items such as photographs of Yarkoni as a dance student and teacher.
“The archives also tell the story of the state through the eyes of a performer who originally planned to be a dancer, until she injured her leg,” Flam notes. “There are photos of her as a child, and later of her teaching dance in various kibbutzim. And then you start to get documentation from her career as a singer.”
That stage of her life began before the War of Independence, when Yarkoni was a radio operator in the Hagana, and continued more formally when she was a member of the Givati Brigade’s Hishatron band during the 1948 war. Her 80th birthday was marked with a gala concert at which she performed many of her best-known numbers. These included “Ha’amini Yom Yavo” (Believe the Day Will Come), which she originally sang for the soldiers who escorted the convoys to Jerusalem during the War of Independence, and “Bab El Wad” the lyrics of which were written by now-88-year-old writer Haim Guri. During the concert, she told Guri that it was only after she had performed “Bab El Wad” that people had begun to treat her as a bona fide singer, and credited him with launching her career.
Despite the museum-like ambiance at Yarkoni’s home, Flam says there was also plenty of evidence of her family life.
“The things in the archive are not just about a national symbol; they also relate to a warm and loving woman, wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother,” she says. “There are all sorts of slips of paper with messages from her to her children and from them to her. She enlarged them and carefully stored them away.”
Though this meticulousness facilitated the logistics of Flam’s job, she did feel something was missing: “I normally take archival material from living people, who are in relatively good health. That way I can hear stories from them and they can tell me about the importance and place of all the artifacts.”
Besides the album cabinet, Yarkoni also stored things in crates, which were naturally divided into different subject matter. “There are boxes with sheet music, and there are boxes with the words of different songs, which Yaffa either enlarged or transcribed into Hebrew lettering from other languages. Besides all the iconic songs she performed and recorded, she also sang lesser-known songs in Yiddish or Caucasian, and she sang at the Hassidic Song Festival and the Sephardi Song Festival, and she had to transcribe the lyrics so she could perform the songs on stage.”
There are also boxes with the sheet music and lyrics of children’s songs, and Flam points out that the singer’s achievements include introducing the country to the work of another person who eventually became a national treasure.
“One of the things that helped bring Yarkoni to national attention was her renditions of songs written by Naomi Shemer,” she says. “But Yarkoni was also responsible for getting Shemer’s name out there.”
Naturally Yarkoni’s effects mostly pertain to a bygone era, but, Flam says, the current crop of musicians would do well to take a leaf from her professional book: “You listen to those recordings, and you are so impressed by the professionalism of everyone involved, of Yarkoni, the arrangers, the musicians and the recording engineers.
These days there is a clear dividing line between ‘serious’ music and ‘light entertainment’ music, but in those days, it was all approached with the utmost seriousness and attention to minute detail.”
National treasure or not, Yarkoni’s work and life were sometimes the subject of controversy. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, there were two schools of thought when it came to the choice of commercial music. There were the die-hard Zionists who would not contemplate listening to, or singing, anything that was not performed in Hebrew or did not originate from the young State of Israel. Yarkoni, however, took a more cosmopolitan approach and was happy to sing chansons, American folk songs, Russian-based material and anything else she felt was worthy of her professional attention.
“She belonged to the ‘urban camp,’” notes Flam, “so she had her opponents on that score.”
The singer also occasionally aired her political views, such as her opposition to Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Even so, along with contemporary Yemenite-born singer Shoshana Damari, she was considered “the voice of the nation” and was dubbed “the war singer” for her many forays to entertain front-line troops. In fact, it was a moniker she was not too happy about; she said she’d prefer to be known as “the peace singer.”
Flam and her cohorts at the National Library are now busy digitizing Yarkoni’s vast musical estate and documenting artwork such as LP covers. “It will take a year or two to digitize everything, but this is a very important archive in the annals of our national music.”