Hebrew Hear-Say: In record time

British superstar Elton John sang out "Sad songs say so much...," but it is Hebrew that really does sad songs justice.

idf cry88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
idf cry88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It often seems that no sooner does a musical fashion strike a chord than it fades out. There is greater musical variety than ever and the ways of enjoying music have also changed. There was a time when to hear a piece of music you liked in Israel, you had to get dressed up and go to a concert hall (ulam contzertim) where the orchestra competed with the sounds of coughing and candy wrappers. When stereo systems became affordable in Israel, people did a double take: It was possible to have a real musical experience in the comfort of your own living room, perhaps with the shutters down and a glass of wine. Since then we have been through the Walkman (Walkmen) - remember them? - Discman (Diskmen) and onto the iPod (so universal, the word is the same in Hebrew) and the MP3, known locally as "MP shalosh." One of modern life's mysteries is why the 8-track never got on the right track and became obsolete so fast it left many reeling. When I made aliya in the late 1970s, Mizrahi (Oriental) music was just beginning to hit the mainstream. It was, however, still mainly marketed through stalls around Tel Aviv's late and unlamented old bus station and similar market-style sites by vendors whose stands (bastot) all seemed to be called Melech Hakassetot (The King of Cassettes), although the Hebrew term for a cassette is technically kaletet. The King is dead - killed by a new style of (copyright) pirates more in tune with the times who download via computer and cellphone. In the days when cassettes ruled the airwaves, many Israelis didn't yet have home phones - let alone a mobile extension with various but all-annoying ringtones (ne'imonim). And instead of computers equipped with speakers, the sound of clicking typewriter keys and the inimitable "ping" as the carriage was returned set the tone. Most kids nowadays, of course, would not recognize the sound any more than they would be able to place an LP on a record player, drop the stylus in the right groove and survive the experience unscratched. "Groove," today, just refers to the feeling and is one of the many English words that are a hit on the local music scene. "Hit" can still be referred to in the Hebrew as lahit or German-originated schlager. But "mainstream," "disco," "rap," "techno," "house," "sound," "label," "single," "mix" and "clip" are all used by blue-and-white music lovers in a generation that worships DJs in much the same way that classical music aficionados venerate conductors. I have just returned from a trip to Eilat where the less formal events surrounding the 12th Arthur Rubinstein Competition took place, combining an old-world charm with a global village (you can watch performances live via the computer). "Live" (ditto in Hebrew) is one of those wonderful tautological terms. After all, you might be able to watch a performer who has died - heaven knows, some big names have even had major hits after they joined the choir of angels - but you can't watch the dead perform. With all due respect to the Grateful Dead - and the Jerusalem Post staffers' in-house band of the 1990s, known as the Grateful Deadliners, the singer must have a pulse as well as a beat to be up on stage. A propos: British superstar Elton John sang out "Sad songs say so much...," but it is Hebrew that really does sad songs justice. In Israel, they are more than a genre: They are an example of the medium being the message. I once watched as a woman walked into a Jerusalem store, heard the song "K'she malachim bochim" ("When Angels Cry") and immediately asked what had happened. It is the sort of song that only comes on the radio on memorial days or when there has been some kind of tragedy. In fact, wordsmith Ruvik Rosenthal in his compendium of Hebrew slang, Lexicon shel Hahaim, notes that rockers call depressing songs "musikat Yom Hashoah" because of the type of pieces broadcast on Holocaust Remembrance Day. One of the great things about living in the Jewish state - and there are many, even in the current situation - is how radio broadcasting and even commercials reflect the Jewish holidays. When Pessah cleaning gets underway, radio DJs will inevitably sort through their archives and pull out Chava Alberstein's Had Gadya and Yossi Banai's Ehad Elokeinu. As Remembrance Day progresses and Independence Day approaches, merging sadness and joy back-to-back in that typically Israeli way, the shirei dikaon (depressing songs) turn into shirei moledet (patriotic songs) and shirei Eretz Yisrael yaffa (songs of a beautiful Land of Israel), known also, according to Rosenthal, as shirei Sochnut (Jewish Agency songs). After all, the show must go on... Although there is a difference. Leonard Bernstein once said: "The joy of music should never be interrupted by a commercial." Today, it seems that all Israel's greatest hits have become jingles. Perhaps it doesn't matter as long as you can hear music and enjoy it. When it comes to music, you can always be instrumental in your own success. [email protected]