Sounds from Central Bus Station: Rhythms from the ‘other’ Israel

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 10.43.55Anna Lou-Lou Bar, Old Jaffa (Photography by Leeor Ohayon)

The first in a series that charts the musical contributions of Mizrahi/Arab-Jewry, starting from the birth of the Mizrahit movement, going back to its early roots across the Arabic speaking world and ending in Israel in 2014.

Understanding Mizrahit

Sat at the Anna-Lulu, an intimate bar shrouded in thick smoke, tucked into the heart of old Jaffa, I absorbed the scene unfolding before my eyes. The DJ continuously flicked backwards and forwards between the bleating sounds of Lebanese Debke, to Moroccan Jewish classics and back to Yemenite folk. Here, was a new generation of Mizrahi Jews (Jews with ethnic roots in the Arab and Islamic world), dancing unashamedly to music too often stigmatised as ‘Bus Station music’. Music, which is too often dismissed as degenerate, cheap and common. Sipping on Arak and grapefruit juice, Mizrahi Jews were rubbing shoulders with Palestinians and Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent), celebrating a culture which has long been suppressed, recreating the Hafla (Middle Eastern musical gatherings-come-parties) of our parents and grandparents as if nothing had ever happened.

Ahuva Ozeri – ‘Haikhan ha-Khayal?’  (Where is my soldier?) 

On the eve of 1948, approximately one million Jews lived in the Arab world, a continuation of a two thousand year old presence. The subsequent Arab-Israeli conflict turned the Middle East’s indigenous Jewish populations into a fifth column. Discriminatory policies by Arab governments, together with the arrival of Zionist emissaries from Baghdad to Aden, entrapped the Jews of the Arab world between the flames of Jewish and Arab nationalism. Burnt, the Jews of the Arab world soon began their Silent Exodus, the majority went to Israel, with small numbers heading to their former imperial masters in France and Britain. Some left on mass air evacuations sponsored by the Jewish Agency, as in Iraq, others found their own way out, to be later aided by Mossad agents stationed in ports across the Mediterranean. Their departure marked the start of a new chapter, breaking from a two millennium old history. Housed and isolated in the decay of peripheral Israel, type-casted as violent, vulgar and uncivilised by Israeli statesmen from Ben Gurion to Golda Meir, the downward descent of Arab-Jewry had begun.

Mizrahi is the subsequent result of Egyptian Jews befriending Moroccan Jews who married other eastern Jewish communities from Algeria to Dagestan within the ghettos of peripheral Israel, creating the Israeli ‘ethnic other’. Mizrahi is the result of side-lined communities, uprooted, destitute and further victimised in a state that told them not to be ‘too Arab’. A state built on Ashkenazic foundations, under a Eurocentric educative system that sought to pressurise Mizrahi Jewry into leaving their Middle Eastern cultures at the border and adopting a new Ashkenazi-Israeli identity. All this subsequently resulted in a dichotomy that only served to create a form of identity-based schizophrenia amongst Mizrahi Jewry. Emphasis was placed on their Jewish faith, their Middle Eastern mannerisms left in the private sphere, their cultures deemed something to be ashamed of. The new geopolitical realities of the Middle East dictated that belonging to an Arabic or Middle Eastern culture and being Jewish were two separate homogenous blocs, never to mix.

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 10.54.35At home with Café Gibraltar and Anna Lou Lou Resident DJ Khen Ohana Elmaleh, Tel Aviv (Photography by Leeor Ohayon)

A rich cultural heritage found itself in dire straits. Jewish musical greats from Sammy El Maghribi of Morocco to the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers of Kuwait, who once graced the radio airwaves of the Arabic world, crashed down to a grim reality, their musical talent was insignificant. They were just another set of Jewish refugees from the Islamic world wallowing in the squalor of the Ma’abarot, refugee camps.

…men in gaudy bling and women in tiger print, a musical movement had begun.

And yet deep in this world type-casted by the Israeli Ashkenazi elite as one of too many children, too little to eat, with men in gaudy bling and women in tiger print, a musical movement had begun. These ancient communities reacting to the decimation of their culture began to learn and borrow from one another. The Arabic ‘Oud and the Darbouka met the electric guitar, with lyrics sung in Hebrew, alongside the usual Judeo-Arabic dialects, Greek, Turkish or Farsi, creating a musical genre authentic to the Mizrahi experience, Mizrahit. Fed an Ashkenazic diet that was non-relatable to the Mizrahi experience, cultural hunger unleashed a form of creativity that not only went against the confines of Israeli identity as set by early Ashkenazi Zionists but one that was truly rooted to the reality of the Mizrahi experience in Israel.

Tzlilei ha-Kerem – ‘Et Ya’aleh Yare’akh’ (Time Will Bring out the Moon)

If Mizrahit has a spiritual home it is within the winding alleys of the Kerem ha-Teimanim neighbourhood of Tel Aviv (“Yemenite’s Vineyard”). Here, pioneers such as Ahuva Ozeri and the Tzlilei Ha-Kerem band (‘Sounds of the Vineyard’) laid down the musical foundations of the burgeoning movement, the Hafla its anchor. Ron Kahlili’s documentary Sea of Tears provides spectacular footage of the early days.

Acts such as Tzlilei ha-Kerem adopted lyrics from the Land-of-Israel genre of the Ashkenazi elite into Mizrahi melodies that would become classics in themselves, alongside the usual fare of Yemenite Jewish folk songs and psalms. The religious factor here is not to be underestimated. Psalms and liturgical poetry known as piyyutim, continued to remain lyrical inspiration, even as these ancient communities began to secularize at lightning speed. Earlier Mizrahi icons from the 1960s such as Jo Amar were significantly influenced by the heritage of the Arabic synagogue, as it had generations of Jewish Moroccan singers before him.

…identification with the African American struggle allowed for the culmination of The Israeli Black Panthers

The Phillips cassette tape of the 1970s revolutionised the fate of Mizrahit, ushering in a new age for the Mizrahit artist. Cassette tapes allowed for mass distribution in markets across the country, earning it the negative moniker, ‘cassette music’. The Mizrahi singer was liberated from the wedding hall and community Haflas, and onto a public platform, at a time when official state channels continued to refuse to provide airtime (a reality which remained until the start of the 1990s). The arrival of cassettes coincided with the start of social upheaval in Israel, as anger and frustration raged through the Mizrahi slums of Jerusalem and spilled out onto the streets. A new Mizrahi self-awareness allowed for a new empowerment. Central Bus Station and its stalls dedicated to Mizrahi music became a place where “blacks could buy from black artists” away from an establishment which shunned them.

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 11.39.25Image taken from Haaretz

This identification with the African American struggle, allowed for the culmination of The Israeli Black Panthers. Mizrahi Jews, influenced and inspired by the African-American struggle, took to Zion Square in Jerusalem in a night dubbed as the ‘Night of the Panthers’. Occupying and renaming Zion Square, Eastern Jewry Square, the Panthers and their supporters demanded an end to institutionalised racism and its subsequent hunger. Placards, tongue in cheek, demanded that Prime Minister Golda Meir teach Mizrahi Jews Yiddish, so that they, too, could climb the Israeli Jewish social hierarchy. The aftermath of the failed revolution remains marred in controversy as to its actual effect on Israeli society.

Despite the rise and popularity of Mizrahit, the Ashkenazi elite was unwilling to accept the style; Mizrahit was  ‘too eastern’ and thus ‘not authentically Israeli’.  To sing about topics such as love, went against the cultural codes of Ashkenazi Israel, where singers maintained a preference for lyrics that spoke of Israeli landscapes and Zionist ideals of working the land. Singers like Nissim Seroussi, a Tunisian-Jew, was humiliated on live television, slammed as a ‘Moroccan dwarf’, falling victim to a society which decided his musical integrity worked contrary to the identity they were trying to build.

Zohar Argov – ‘Od Yom Yavoh’ (Another Day Will Come)

The 1970s saw the arrival of Zohar Argov to the scene, taking Mizrahit to a new place; his haunting melodies of heartbreak and addiction would later earn him the rightful title of the King of Mizrahit. Not only was his voice unique, built on the influences of the various musical genres of Mizrahi communities, Argov also became the symbolic face of the Mizrahi Dikooi, (‘depression/decay’). Born into a poor Yemenite family, Argov, the eldest of ten, soon became addicted to crack and heroin, eventually committing suicide whilst in prison at the tender age of 32. Argov, never lived to hear his songs on radio, his sound being the supposed antitheses of the Israeli radio.

Other significant acts of the period were Tzlilei ha-’Oud, (Sounds of the ‘Oud). The song below is Kesem ha-Mizrah (Magic of the East). Symbolic perhaps of the Mizrahi cliché of the period, the song tells the romantic story of a poor Mizrahi kid born into an impoverished neighbourhood, falling in love and escaping the grind of poverty.

By the 1980s, Mizrahit adopted electric synthesisers, highly symbolic of the era, portraying a genre willing to adapt and evolve with the times. Singers such as Haim Moshe became a success outside of his native Israel. Radio stations in Lebanon and across the Arab world aired his Arabic renditions of songs. Despite the cultural isolation amongst Mizrahi Jewry, Arabic television satellites ensured that the cultural capital from the Arab world continued to penetrate the Mizrahi ghetto, ensuring the continued adaptations of Arabic songs into Hebrew, as evident with Haim’s 1982 version of Shalom Alay (Peace be upon me), a Hebrew adaptation of Egyptian-Jewish Leila Murad’s Salaam Alay below:

Other notable names of the era include Zehava Ben, born Zehava Benisty to a Moroccan family in the desert capital of the Negev, Be’ersheba. In a country where Moroccans constitute the second largest Jewish ethnic group, Zehava became the nation’s sweetheart, with her sister Etty also a household name in her own right. Zehava, too, found unofficial popularity throughout the Arab world, notably for her tracks in Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and particularly for her version of Egyptian Oum Kulthum’s classic Inta Omri throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Zehava Ben – Ya Habibi (My Beloved)

The start of the 1990s signalled a new acceptance by the mainstream, Mizrahit it seemed, had finally come of age, infiltrating Israeli radios and television sets. Mizrahi artists became celebrities, gracing revolutionary television programs like Re’akh Mentah (Scent of Mint), a live show dedicated to Mizrahit, a sort of Middle Eastern Top-of-the-Pops-come-This-is-your-life, with a fixation on single artists per show. First aired in 1997, the show quickly climbed its way to Friday evening primetime. The show went on to introduce then unknown artists such as Sarit Hadad who would later become household names within the new commercialised face of Mizrahit in the 21st century.

Zehava Ben on Re’akh Menta (Scent of Mint) performing Oum Kulthum’s Arabian epic Inta Omri (You are my Life)

In a country where Mizrahi Jews make up an estimated 61% of the populace, the Mizrahit music industry became big, easy money to be made, once its potential was actualised. The commercialisation of Mizrahit paved the way for easily packaged sugar-pop style Mizrahit with questionable lyrics and music videos. Critics often point to the commercialisation of Mizrahit as its downfall, in which the Mizrahi artist became the glitzy gaudy ‘champagne and bitches’ caricature that the West often associates with commercially produced Hip Hop and Rappers. It is not to say that Mizrahit’s move into the mainstream did not yield benefits, the 1990s saw a new generation of artists such as Eyal Golan become a nation wide success, winning the hearts and ears of Ashkenazi Jews as well, a true litmus test of his wide reaching success.

Eyal Golan- Na’arah (Young Lady)

Like any underground movement that mixes with capitalism, the artistic quality often declines in favour of profit, however, like with any musical movement of the past, commercialisation does not signal death. Mizrahit is now moving in different directions, incorporating and adapting in new ways. Perhaps most excitingly, is that Mizrahit is returning to its roots, as a new generation of Mizrahi Jews are beginning to reconnect with a lost culture, rediscovering the culture of their parents and grandparents, looking ever more towards the Arab world. Re-engaging with ancient Judaeo-Yemenite and Moroccan dialects for a new generation, who sadly remain more divided from the Arab world than ever before. However it is this new generation of Mizrahi Israeli artists, with talent such as Neta El-Kayim (below) who are not only taking pride in their roots and musical legacy but are also demanding a seat at the table.  Musical platforms such as Café Gibraltar ensure that the talented sideline receive their due praise. Mizrahi musicians are requesting cultural recognition like never before. And whilst a Mizrahi Renaissance is ever closer, the struggle is far from over.

A collective Jewish historical narrative, which sees itself solely between Warsaw and Minsk but never Baghdad.

Subtle institutionalised racism continues to ensure that Mizrahi Jewry remains at the lower strata of the Israeli Jewish hierarchy. Cultural recognition has still not been attained; the Mizrahi is still chained to negative portrayals that depict him as the tacky primitive from Provençe. The income gap remains one of the most significant with Ashkenazi Jews earning almost 40% more, and twice as likely to go to university. What makes the Mizrahi’s position ever harder is that his story has been continuously swept under the rug, taken hostage to the discourse of one-nation-one-heart. To talk about the Kipu’akh (discrimination) is not only to be a ‘cry baby’, it is to drive a wedge through the conceptual heart of a Jewish unity and brotherhood. If it’s between Jews, then it’s not ‘real racism.’ In a similar tone, the West’s understanding of Israel is limited to the confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; of a white homogenous bloc with Yiddish speaking roots locked in a war with its ‘eternal enemy’ the Arab. Consequentially, the Mizrahi Jew has been whitewashed from history for the sake of Western simplification, Arabic denial and a collective Jewish historical narrative, which sees itself solely between Warsaw and Minsk but never Baghdad. With this in mind, much remains to be done.

This was the first in a series that charts the musical contributions of Mizrahi/Arab-Jewry, starting from the birth of the Mizrahit movement, going back to its early roots across the Arabic speaking world and ending in Israel in the year 2014.

The next instalment will look at the grandeur musical heritage of Jewish Morocco.

Leeor Ohayon is a Documentary-Photographer from London. A graduate from the University of Leeds, Leeor is currently residing in Tel Aviv and focusing his photographic work on Mizrahi Jewry.


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