West Meets Middle East: Israel’s Cultural Diversity Through Music

One of the words most associated with the State of Israel is conflict. In music, Israeli culture shows off a more harmonious side. And while Israelis have adopted an “us against the world” attitude in recent years, the mixture of influences showing through the country’s most prolific artists point to a tradition of cultural assimilation and tolerance.

Les Belles Chansons

From its founding in 1948 to present day, Israel—dubbed “the state of the Jewish people”—has been a destination for immigration for Jews from all over the world.

In the post-Holocaust world of 1948, that meant a large influx of people coming from Western and Eastern Europe. The culture imported by those immigrants influenced the creation of generations of Israeli artists, whether they were descendants of migrants or not.

Some Israeli icons adored that culture so much, they have translated, re-arranged, and reimagined European classics.

 

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Yossi Banai, 1988. (Credit:Wikimedia Commons)

His brilliant translation to the latter’s “Le Chansons Des Vieux Amants” became a cultural cornerstone in itself, having since been covered by dozens of artists. Likewise, Chava Alberstein, another vanguard of the time, took George Moustaki’s “Ma Liberte” into her repertoire early in her decades-spanning career.Yossi Banai, hailing from a lineage of famous sabra (a term used to describe Jews born in Israel) artists, released two full length albums of songs translated from French originals popularized by stalwarts like George Brassens and Jacques Brel.

A few decades later, Yehuda Poliker, once a glam-rock star, used music influenced by his family’s Greek heritage to unpack what was perhaps the most difficult question many in Israel faced—what remained in the aftermath of the holocaust?

His 1988 album, “Efer ve Avak” (Ashes and Dust), became a flashpoint in Israeli culture. For the first time, an artist’s work engaged difficult topics like the holocaust itself, the trauma that remained with survivors and the influence it had on their children.

Poliker’s bouzouki filled, Middle-Eastern twist on rock music came hand in hand with the rise of a different source of influence in Israeli culture: North Africa and other Arab countries.

Coexistence in Sound

The wave of Jewish immigrants to Israel from different Muslim countries across the region came slightly after that of European immigration. As a result, that population suffered from severe cultural, economic and political marginalization for decades.
That all ended abruptly in 1977, when Likud Member of Knesset Menachem Begin harnessed pent up anger and frustration all the way to the office of Prime Minister—the first not to come from the Euro-centric political coalition of the time. On the radio, talk show hosts announced the Mahapach—the revolution. During music programming, a different kind of revolution could be heard.

This social shift brought Mizrachi (eastern) culture to the forefront for the first time. Many of the country’s most popular singers have since hailed from the tradition of Arabic-style music, including Zohar Argov, Eyal Golan, and Sarit Haddad.

Out of this cultural mishmash, a new, uniquely Israeli style has emerged— Middle-Eastern pop and rock. This style of music merges together meter, instruments, and tones from both Western and Eastern musical traditions.

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Dudu Tassa and the Kwaitis. (Credit: Flickr)

Perhaps most representative of this phenomenon is the music of Dudu Tassa and his Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis project. Tassa, of Iraqi descent and a successful musician in his own right, decided in 2011 to retrace the legacy of the family he has never met; His mother’s uncles, Salah and Dowd El-Kuwaiti, were once prominent artists in Iraq, before the family was expelled from the country because they were Jewish.

Tassa took original recordings of the Kuwaiti brothers and superimposed modern rock, guitar-bass-drums based melodies on them. The result was a highly successful, visionary album that took Tassa’s career to new heights.

And the album was sung entirely in the original Iraqi.

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