Not just for Eastern ears

The emerging popularity of Mizrahi music in Israel has been a gradual process.

Eyal Golan (photo credit: PR)
Eyal Golan
(photo credit: PR)
While the likes of Sarit Haddad and Eyal Golan may be regular headliners these days, it wasn’t always this way. Ask the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers, Zohar Argov or any of the Charli Baghdad troupe.
Actually, you wouldn’t be able to speak to many of the above, as all but a handful have passed on to the bandstand in the sky, but they all had to endure marginalization by the Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli establishment and, hence, largely did not get the kudos and public acclaim their artistry so richly deserved.
Thankfully, that has changed and, among others, Eran Litvin is doing his best to keep the Mizrahi music flag flying high and proud, as amply conveyed in the “Lone Wolf Is the Heart” exhibition currently running at the Ashdod Museum of Art.
Litvin is a prime example of the ethnic swing that has taken place here in the last 20 or so years. “I started to get interested in Mizrahi music when I was 11,” says the exhibition curator, who also works as a music editor on the Kan Gimmel radio station.
“Back then, in Kfar Sava, no one sold Mizrahi stern music in record stores. Everyone was Ashkenazi, at least in the area I lived in. Part of the motive behind this exhibition is to compensate for the culture that I could not access back then.”
Litvin has clearly compensated big time. The exhibition, which spreads across all three floors of the museum, includes numerous record sleeves and cassettes taken from Litvin’s private music collection. He says doesn’t know just how many LPs he has at home.
“Who has time to count?” comes the cryptic response. “I can only say I have thousands.”
If the “Lone Wolf Is the Heart” show is anything to go by, it is a pretty comprehensive collection. The LP covers on display not only chart the evolution of music written, performed and recorded by Israeli Jews who made aliya from Muslim countries, from Morocco to Iraq and all points between – they are also a feast for the eyes.
The designs with yesteryear portrait photography, colors and images evoke the cultural climes of half a century or more ago. You can almost smell the musty aroma of the lovingly preserved vinyl, and hear the sounds of some joyous hafla or jam session-based party.
Ashkenazi roots notwithstanding, Litvin sees a parallel between his upbringing and the birth pangs of Mizrahi Jewish music here. “I wanted to make up for what I missed, for what was kept away from me when I was growing up,” he says.
“It’s like the Sephardim who rightly say that they were badly treated, and were kept out of TV and radio broadcasts. I am expressing the frustration of all Ashkenazim who couldn’t hear this music as kids. We didn’t even know what we were missing.”
The Ashdod exhibition is about as comprehensive as you could hope. “We have historical material, and instruments, which we borrowed from the families of musicians who are no longer with us,” says Litvin.
There are also works of art, including the plastic arts.
The latter include an impressive portrait of megastar vocalist Zohar Argov by well-known artist Uri Lifshitz, and a provocative photograph of popular singer Shlomi Saranga, who performs a wide repertoire of Hebrew and Greek songs.
“I wanted to bring people to the museum, to see works of art, too – possibly people who might not ordinarily come to a museum, but will come because of the theme; and while they’re at it will catch some works of art, too.”
Is there anything of a didactic element to all of this? “I don’t know whether this is about educating people,” Litvin notes, “but it is about showing people what we were missing all those years.”
Part of that edification delves into the various strains that comprise Mizrahi music. “People bunch all of that together,” Litvin observes. “They put Iraqi, Kurdish and Persian music all together. But they each have their own character. There are many layers to all these types of music. I hope this exhibition signals the beginning of the way we relate to all this music.”
People who were around in Israel in the 1980s and happened to pass through the less than salubrious, but definitively colorful, area of the Tel Aviv bus station back then, will have heard the sounds of the so-called cassette singers blasting out along Salomon Street.
As you made your way past the falafel stands, fruit and veg stalls, and niche stores selling makeup, lingerie and kiddies’ toys, you’d hear unmistakably Mizrahi numbers by the likes of Argov, Haim Moshe and Boaz Sharabi among the honking taxi and bus horns, at a pretty impressive decibel level.
The aforesaid threesome feature in the exhibition, as do contemporaries Shimi Tavori, the improbably named Jackie Mekaiten, and Ofra Haza. Haza became a global star in the 1980s following the release of a disco- oriented remix of one of the tracks off her Yemenite Songs album.
Litvin has them all, from street-level commercial performers, such as Mekaiten and Sharabi, to Yemenite diva Shoshana Damari. Many of the now mostly departed leaders of the local Arabic classical music domain were stars in their countries of origin before making aliya.
There is a fine collection of artistic portraits taken by Micha Simhon of some of the stars of the classical Arabic music world. These include flutist Albert Suissa, violinist Felix Mizrahi, and oud players Elias Sassa and Ezra Avraham, who founded the Voice of Israel Arabic- music ensemble in the 1930s, and Egyptian-born Albert Mugrabi, better known by his professional moniker of Filfel El-Masri.
When they made it to the Promised Land, after quite a few them enjoyed stardom in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere, they found their art unrecognized and unappreciated.
The exhibition opens with a humor-tinted item, in the form of a video clip of 63-year-old electric guitarist Yehuda Keisar giving “Hatikva” a Mizrahi trill-infused twist. For anyone weaned on 1960s rock music, it can’t help but conjure up images of Hendrix doing his unfettered thing with “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969. Litvin did not dispel the notion.
“Lone Wolf Is the Heart” is set out logically enough in chronological order. We kick off in the 1950s with hugely popular Moroccan-born singer Jo Amar, who also earned a crust as a cantor, and was one of the few Sephardi artists who managed to span the Ashkenazi- Sephardi divide.
“I felt it was important to show how [Mizrahi music] began, and ends in 1997,” Litvin explains, adding that the closing date was a watershed point in the eventual acceptance of Mizrahi music as a bona fide art form. “That is when Mizrahi music enters the mainstream, when Eyal Golan appeared with [the ethnically- inclined pop-rock band] Ethnix.
“After that Eyal Golan was voted Male Singer of the Year and Sarit Haddad was Female Singer of the Year. Mizrahi music, from that time, is in a different place. It features in talk shows and all over the radio.” It took about 50 years, but Mizrahi music eventually got there.
“Lone Wolf Is the Heart” makes for a fascinating time in visual, aural, cerebral and emotional terms. There are informative and highly entertaining documentary clips, including one about a record store off Clock Tower Square at the northern entrance to Jaffa, which was founded in the 1950s and is still run by a couple of the Azoulai brothers.
They relate how they discovered that there were thousands of Israelis hungry for LPs and tapes by Egyptian diva Oum Kulthoum, Sallah and Daoud el-Kuwaiti – the latter was the grandfather of rocker Dudu Tasa – but had nowhere to get them.
The brothers gradually amassed a decent spread of works and also set up their own, albeit rudimentary, recording facility, by the name of Koliphone. That, along with the subsequent cassette-singer phenomenon, helped to bypass the established Western-tilted record companies and got the Mizrahi music word out to all and sundry.
The Koliphone bunch also helped to propagate the work of leading Greek musicians, such as Trifonas and Aris San.
“The exhibition came from my own record collection and from my 20 years of experience as a music editor with the Voice of Israel,” says Litvin. “I remember when I got to the radio, it was around the time of the Eyal Golan- Ethnix appearance, the place [IBA] totally ignored the [Mizrahi] music.
There was no documentation of the music, nothing.
There were such great artists, like [Moroccan singer] Zohara el-Fasia.” A fetching portrait of el-Fasia, by Netta Elkayam, features in the exhibition.
Part of the anti-Mizrahi music bias was down to the fact that Arabic was considered the language of the enemy. This makes the post-Six Day War release of Arabic-language records by Israeli artists hailing Israel’s lightning military all the more intriguing.
However you look at or listen to it, “Lone Wolf Is the Heart” is definitely worth the trip to Ashdod.
Exhibition closes on October 14. For more information: (08) 854-5180-1 and