From the Ghetto to the Mainstream/Scroll Down for Original Arabic

The story of the inexorable rise of Arabic music in Israel.

Firqat Al Noor

One Saturday in the summer of 1971, my aunt took me to her gym in Tel Aviv. The scene was familiar, like a Baghdad swimming pool in the sixties. Some people were exercising, some were swimming, while others sat together, chatting and relaxing. I sat in a comfy chair and turned my little transistor radio to Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel). It was just after the news, and they were playing an Um Kalthoum song. My aunt swiftly asked me to turn the volume down. This was a surprise and a shock for me. I had been in Israel for a few months, after fleeing the hell that was Iraq at the end of 1970. This is what Eli Eliahu, the talented Israeli poet of Iraqi origin, describes as the “stage of surprise,” one of the “stages of shyness” he details in a poem describing his father’s behavior—quickly switching his car radio from an Arabic station to a Hebrew one as he drives out of a private garage on to the main road, out of fear that someone might hear the Arabic songs he so loved.

Arabic music in Israel has achieved great success over the last two decades. Israel, in the year 2020, is a meeting point of the contemporary, with cultures from around the world existing in harmony. It is also a place where Arabic music, thanks to the impact of immigration, has succeeded in breaking through the barrier placed before it by Ashkenazi hegemony. This has been a successful struggle of public taste winning out over the radio producer’s instinct to view Arabic songs as an extension of the language of the enemy. Arabic, though, was the spoken language of 850,000 Jews. They hailed from different parts of the Arab world and spoke in different accents, but their broad contours of taste were somewhat similar: shaped by a music scene dominated by Arab legends such as Um Kalthoum, Abdel Wahhab, and Farid Al Atrash in Egypt, Salima Murad in Iraq, Sabah in Lebanon, and many more.

The Arab-Israeli conflict placed a political burden on these romantic songs. It introduced friction into the relationship between Jews from Arab countries and Jews from Eastern and Western Europe. This is how Jews from the East found their Arabic culture and music held hostage in their new homeland. So they had no choice but to embrace the melancholy melodies of traditional Greek music, turning it into the “legitimate” substitute for their benighted Arabic music— which, according to the music scholar Shimon Parnas, was viewed as primitive compared to Western classical music.

Eli Greenfield, active in the arts in Israel, says that “the real launch of Arabic music began with the arrival of Sapho, a French Moroccan singer, to Israel in 1988, where she performed in the ‘Heichal Hatarbut’, one of Tel Aviv’s grandest halls, singing Um Kalthoum songs.” This is how Arabic music first migrated from the cafes and bars to the beating heart of Tel Aviv. In the last 30 years, countless groups playing Arabic music or taking inspiration from it have been formed in Israel, and have succeeded in building a fan base both in the Arab world and further afield.

I believe that Israel has gradually rid itself of its Arab complex over the years, especially in the wake of the signing of the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978. The conflict had placed a psychological obstacle in the path of accepting the music of the “enemy.” Nearly 20 years later, Sarit Hadad, one of the most famous singers in Israel, recorded most of her 1997 album Singing in Arabic (which, as the name suggests, had Arabic songs) in Jordan—just two years after the signing of a peace accord between the two countries. There she performed different songs by Arab legends despite not having Arab roots.

In the early 2000s, when I established a new Iraqi music collective “Sidara,” we put on a performance called “Meeting in a Baghdad Cafe.” This revisited the contributions of the brothers Saleh and Dawood Kuwaiti to the development of of Iraqi music during the first half of the twentieth century. Dawood was the grandfather of the talented contemporary musician Dudu Tassa. I invited Tassa to be a guest on my show on Reshet Bet, to talk about the reputation of the brothers, his grandfather and his great-uncle in Iraq before they came to Israel. I mentioned that Iraqi music was first broadcast from Qasr Al Zuhur—home to King Faisal the First, and where King Ghazi, Faisal’s son, held Saleh Al Kuwaiti in such high esteem that he gifted the musician a gold watch. The implication is that Jews could be accorded respect on their own merits, even as a minority. Tassa couldn’t help but comment that he had heard about the high positions Jews enjoyed in Arab countries before, but had assumed it to be an exaggerated tale built in the imagination of Jewish immigrants from there.

More than a decade after our conversation, Tassa released the abum Al Akhwan Kuwaiti (“Al Kuwaiti Brothers”), placing the songs and tunes of his grandfather and his great-uncle in a modern framework. It was a bestseller, accompanied by sold-out concerts. Tassa’s new arrangements struck a chord with thousands of Iraqis both inside and outside Iraq, even though Tassa’s singing accent—unsurprisingly—is not a pure Iraqi one. On the back of these new arrangements of his forebears’ music, Tassa was invited to perform, with the talented Nasrin Qadri, as opening act for the British rock group Radiohead on a sold-out arena tour of the United States.

The group Firqat Al Noor first showed up on the Israeli scene five years ago. The 25-member orchestra, directed by Ariel Cohen, who has Moroccan origins, are standard-bearers for the traditional Arabic music once played on Voice of Israel radio. This ambitious project, which received enthusiastic media coverage, was the culmination of efforts by smaller ensembles such as Yoused Fe Ehad, Bustan Abraham, and a group led by Yair Dalal, who is of Iraqi origins. These groups have received the support of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and have been endorsed as emissaries of Israel abroad.

How did contemporary Israeli youth acquire this taste for Arabic music? No doubt, a significant cohort had been exposed to the Tarab (traditional Arab music that emphasizes long melodic notes) giants in the synagogue, after Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef allowed religious hymns to be set to these melodies. Festivals championing the cause of peace and coexistence in the Middle East have similarly helped the spread of Arabic music, especially Jerusalem’s annual Oud Festival—a huge pull for a large and diverse audience, including Israelis who do not have Eastern roots. This festival quickly expanded into a series of performances in scores of halls across several cities, supported with big budgets by municipal authorities and the Ministry of Culture. The popularity opened up the genre to mainstream platforms, including the grand elegant halls that typically play host to plays and musicals rooted firmly in the West. The Jerusalem Theater, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and even Tel Aviv University have all hosted Arabic music concerts in recent years.

Singing in Arabic, though, remains the biggest challenge yet to be overcome by the Israeli Jewish artists. Many artists sing Arabic music in Hebrew. For example, Nisrin Qadri, who sings in Hebrew, has a large fan base; so too the guitarist and singer Luna Abu Nassar. The second generation of Jews from the Arab world do sing quite well in Arabic, especially in the Iraqi dialect. Some, like Yusuf Al Baghdadi and Yacob Nashawai, even have a fan base among listeners from the same background. However, the influence of this music is rather narrow. In contrast to this group, a new star has emerged from the same background, subscribing to the tradition of Tarab giants like Abdel Wahhab, Um Kalthoum and Farid Al Atrash.

It is perhaps paradoxical that Ziv Yehezkel, who has been religious since he was 20, has captured the hearts of the Arabs in Israel. He follows in the footsteps of Avi Cohen, a cantor famous for his melodious voice, who has won fame in Israel’s Arab community and performed for the late Abdel Wahhab. And we should not overlook the female voices that have also surmounted the Arabic obstacle—Zehava Ben, for example, who could be heard singing Um Kalthoum across Gaza and Jordan during the 1980s.

In the last few years, Tamar Shawqi’s soft voice has floated onto the scene. Tamar sings the standards of the Tarab giants of Egypt, but also those of Lebanon’s Fairuz—less popular with Israel’s Jewish singers than Um Kalthoum. What is remarkable is that Tamar sang in English at the beginning of her career. Then the songs she heard from her grandparents Amal and Salim Shawqi struck a familiar yet dormant chord ringing from a far off rhythm where familiarity and childhood mingled. Tamar today recalls stories of her grandparents’ friendship with Wadi Al Safi, one of Lebanon’s most famous Tarab artists, and how they would use aliases when with him, so as to avoid embarrassment.

On the subject of Lebanon, we must mention Al Firqa Al Maqdisiya Sharq Gharb, led by Thomas Cohen, whom in the last few years have dedicated their performances to the canon of famous Tarab singers across the Arab world. With a large and devoted audience, Sharq Gharbً stage most of their performances on Israel’s periphery. This band distinguishes itself through a broad repertoire, including Jewish-Moroccan and Andalusian songs. They have also collaborated with musicians from diverse backgrounds, including Ravid Kahlani, who has Yemenite roots and grew up listening to Yemenite music. Kahlani is also influenced by North African music, the Blues, and American superstars like Prince and Michael Jackson. Blending these disparate strands, Kahlani has created an enchanting combination. He is one of the most famous Israeli artists performing abroad, in part due to his musical ability, and in part due to his remarkable appearance; both have become an inseparable part of his identity. He has released several albums with Arabic titles, such as Ma’ahla Asalam, with lyrics by Tzion Golan. He is also well-known among native Yemenites, thanks to his second album, Insaniya.

We must also mention Neta Al Qayem, an artist who sings and performs in Moroccan Arabic. Influenced by religious hymns she heard from her father and by the North African songs she heard her grandmother sing, her style is infused with elements from her childhood. In an interview with Time Out in November 2019 she said: “The music that I produce has a positive political impact, and I am fine with that, seeing that I am a Jewish Israeli woman who has chosen to sing in Arabic. The response I have received from the Arab world is one I would not have dreamed of.” Musicals have also become part of the Arabic musical scene in recent years. Um Kalthoum and Farid Al Atrash are eponymous shows about the lives of the Tarab giants and have been performed successfully hundreds of times in Israel and abroad.

Firqat Al Noor’s performances at the Israeli President’s residence symbolically embody the rise in status of Arabic music. Despite the ensemble’s modest budget, they perform 50 shows annually. One factor which distinguishes this ensemble is its repertoire, which extends across the Middle East and North Africa. Another is that it is the only contemporary ensemble in Israel to have perfected the performance of Iraqi music while maintaining the Eastern traditions and original melodies. The group’s manager, Hana Ftaya—herself of Iraqi origins— explains: “Could anyone possibly change Beethoven’s music?” Considering the nature of the ensemble’s core audience, she replies: “We provide a music that is both special and of high status; it replicates the original with utmost efforts and fidelity, and that is why you find the audience to be a mixture of people who grew up with Arabic music and the youth who have developed an awareness of their Eastern roots, despite the latter not having been brought up in an environment of Eastern music or with an audience of high musical taste.”

Initiatives by the second generation of Jewish musicians from Arab countries deviate somewhat from this classical approach. These initiatives tend toward reworking melodies of childhood into something that is more familiar to contemporary youth, along with reviving cultural classics for a new generation of listeners. The Yemenite trio A-WA, made up of three sisters, are an example of this. Their first album of Yemenite music, released in 2016, quickly became a hit after millions saw the video for the song Habib Galbi (“Love of My Heart”). Their music is founded on a wide knowledge of traditional Yemenite songs, which they have been performing from a young age. They have penned new lyrics in the Yemenite Arabic dialect, and were also able to draw on the resources of organizations like Shenkar, which have worked to increase the prestige and status of Arabic music.

Eli Greenfield captures a beautiful image when he says that “the growing realization of the wealth of the Arabic music in the Israeli scene has deeply impacted the second generation of Israelis, like a ‘revolution’.” Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Jaffa’s Jewish-Arab Theater is preparing to launch a project about the life of Abdel Halim Hafez, who was known as the “Dark-Skinned Nightingale.” This is a collaboration between the Tarab artist Ziv Yehezkel and the famous actor Uri Gabriel, both of Iraqi origins. The Ministry of Culture has also hosted several live feeds of Arabic music, via Zoom, in recent months.

There is no doubt in my mind that recent improvements in the political climate, specifically the rapprochement between Israel and the Arab Gulf nations, contributed to the decision of former Minister of Culture Miri Regev to allocate large budgets for Arabic and Eastern music, thus bringing more equality between Western and Eastern music. Tamar Shawki, inspired by this recent development, was once asked if she would be willing to perform in the United Arab Emirates. Her response was an enthusiastic “yes”; and with the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and the UAE, it may yet happen. “If the elevator to success is broken, take the stairs one by one.” This is what Arabic music has done in Israel!

Translated by Manar Nabut.

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