Pounding the Yemenite-Iraqi beat

“I have Iraqi and Yemenite parents. Sometimes that works well, and others not so well,” she says with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

 Studio of Her Own in the Litvionvsky Painter’s House will undergo renovations, but for now most of the rooms are painted and furnished just as they were when the artist lived there.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Studio of Her Own in the Litvionvsky Painter’s House will undergo renovations, but for now most of the rooms are painted and furnished just as they were when the artist lived there.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem has, of course, a long, illustrious and troubled history. Just about every superpower around for the past three millennia or so has traipsed through here, endeavoring to leave its footprint as it crossed from Europe into Asia and/or Africa, or vice versa. There was generally a fair amount of destruction involved, too, but frequently some artistic and cultural fallout as well.
That makes for a solid backdrop for the city’s variegated here-and-now creative activities, complemented by the rich and multi-stratified cultural baggage this still young country has accrued over the years, as olim have flocked here from all over the world.
That spread also informs the output of some of the acts lined up for the International Jewish Festival for Contemporary Art, initiated and produced by Theater Company Jerusalem, which is currently up and running at Beit Mazia. The program, which started on Tuesday and runs through to next Tuesday, features a broad sweep of takes across various disciplines.
Saturday evening, for example, Hadar Galron presents her acclaimed solo comedy show Shrika (Whistle), which takes a quizzical look at the life and lot of the daughter of Holocaust survivor parents. There is plenty of dark humor in the play, which homes in on the scars of the second generation that no one else can see.
And there is an opportunity for the public to get in on the artistic act with Maor Ephrati’s interactive musical video artwork proffering a singular inter-sensory appreciation of sound and vision. His creation, which is on display for the duration of the festival, allows festivalgoers to visualize musical sounds and the progressions between the notes. We also get to manipulate the end result ourselves.
Elsewhere on the comedic theatrical front, there is a Czech production of Madame Rubinstein written by Australian playwright John Misto. The play tells the incredible rags-to-riches tale of cosmetics powerhouse Helena Rubinstein, as she locks horns with industry rivals Elizabeth Arden and Revlon. The Jerusalem show will be performed in Czech with Hebrew subtitles.
There are tasty musical pickings across the program, including today’s 12:30 p.m. Hafla for Shabbat slot, featuring the Joseph and One multiethnic band. The troupe, led by multi-instrumentalist Nitzan Peri, made quite a splash about a decade or so ago, putting out an album and doing the rounds of the country on a pretty regular basis, until, like many an enterprising musical act in this country, it dissipated. The festival offers a rare opportunity to catch the group with its cross-cultural fare dipping into Arabic, Moroccan, Balkan, Eastern European, gypsy and Indian climes, and then some.
Saturday evening there is another blast from the past in store, as veteran rocker Danny Bassan brings his seasoned – albeit somewhat pockmarked – sound to Jerusalem backed by a four-piece band.
COMING RIGHT back to current spirit and vibes, with plenty of ethnic roots, on Monday (9:30 p.m.) singer Maggie Hikri will front the Middle East Spiced with Arab Beat show.
Thirty-something Hikri says she feeds off all kinds of roots and sensibilities.
“I have Iraqi and Yemenite parents. Sometimes that works well, and others not so well,” she says with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Familial static notwithstanding – and, let’s face it, what family doesn’t have its rocky times? – that gave Hikri plenty of musical directions to explore. And there was some sibling input into her musical education, too. “I heard the stuff my parents like, but I am also the youngest child. I have two older brothers, and I heard their music, too.”
Like many a youngster with siblings who fed off a previous musical era, Hikri was the beneficiary of her brothers’ record collection.
“All the music they heard came to me,” she says. It was a mostly Western spread, with plenty of black textures and grooves, with local stuff in the mix, too. “There was R & B, soul, rock. And there was old Israeli music, like Matti Caspi and Shalom Hanoch.”
All that was sandwiched between the music Hikri’s antecedents brought with them over here.
“My Iraqi grandmother used to listen to [Iconic Egyptian singer] Oum Koulthum, [Syrian-Egyptian singer, composer and oud player] Farid al-Atrash, and they spoke Arabic at home. That is something I grew up with.”
There was some substantial paternal input to Hikri’s developing sonic consciousness, too.
“My father was quite religious, and he used to take me to a synagogue in Kerem Hateimanim [the Yemenite Quarter in Tel Aviv]. I’d hear all the prayers and the piyutim [liturgical songs] there. So I really heard everything. It’s a sort of a mix of things. I heard Nina Simone, too.”
That’s quite a variegated bedrock on which to form one’s avenue to personal artistic expression. Hikri says she brings all the above to her work today.
“I am not one thing. I try to spice my music with all the flavors I know. That’s the mix.”
Although Hikri says she has been singing “for as long as I can remember,” and spent hours holed up in her bedroom with her brothers’ records singing into a remote control “microphone,” she had to fight to get to where she is today.
“I only became serious about doing music as a profession after the army,” she recalls. “I wanted to go to an army band, but I ended up in an IDF computer unit.”
There was some parental opposition to the youngster’s artistic aspirations.
“I wanted to go the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts. I was a rebel. But we weren’t on the same wavelength.”
With her army service behind her, it was time to get serious. Hikri paid her dues.
“I’d been in all sorts of bands as a kid, mostly singing Israeli songs, but after the army I joined a hotel entertainment troupe, and I sang at a hotel every night. That was a real wake-up call,” she laughs. It was an enriching experience on all sorts of levels. “I met people from all over the world, in the band. And there was all sorts of funny stuff going on among the girls, and the members of staff. That was real life.”
She was determined to make a go of it. “After the army, I said now I’m going to do what I want.” She landed a gig with a band at a pub in Tel Aviv, doing covers of R & B, soul and hip-hop
“We did everything – Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, you name it.”
Late iconic Yemenite Israeli diva Ofra Haza also came into Hikri’s sphere of influence, and last year she put out an impressive reading of Haza’s international “Galbi” hit.
If you’re going to personalize such a favorite, you need to know what you’re doing and have the guts to go the whole hog. If there was ever any question about Hikri’s maturity and determination to make her mark on the entertainment scene, that matter was well and truly settled with her high-energy, hip-hop-leaning, slightly bluesy rendition.
That followed the release of her 2018 Arabic-language debut album – the follow-up release is currently cooking – Alashoo. Once again, Hikri did her homework before getting up close to the microphone. After a stint performing in Europe with electronic music producer Ben Watkins, Hikri returned home dead set on getting something of quality recorded.
“I went to my grandmother and listened to her music, and I got to [Yemenite Israeli choreographer, dancer and musician] Leah Avraham. She helped me a lot.”
The result is a quality offering with more than a little spunk. More where that came from can be expected of Hikri down the line, and at Beit Mazia on Monday evening.
For tickets and more information:
(02) 624-4584-6, www.tcj.org.il, *6226,