Record disc-overy

Israel Radio offers a groovy chance for the general public to backtrack and catch up with historic sounds.

Menachem Granit at Israel Radio's record library 521 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
Menachem Granit at Israel Radio's record library 521
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
I stepped through a portal into a time warp. I hit 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.
The library of sounds is a national treasure, Granit concurs.
Some 10,000 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 Fund.
“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 Granit.
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.
Each record/recording 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 site).
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 media.”
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.”
With 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 General.
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.
Among 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 group.
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 Nardi.
As we surf through the site, we both note the large number of kibbutz choirs, also reflecting the culture of a certain era.
“This site 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.
Feedback during 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.
The 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.
In addition, there are 34,000 Hebrew discs and 31,000 Hebrew LPs.
It’s hard 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 Davis.
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 culture.”
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 project.
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 identity.
This is literally recorded history.
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