|Since the early 1990s a musical scene has emerged in Israel that differs strikingly from other forms of musical activity in that country. It differs, too, from most other types of musical endeavor in the global scene dubbed “world music”
(1). A relatively small group of musicians from diverse ethnic, religious, and musical backgrounds has come together in musical collaborations that explicitly bridge the deep social, political, and cultural divisions that separate Israeli Jews and Palestinians (whether Israeli citizens or residents of the occupied territories).
The musical scene under discussion involves various combinations of elements and practices drawn from an array of musical traditions in which Middle Eastern (Arab, specifically Palestinian, Turkish, Persian) and Euro-American styles and genres predominate. Jewish musical practices do not play as large a role, though they are not entirely absent. While no one style or genre has crystallized within this field of activity, underlying this variety one can discern shared preferences for 1) hand drumming, (chiefly based on Arab & Turkish music, but sometimes including Indian tabla), 2) heterophonic performance of melodies that are usually cast in or evoke Middle Eastern modes, and 3) improvised solos within the framework of compositions (some short and repetitive, others quite long and complex). In Israeli record stores recordings of this music are classified under the rubric “Israeli Ethnic Music” (musika ethnit yisraelit) — a problematic label if ever there was one.
But genre labels are not my chief concern here. Instead I wish to analyze the forces at work and the ideas in play in this arena, presenting some accomplishments, challenges, and failures and speculating on their impact. This musical scene is peripheral to both the larger Israeli musical world and to Middle Eastern and World Music markets in terms of sales and performances. Its significance derives from this very liminality and for the particular confluence of musical and social challenges confronted. This is a phenomenon of the 1990s that appears to have some chance of continuing well into the 21st century. In other words, it overlaps the period of intense Israeli-Palestinian confrontation — the first and second Palestinian Intifadas (uprisings) — and peace negotiations (the Madrid conference, the Oslo accords, and the “road map” pushed by the US government). There is much that can be said concerning the musicians, their music, their messages, audiences and reception — enough to fill a book (Brinner in progress). Here I shall focus on a few aspects, sketching other aspects just enough to contextualize these aspects.
The musicians whom I have been following for the past fifteen years are just one part of a larger scene that includes all-Jewish bands playing similar music. One particular band, Habreira Hativ’it, pioneered this sort of hybrid music in Israel in the late 1970s (and has continued to perform to the present day). (See www.shlomobar.com) A number of the members of that band have left over the years to found or join others, leading in the 1990s to the scene which I shall discuss (2). These interactions were preceded by a few other overt attempts at bridging the deep divisions between Israeli Jews and Arabs. In an article that is, regrettably, riddled with errors and questionable conclusions, Perelson has analyzed joint performance of children’s songs in Hebrew and Arabic by Israeli Jews and Palestinians that date to the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Among other problems, Perelson ignores the fact that the intended audience is children and that at that same time militant Palestinian groups were producing children’s songs about killing Jews and Israelis). But she does show that the message of these songs — that peace can be achieved, that both people have suffered, and so on — not only grossly simplifies the conflict but whitewashes the imbalances between Israelis and Palestinians. Concerning this, see, e.g., the following sites:
Within the scene of ‘Israeli Ethnic Music’ I am particularly interested in bands that include both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs because of the many ramifications of such ventures. Groups that involve only Israeli Jews (e.g., Habreira Hativ’it, Sheva, Essev Bar, or Darma) may have a similar musical effect but the socio-political import of their work is radically different. Furthermore, it is highly likely that these groups would not make the music that they do were it not for the interaction of some of their members with Arab musicians. Musically, there are both particular challenges and enhanced claims for authority and authenticity in collaborations between Arabs and Jews in Israel. Socially, these meetings are a rare instance of active, creative collaboration. Politically, these acts demonstrate that Israeli-Palestinian or Jewish-Arab coexistence in a mutually respectful and productive relationship is both possible and desirable, even during and after the horrific clashes of the past fifteen years. This is not the first time that Jews and Arabs have made music together, of course. There is a long history of Jews, Muslims, and Christians performing music together; until recently Jewish musicians were an integral part of the secular world in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and other Arab countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This continued, to a limited extent in Israel, particularly in the orchestra of Israel’s Arabic language radio station, but is fundamentally different in nature from the collaborations discussed here. In earlier collaborations everyone was trained and working within the same musical system, the same frame of reference, and most innovation sprang from within that system. Here I am discussing the “rich, abrasive contact between different cultures rubbing up against each other,” that evocative characterization of post- Apartheid South Africa by Athol Fugard (cited in Taylor 1979: 189).
The labels Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, and Jew are rife with implications and limitations. They are frequently invoked to denote categories juxtaposed in stark contrast, but they only work in this way if we ignore inherent contradictions and commonalities. There is no completely satisfactory term for the dichotomy that is so fundamental both to political realities and to widespread local conceptions of self and other. The choice of “Arab,” for instance, eclipses Palestinian national aspirations by privileging a far larger ethnic grouping while “Jew” has religious connotations that are not necessarily relevant, either to specific individuals or to socio-cultural phenomena. Both labels include far too many people extraneous to this locale. Furthermore, some Israeli Jews, whose roots lie in Arab countries, self-identify as Arab Jews (see, e.g., Alcalay 1999 or Lev-Ari 2004). At one level “Israeli” denotes citizenship, an attribute one either possesses or does not. Palestinian would seem to stand in complete contrast but one fifth of Israel’s citizens are Arabs who are both Israelis and Palestinians. “Israeli-Arab,” the state-sanctioned alternate label for this group of people, is embraced by some but rejected by many others. The alternative “Israeli Palestinian” and “Palestinian Israeli” would seem to be self-negating, yet such terms also evoke a hybrid position particularly apt for the musical phenomenon I wish to discuss.
Palestinians are further divided, both by themselves and by the Israeli government, according to religious allegiance (Muslim, Christian, Druze) and other types of affiliation (regional, urban/rural, etc.). Israeli Jews, for their part, are divided by factors such as country of origin and generation of immigration (newcomers vs. native born). Particularly divisive in social and cultural spheres are questions of religious observance (which runs along a continuum from militant secularism through various modes of accommodation to militant ultra-orthodoxy) and ethnic identity. The deepest of many ethnic distinctions divides Jews of European descent (Ashkenazim) from those who trace their roots to Muslim countries — the Sephardim being refugees from Spain, who spread throughout the Mediterranean, while Mizrahim (also called Oriental Jews) come from the Middle East).
This barely scratches the surface of the complexities of subject positions adopted and adapted by the musicians I studied. I point to these complications to counter the false dichotomies fostered by the political players and the news media alike and to provide a background for a distinction that is far more directly relevant to the topic of this article. The dyads Jew/Arab and Israeli/Palestinian fail to define useful dichotomies of musical resources and outlooks. More problematic still, they imply symmetries that do not exist in practice. On the Arab/Palestinian side of this asymmetry there is far more shared competence. Palestinian musicians may know and perform a repertoire of songs and dances associated with village life and weddings though urban Palestinian musicians view this at a remove as “folklore.”
There is no analogous body of common musical practice for Israeli Jews, neither Jewish music — centered on the religious traditions of the various communities world-wide — nor Israeli, a category which includes various types of popular and ‘folk’ music (see Regev 1996 and Regev and Seroussi 2004 for discussions of Israeliness in music). On the other hand, there is deep investment in European (‘Western’) art music and various types of popular music linked to Euro-American styles.
Forward | Main page