From Hava Nagilla to Hip-Hop: The Soundtrack of Israel
Naomi Cohn-Zentner, a music instructor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem, was interviewed by the RJ editors on how Israeli music has captured the changing realities and dreams of the nation.
Listen to the music clips by clicking on the tracks within the article (Track 1, Track 2, etc.). To learn more about the musical recordings, read the liner notes.
What are the roots of Israeli music?
Israeli music springs from two opposing musical influences. The first was an attempt to create a brand new Israeli identity and culture, a collective style of songs with which all Israelis, regardless of background, could identify. The Shirei Eretz Yisrael (Songs of the Land of Israel), as they are called, reflected love for the country, its landscapes, and the pioneering spirit associated with the settling of the land. The songs written in this "new Israeli style" combined Middle Eastern musical influences, perceived as being closer to biblical music and to the local Arab music and thus authentic to the land; and Eastern European musical influences, reflecting the origins of many of its composers.
The second category of early Israeli songs emerged from the diverse musical traditions of the new immigrants. Russian songs, Yemenite songs, Yiddish folksongs, Sephardic Ladino songs, Greek songs and Arabic songs were all translated into Hebrew, becoming "Israeli songs." Even traditional Hassidic songs were converted into Israeli songs. For example, the most famous song universally associated with Israel, Hava Nagilla, originated as a wordless niggun, a melody sung by the Hassidim of Sadigura (Ukraine); it was first performed in Palestine in 1918 when Abraham Z. Idelsohn, a pioneer Jewish music researcher, chose the melody for his choir to mark the occasion of the victory of Great Britain over the Turks in Palestine.
Were there differences between the songs written before and after Israel's establishment in 1948?
Musically, that's an artificial distinction. Israeli songs are a direct continuation of the music created and sung since the beginning of the Zionist Movement in the 1880s. What made the years 1948 and 1949 important in the history of Israeli music were the many songs written about the War of Independence-about battles, army units, the loss of comrades, and the hope for peace. In one of the most famous songs, "Bab El Wad" [Track 1], Chaim Guri (lyricist) and Shmuel Farshko (composer) memorialize those who lost their lives trying to deliver food, water, and medicine to the besieged Jews of Jerusalem. The most dangerous place on the road to Jerusalem was a deep valley, Sha'ar Hagay-Bab El Wad in Arabic-surrounded by hills from which Arab snipers could clearly target the convoys. "A spring day will come, the/cyclamens will bloom,/Red of anemone on the mountain and on the slope./He, who will go on the road we went,/He will not forget us, Bab El Wad."
In another very popular song, "Ha'amini Yom Yavo" ("Believe Me a Day Will Come") [Track 2], Rafael Klatshkin (lyricist) and Menashe Baharav (composer) tell the story of a soldier who writes to his girlfriend that "though the price is very dear," the war will end sometime and "we'll be able to breathe here and live!"
Interestingly, many songs created during the first years of Israeli statehood, including both "Bab El Wad" and "Ha'amini Yom Yavo," are set in the evening, when the first star of the night can be seen. The presence of "twilight" in the lyrics may symbolize the era of "in-betweeness" for the new state: between the British mandate and the new Jewish state, between war and peace, between life and death.
It's clear that army experiences were central to early Israeli music. Did the army itself have an orchestra?
Yes. A famous army orchestra played at major official military ceremonies. In addition, the army sponsored Lehaqot Tzvaiyot (army entertainment troupes) whose mission was to raise soldiers' morale and to present Zionist ideology in a lighthearted manner to soldiers and civilians alike. Male and female soldiers, chosen for their talent either in music or in comic acting, traveled in groups of ten to fifteen, performing at army bases and outposts all over the country; their entire army service was dedicated to entertaining the other soldiers. The songs recounted heroic or humorous army experiences, reflected on the wars, and honored fallen soldiers. Well-known civilian writers, composers, and arrangers commissioned by the army kept the musical standards high. The Lehaqot Tzvaiyot performed from the early years of the state until they were dismantled in the mid-seventies, when their popularity waned.
In 1956, the group Lahaqat HaNachal (The Nahal Entertainment Troupe) released "Ya Mishlati" ("My Outpost") [Track 3]. Written by Yechiel Mohar (lyricist) and Moshe Vilensky (composer), it made light of the difficult conditions of military life while simultaneously bolstering the soldiers' sense of purpose: "Ya Mishlati, (My outpost,) it is mine, without any walls,/Ya, my kitchen with stars for lights/It's true that there's not much luxury/And the only heating/is the heat of the heart and the fire of the battle upon my outpost,/Mishlati."
In another song performed by Lahaqat HaNachal, "Mul Har Sinai" ("At Mount Sinai") [Track 4], Yehiel Mohar (lyricist) and Moshe Vilensky (composer) juxtaposed biblical images of the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai with images of Israeli troops battling Egyptian forces in the 1956 Sinai campaign: "It is no legend, my friend/And not a fleeting dream./Here in front of Mount Sinai/The bush is burning still./And it is glowing in song/In the mouths of our young soldiers…."
"Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" ("Jerusalem of Gold") is the most famous song associated with the Six-Day War of 1967. Is it as popular among Israelis as it is among Diaspora Jews?
Yes. But "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" [Track 5], composed by the prolific Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer, was actually written and performed before the Six-Day War. Teddy Kollek, then mayor of Jerusalem, had commissioned it for that year's Israel Song Festival, which always took place on Independence Day. "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" touched a nerve among Israelis, especially since its first performance was during the three-week tkufat hahamtana (period of waiting) prior to the war, when Arab armies were amassing on Israel's borders. The song gave comfort during a very stressful time; everyone knew that war was imminent, but no one could predict when it would start or who would "blink" first. Later, Israeli paratroopers sang it after they captured the Old City of Jerusalem. When the Six-Day War ended, the map of Israel had changed, and Naomi Shemer added a chorus to the song describing the new reality: "We returned to the wells/to the market and the town square/A shofar calls from the Temple Mount in the Old City/From the rocky caves/A thousand suns are burning/And we shall go down to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho again." Shemer performed the updated version for a group of paratroopers, and responding to their applause, she said: "I should thank you. It is easier to change a song than to change a city!"
Was Israeli music influenced by rock music?
Yes, but not until the late 1960s. Before then rock music was essentially viewed as "foreign" and "un-Israeli." In fact, in 1965 government officials barred the Beatles from entering Israel, fearing the band would "corrupt the minds of Israeli youth." Rock music wasn't accepted into the Israeli mainstream until Israelis began recording rock tunes in Hebrew. And it helped that its first singers/songwriters, Arik Einstein and Shalom Hannoch, were graduates of the army's Lehaqot Tzvaiyot; had roots in the kibbutz movement; and continued to sing patriotic songs. In 1967 Arik Einstein collaborated with Shmulik Kraus and Josie Katz to create an ensemble called HaChalonot HaGvohim (The High Windows); its album of the same name is considered by many to be the first authentic Israeli rock album. Their Mamas and the Papas harmonization and Beatles-influenced rhythm section combined with lyrics in Hebrew incorporating poetic texts and biblical topics appealed to Israeli musical taste of the time. In their 1967 release, "Einech Yechola" ("You Cannot") [ Track 6], the singer pleads with his girlfriend not to leave him: "You cannot just walk away like this/You cannot leave me,/You can't because it's Autumn now/its raining outside and you're staying with me."
Like The High Windows, many of Israel's homegrown rock bands put music to lyrics written by leading Israeli poets, which also helped in gaining mainstream acceptance. One such song, "Atur Mitzchech" ("Your Head is Crowned in Black Gold") [Track 7], written in 1976, was voted "the best Israeli song ever." Composed by Yoni Rechter to the words of poet Avraham Halfi and sung by Arik Einstein, it reads in part: "And your forehead covered with black gold/Will come close to my lips like a rhyme to a song…."
Did rock influence the music of the army entertainment troupes?
Yes. The electric guitar, bass guitar, and drum set replaced the accordion and darbuka (Arab drum) emblematic of the earlier Lahaqot Tzvaiyot; and the repertory expanded to include American protest-influenced rock music, such as the group Lahaqat HaNachal's 1969 song "Shir LaShalom" ("The Song of Peace") [Track 8]. Although rock was gradually accepted as the new musical idiom of the Army entertainment troupes, the song "Shir Lashalom," influenced by the American songs protesting the Vietnam War, was not well received in some quarters. The then commander of the IDF's Central Command, Rehav'am Ze'evi, denounced the song for its antiwar message and insensitivity towards the families of the fallen soldiers and banned its performance on certain military bases. Despite the controversy, by the 1990s "Shir LaShalom" had become the anthem of the peace movement in Israel. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sang it at the peace rally, minutes before he was assassinated, and the bloodstained piece of paper with its lyrics later found in his pocket gave added meaning to the song: "Allow the sun to penetrate/through the flowers/Don't look back, let go of those departed./Lift your eyes with hope/not through the rifles' sights/Sing a song for love/and not for wars."
What other musical genres were popular during the 1970s and 1980s?
Besides rock, in the 1970s some of the older Shirei Eretz Yisrael (songs about the land, history, and nostalgia, tailored to unite everyone living in Israel) enjoyed a revival, with new versions and new songs written in that genre. In addition, Mizrachi music (a musical style combining the music of immigrants from Mediterranean and Oriental countries) began to enter the Israeli mainstream. Previously, Mizrachi music had been performed only at family celebrations or wedding parties, but it gained wider exposure with the invention of cassette tape recorders. Still, this music was denigrated by some as muzikat cassettot (cassette music) because of its association with low-quality recordings and because the Ashkenazi elite had a cultural bias against Oriental Jews. By the early 1980s recording quality improved and there was more recognition of Mizrachi culture; as a result, for the first time, Mizrachi songs were broadcast on radio and eventually on TV, leading to greater public acceptance. One of the firstMizrachi hits was Avihu Medina's "HaPerach BeGani" ("The Flower in My Garden"), sung by Zohar Argov [Track 9], which won first prize in the Israeli Oriental Song Festival of 1982: "You are my world at dawn./You are mine all day./You are my world at night./You are the dream./You are in my blood, in my spirit and in my heart./You are the sweet fragrance,/the flower in my garden."
Has there been much fusion between Jewish and Arab music in Israel?
Mediterranean elements have been part of Israeli songs since the 1930s. The political optimism that resulted from Israel's signing of the Oslo Accords (1993) and the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty (1994), combined with the global trend of world music, led to a proliferation of bands with Jewish and Arab musicians that played "ethnic music" mixing Arab and Western sounds. Bands such as Bustan Avraham and Sheva appealed to young intellectuals who saw the genre as an expression of the peace movement and to older Israelis from Arab countries who were nostalgic for the sounds of their youth. In 2002 the talented young musical producer, composer, and singer Idan Raichel initiated a world music project inspired by the language and music of the Ethiopian Jews, as well as Western and Oriental sounds. Taking samples of Ethiopian instruments and songs in Amharic (the Ethiopian language) and working with Ethiopian singers, he created two successful albums known as "Idan Raichel's Project." The song "Bo'i" ("Come") [Track 10] exhorts: "Come, give me your hand and let's go/Don't ask me where to/Don't ask me about happiness/Maybe that will come too/When it comes/it will come down on us like rain/Come/Let's hug and go…."
What are the major trends in Israeli pop music today and what do they tell us about the mood of the nation?
There are two major musical trends: hip-hop and religious-oriented songs that mark a return to traditional Jewish roots.
How did Hebrew hip-hop find its voice?
In the late 1990s Hebrew hip-hop began playing a major role in commenting on the realities of Israeli life from across the political spectrum. The rapper Subliminal, for example, broadcasts his Zionist, right-wing views in such songs as his 2002 hit "Tikva": "You promised a dove, in the sky there's a hawk/Brother, a poisonous thorn scratches me, this is not an olive branch/We are living in a dream, everybody talks about peace/But they shoot, oppress, pull, squeeze the trigger." On the other end of the political spectrum, the left-wing group Hadag Nachash presents an ironic, cynical view of Israeli society. Hadag Nachash's 2004 hit "Shirat HaSticker" ("The Bumper Sticker Song") [ Track 11] was inspired by the Israeli propensity to express political views on bumper stickers. The lyricist, well-known Israeli author David Grossman, assembled a broad scope of actual Israeli bumper-sticker messages-right-wing, left-wing, religious, secular, angry, funny, bitter, satirical, etc.-positioning and juxtaposing them to fashion a humorous look at Israeli society and its internal politics: "A whole generation demands peace/Let the IDF win/A strong nation makes peace/Let the IDF kick their butts…"
What sparked songwriters to return to music based on religious sources?
It was certainly a departure from the spirit of the secular Zionist founders who saw religiosity as archaic and inconsistent with the "new Jewish culture" they were intent on creating. That is why they promoted songs that were linked to the ideals of a civil religion, based on the love of the land and self-reliance. Today, however, these Zionist ideals are no longer as compelling and fulfilling; in the 21st century, many Israelis are searching for ways to fill that gap and are turning to the religion of their parents and grandparents for inspiration. Numerous Israeli musicians have become more religious and their search for spirituality in Judaism is reflected in their music. This year, at least two of the ten songs on the Israeli annual hit parade are sung by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox musicians, and their lyrics recall religious experiences or quote liturgical texts. And these days the lines separating "religious music"-termed neo-Hassidic-and mainstream Israeli music have blurred; you'll find songs by religious musicians such as the brothers Aharon and Yonathan Razel played on secular Israeli radio stations, as well as secular musicians such as Shlomo Gronich writing songs with words from religious Jewish sources.
At the same time, piyutim (liturgical poems) that have been sung regularly in Sephardic communities for generations are now gaining a wider audience. All around the country, groups of religious, secular, Ashkenazic, and Sephardic Jews interested in learning more about their spiritual roots join together weekly to learn and sing these songs. Also mainstream Israeli musicians are collaborating with Sephardic paytanim (musicians specializing in piyutim).
In 2007 the singer Meir Banai released the highly successful album Shema Koli ("Listen to My Voice"), which is dedicated entirely to the lyrics of the piyutim. The song "Lecha Eli" ("To You, My Lord") [Track 12] features these words by the 12th-century rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra: "To You my Lord, my passion/In You is my will and my love/To You my heart and kidneys/To You my soul and spirit/To You my hands, to You my feet/And from You is my character/To You myself, to You my blood/and my skin with my body."
What does Israeli hip-hop and piyutim say about Israeli culture today?
Over sixty years, once-marginalized genres such as Mizrachi, rock, hip-hop, and religious music have become part of the Israeli musical mainstream. The definition of "Israeli music" is much broader and more expansive than ever.