Topic: Exercise 4
Music and Peace Process Zehava Ben as exempler of the new genre and transformation of the mainstream Tipat Mazal, Masala Ketourna, Umm Kulthum)
With the hopeful developments in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process as well as the ascendancy of world music in the early 1990s, Mediterranean Israeli Music was elevated from a homespun soundtrack to a new position in the mainstream Israeli imagination. The proliferation of cable channels and decentralized “local” radio stations reconfigured but did not resolve unequal access to broadcast channels and local papers regularly reviewed new releases and concert appearances. Mediterranean Israeli Music was, as Zohar Argov (exercise 3) had challenged in 1981, now “scattered throughout the hours” rather than ghettoized in Oriental corners of state-run media such as Galey Tsahal, Kol Israel, and IBA.
Zohar Argov who had died while in prison in 1987, received posthumous recognition. His life’s story was featured in an uptown avant-garde theater piece, Ha’Melekh (The King) (1992) written and directed by a well known Ashkenazi playwright;
[Zohar the King theatre posters]
a feature-length film entitled The King; and a prime-time television documentary, Zohar, Ha’Melekh (Zohar the King) (1994), and annual memorial concerts in Jerusalem. Reissues of his cassettes appeared in mainstreams venues throughout Europe.
[ English language newspaper article on Argov memorial concert]
[It doesn’t disturb me that he was a horrible singer, it disturbs me that he became a myth.]
[Argov’s cassette featured in the gift shop at the Lourve Museum in Paris]
Consider the four images above: a theater poster for the avant-garde play, “The King,” an English language newspaper article about concerts memorializing Zohar Argov, a bin at the Louvre’s gift shop featuring Argov’s cassette, Elinor, and a Hebrew language newspaper article with a headline criticizing the acceptance of Argov as a mythic figure in the aftermath of his death. What story do these images tell about the complex development of Mediterranean Israeli music in the 1990s?
The increased acceptability of Mediterranean Israeli Music may have been part of two national trends: facing and embracing a multi-ethnic Jewish Israeli society and engaging its Arabic dimension not only as Palestinian within its borders (and with whom a peace was then in process) but as a significant part of its very Jewishness. With the rising popularity of Mediterranean Israeli Music, some singers headed “east.” They exchanged western rock beats and Greek tunes for royalty-free Turkish melodies circulating in the public domain. Although Greek melodies contained Western elements that appealed to European Israeli ears, obtaining licensing agreements was often expensive and time consuming. Turkish tunes, on the other hand, were free because Israel and Turkey had not yet established any copyright agreements. Some Mediterranean Israeli musicians headed back toward the ethnically specific rural and urban, classical and folk Middle Eastern and North African music genres their parents and grandparents had been asked to leave at the door in the late 1940s when ethnicity itself was illegitimate and the national musical task was a blending of exilic soundscapes.
Within the context of a burgeoning world music industry and increased acceptability of Middle Eastern and North African musics, Moroccan, Kurdish, Iranian, and other particular traditions found favor in the mainstream Israeli marketplace. The popularity ethnic specificity in the field of music may be a nostalgia that grows from the consolidation of Mizrahim. With increasing -- though by no means fully realized -- ethnic integration expressions of longing for ancestral diaspora homelands surfaced. For Ashkenazi world music lovers vicarious reclamation of North African and Middle Eastern music roots, what Yael Zeruvabel would call recovered roots (Zerubavel) may signal indigenousness as well as a more appealing and aesthetically coherent sound than previous Mediterranean Israeli formulations.
Moroccan Israeli singer, Zehava Ben’s mellismatic voice burst into Israeli public space at this moment of consolidation and reclamation. Before radio editors new her name, Zehava’s amplified voice blared her hit song “Tipat Mazal” (A Drop of Luck) in all directions from dozens of cassette booths in Tel Aviv’s old central bus station. While Mizrahi singers had previously been ridiculed for “crying songs” like Tipat Mazal, embedding her vocal line in a western rock frame was not only palatable but garnered success.
[Cassette cover for Zehava Ben’s A Drop of Luck release, also the image for her feature film by the same name.]
Moroccan Israeli soldier affixes graphics from Zehava Ben’s “Drop of Luck” cassette to his weapon.
Why do you think a Moroccan Israeli soldier would affix these images to his gun? What statement might he be making about his identity?
In 1992, a popular rock band, Etnix, invited Zehava to perform with them, creating a call and response between east and west. As the contentious borders between Arab ethnic and aesthetic affinity and Israeli national loyalty were performed together Israeliness was reshaped for both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi citizens. Their song, Ketourne Masala, won first place in the annual Popular Song Hit Parade.
Listen to the excerpt from the duet between the Etnix lead singer, Zev Nehama and Zehava Ben. Observe the vocal styles that meet in this song and also the rock instrumentation. Do you think that did duets such as these between mainstream rock stars like Nehama and Mediterranean Israeli Music singers helped to raise the status of the Mizrahi music style? How so?
In 1994-95 as the peace process seemed to be moving somewhere, Zehava Ben released a CD on her own label entitled Zahava Ben sings Arabic. The silver and gold cover inscribes Zahava Ben’s within the profile of renowned Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum. The inner cover is adorned with three images of Ben’s pilgrimage to Egypt to the graves of Umm Kulthum as well as musicians Farid el Atrash and Abed al Chalim Hafez. Umm Kulthum’s career spanned over half a century, drawing Jewish, Muslim and Christian audiences in Islamic countries. She remains the most influential Arab singer of the twentieth century.
Study these CD covers. Why would Zehava Ben choose to inscribe her image within the image of Umm Kulthoum even though Ben is Jewish Israeli and Umm Kulthoum was Muslim Egyptian?
[Video 1 Umm Kulthum’s funeral in Cairo]
[Video 2 Ben’s pilgrimage to Egypt to Umm Kulthoum’s grave]
Consider these two video clips, one a newscast of Umm Kulthoum’s funeral in Cairo in 1975, the other Zehava Ben’s journey to Egypt in 1995? Why did Ben travel to Egypt?
Ben’s CD includes a five-minute cover of Umm Kulthum’s 57 minute signature song, Inte Omri, You are my life, by Egyptian composer Muhamad Abdul Wahab. With the release of this CD, Ashkenazi music consumers who already owned Umm Kulthum were likely to add Zahava to their world music collections. The children of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants who had kept Arabic music in the closet, turned up the volume in taxis, cafes, and salons. And Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza seeking material signs of a fragile peace process, all took notice of Ben’s musical overture.
In the fall of 1995, in the aftermath of Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination, Zahava Ben released an Arabic CD – on the mainstream Helicon label. She had studied classical Arab music, language, and performance, developed competency in the repertoire of Umm Kulthum and employed the Arab Orchestra of Haifa to accompany her. Her previous five- minute rendition of Inte Omri was now a respectable 34 minutes long boasting a substantial muwal as well as recorded audience response. As many Israelis and Palestinians embraced a shared experience of grief over Rabin’s death and the unsettling peace prospects, Zahava Ben’s Arab language CDs and appearances in Nablus, and Jericho, as well as her Hebrew language covers of Ashkenazi repertoire such as that of Yonotan Gefen’s son Aviv’s “Cry For You” at ceremonies marking Itzik Rabin’s death resonated with musical, political, and commercial overtones.
[Video 3 -- Inaguration of Yithak Rabin square in Paris]
[Video 4 Zahava Ben performs in Jericho]
Consider these two performances by Zehava Ben, one in Paris at an official state event memorializing Prime Minister Rabin, the other at a Palestinian beach resort near Jericho. Observe the differences in the performances. Consider the repertoire, dress, audience, and other elements of the events.
Sonically, we return to the opening muwal of my story in which Jews from Islamic lands lovingly carry Umm Kulthum’s music to their new home in Israel. We return to a woman’s voice – though now Moroccan Israeli singer Zahava Ben reconfigures and re-covers Umm Kulthum. Why does Zahava Ben perform Arab language Israeli reconfigurations of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum? Ben’s venture was risky. By reclaiming Arab music as her heritage, she opened herself up to criticism at home and in the Arab world. Zehava Ben’s sought more than a potential peace process- related market niche.
Zehava Ben’s encounter with Umm Kulthum life story as well as her artistry was emotional and personal. She understood Umm Kulthum’s flexible religious identity and poor rural background; it resonated with her own religious traditionality (a forgiving form of religious observance practiced by many Mizrahim) and her impoverished childhood in the periphery where older women spoke North African Arabic interspersed with broken Hebrew.
Umm Kulthum taught Zahava more than proper classical Arab music. Umm Kulthum was an opening for Zahava into her own Arab Jewish heritage. In the context of an emerging peace process, Ben hoped to resolve her Israeli, Jewish, Arab identities. Woman, Jew, Israeli, North African, Moroccan, Arab. It may not be surprising that this bold revoicing of Arab Jewish heritage is feminine. In the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict, women’s coalitions have been successful in creating personal, grassroots institutional connections, a parallel track, what Hannah Naveh calls “women’s ethics of proximity.” (Naveh, 2002, pp 452). It is precisely this ethic that allowed the personal and political border crossings that informed the male-dominated official diplomatic channels.
There is danger in “romancing the romances” -- of Ben’s musical reach across hostile national boundaries. Audio penetration of enemy territory does not create peace, even if it demonstrates arenas of aesthetic common ground. Is Zahava Ben’s musical journey an extention of what conflict resolution practitioner Gene Knudson calls “compassionate listening” – listening not only to the other but to the other within oneself. And can the process of compassionate listening extend beyond live and mediated performance contexts into the fabric of everyday life. Do Zehava Ben’s Um Kulthum covers move Israelis and Arabs beyond the shared commodification of Arab music to a shared longing for peace and a shared practice of normal everyday life? One hopes so.
When Zahava Ben sings Umm Kulthum’s Inta Omri, You are my Life, she really means You are My life challenging us to question sound barriers and the barriers of sound.
[Video 5 and 6 Umm Kulthum and Zahava Ben—]
Observe two video excerpts of performances of the song Enta Omri, (You are my World), one by Umm Kulthum and one by Zehava Ben. Compare and contrast these performances.