Simha Arom, musicologist

From the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra to the discovery of African music.

Simha Aron is recognized as a world expert on the music of central Africa. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Simha Aron is recognized as a world expert on the music of central Africa.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If one checks out Simha Arom’s biography on the Wikipedia websites, both in English and in French, he is not labeled as a “Holocaust survivor” but as a “French-Israeli ethnomusicologist,” widely recognized as a world expert on the music of Central Africa.
The only hint the curious reader gets is that he was born in Düsseldorf on August 16, 1930. His book, African Polyphony and Polyrhythm: Musical Structure and Methodology (1991), as well as his many articles and recordings of traditional African music won him a plethora of awards from the early 1970s up to 2019, when I met him in Jerusalem for a two-and-a-half-hour interview.
Arom has made a separation between the private and public sphere. When he published his book La Fanfare de Bangui: itinéraire enchanté d’un ethnomusicologue (“The Bangui Fanfare: The Thrilled Itinerary of an Ethnomusicologist”), he mostly focused on his research work as an ethnomusicologist.
For six years he played the French horn in the Kol Israel Orchestra, a radio ensemble that was formed in the 1940s and which eventually became the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.
In 1963, Arom was enthusiastic when the Foreign Ministry offered him to travel to the Central African Republic to found a youth brass band in the capital city of Bangui. It was then that he fell in love with the music of Aka Pygmies: “I felt that their music came from the back of time but also, to a certain extent from my own depths.”
Arom befriended the Pygmies, a discriminated minority population sometimes obliged to flee from enemies. In that sense, he observes, “they are like the Jews.”
All this is public knowledge since Arom has mentioned it here and there, in his books and to journalists or writers. But some questions remain unanswered. What led him to Israel? Then, why did he leave a young state for whose existence he had fought? How did he become famous in the French scientific world and internationally when he did not even have a bachelor’s degree? All he had was a certificat d’études – a document attesting that he had finished primary school in 1944, under the false name of Fred Aubert. Reflecting on his past, he commented: “That, indeed, was resilience!”
A former child-in-hiding, his life had been turned upside down. The young Simha narrowly escaped deportation and stayed for about a year in the French detention camp of Rivesaltes. The trauma of his parents being murdered in Auschwitz left an imprint and is commemorated in an epitaph at the beginning of his scholarly book African Polyphony and Polyrhythm: Musical Structure and Methodology.
One sentence encapsulates the nature of his relationships with others: “If the people I meet or deal with aren’t real menschen, they do not interest me.” In Yiddish, a mensch is a person of integrity and honor, a concept that has become universal. Besides, when Arom addresses someone he likes, he uses the familiar form “tu” in French instead of “vous” which expresses a certain distance and reserve. In turn, he insists on being addressed in such a friendly way, which immediately breaks down barriers and creates warmth in a verbal exchange.
Referring to Israel, Arom became emotional: “Even if I don’t live there, it is my home and it is a central place for me.”
During the war, from 1941 to 1943, Arom was in the Moissac commune in southern France, in the children’s home of the Jewish Scouts (Éclaireurs Israélites de France or EIF) that saved the lives of nearly 300 Jewish children whose parents risked deportation to death camps. His own parents who were refugees in France had been arrested during the big roundup of August 26, 1942, and shortly afterward deported to Auschwitz.
In October 1944, at the age of 14, Arom immigrated to the Jewish National Homeland of Palestine through Youth Aliyah and stayed there until the age of 21. The living conditions were then extremely harsh. He was meant to become a farmer like all the youngsters who had come with Youth Aliyah.
At the age of 16, Arom did all he could to receive music lessons since he knew that there was a violin teacher in one of the Youth Aliyah villages. It was not easy as he had to dedicate himself to agricultural work. But he managed to study the violin for two years. In 1948 he took part in the War of Independence, but with a badly wounded right arm, he could not hold a violin bow anymore. He realized that the only instrument he could play was the French horn, because one can play with the right hand. He took his first horn lesson in Jerusalem in 1949 at the Conservatorium, where he stayed for two years. From 1951 to 1954 he studied in France, and within five years he became a professional musician.
After graduating in 1954 with a First Prize of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, he was appointed as Second French horn player at the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. Three years later, he was appointed “Principal French horn” in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.
While in Bangui in the 1960s, he met researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris who were conducting research work on Central African tonal languages, and helped them determine the pitch systems of these specific languages.
Impressed by his abilities and his interesting background, the researchers suggested he should submit an application to be part of the CNRS scientific team. In 1968, he joined this prestigious institution. How could they accept him without a bachelor’s degree? It sounded inconceivable. In the French educational system, it was obvious that anyone who wanted to join the CNRS would have a baccalaureate, therefore that prerequisite was not officially listed. Arom was indeed a self-taught man who never had the opportunity to attend high school and university, and the quality of his work drew attention.
In 1971 he received an award for his recordings (the Grand Prix International du Disque), and again in 1978, the Prize of the President of the French Republic. In 1984 he was awarded the CNRS Silver Medal, a rare distinction.
From 1971 to 1991, he returned every year accompanied by ethnologists and his own students to do fieldwork in Africa. In 2007 he was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (“Knight of Arts and Letters”). Among numerous prestigious distinctions, he was awarded the International Prize of the Fyssen Foundation in Paris in 2008, and in 2012 became an honorary member of the International Musicology Society.
In 2011, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (French National Library) dedicated June 9 to Arom in appreciation of his outstanding impact on musicology.
“Since your past has left an imprint, if not a scar on you, what does being a child survivor mean?” I asked him.
“It is a child’s disease that cannot be healed,” he replied. “There is not one single thing I do that it is not related to my own experience. Although I am secular, I cannot imagine myself without a Jewish identity, especially with an ancestor like the famous Rabbi Elimelech.”   
“Is there an order of identities?”
“Culture-wise, maybe I am more French than Israeli, but deep inside, I am more of a Jew and an Israeli.”
Willing to elaborate on the fluid and dynamic nature of identity, Arom developed his point of view: “I cannot conceive myself as a human being by eradicating the Jewish component of my identity. I have fought in the War of Independence of Israel, and I invested it with my parents’ memory, my being, and my attachment.”
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is senior research associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is: How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, The United States, and Israel (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2018, Studies in Antisemitism).