Header Photo Credit

*The stunning photo in the header of my blog is all thanks to Ron Shoshani. Visit his facebook page for more of his amazing photographs of Tel Aviv!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mizrachi Music Lesson With Moshe Peretz

Moshe Peretz
While I've been pretty diligent in my Aliyah experience about soaking up as much Israeli culture as possible, my Israeli music education has been a bit lacking. Maybe it's because the Israelis I've befriended are into indie American music and international rock music and maybe it's because of my own laziness. Whatever the case may be, there is a whole world of Israeli music out there that I'm slowly but surely learning about.  Here's a snapshot of my first real encounter with the musical genre known as "Mizrachi".

This week I attended the wedding of one of my many Israeli cousins just overlooking the sea on Herzliya beach, a wealthy suburb north of Tel Aviv. The wedding was a very typical Israeli wedding with drinks, a short ceremony, and buffet style food in an outdoor venue.  When the dance music started up, I realized how truly Israeli the wedding really was.

Sure, I'd nibbled my fare share of falafel balls and techina and had downed a good three or four champagne cocktails before I noticed the dance floor filling up with lights, party smoke and people, but I was aware enough to feel an excitement in the air.

Now, before I continue, let me describe the venue first so you can get an idea of the event in its entirety. The venue itself was an outdoor venue- a large wooden deck overlooking the sea- the dance floor was actually a space off to the side with a separate bar, a stage, and a hallway to the kitchen and bathrooms-- that was enclosed entirely in glass. So, when the lights turned on, the smoke began filling the floor and the band started setting up, the entire production could be seen through the glass from our tables on the deck as we noshed on sushi and asked the waiters to fill our wine cups. It was like watching some anthropological experiment.  Fascinating.

As soon as waiters came to clear our dinner plates, the music started up and the tables of young guests- late twenties to early thirties- rushed into the glass-enclosed dance floor.  There seemed to be quite a stir, and a murmur ran through the crowd of guests when the singer took to the stage and started singing.  It didn't take long before someone turned to me and said, "Can you believe it? They got Moshe Peretz to play at their wedding!"

Without realizing the height of my ignorance, I blurted out  "Who's Moshe Peretz?"

My question was met by expressions of both shock and sympathy- shocked that i live under a rock and sympathetic to the fact that I a) I don't realize the expense the family must have gone through to have him sing at the wedding and b)haven't been fortunate enough to familiarize myself with such a star. Turns out that Moshe Peretz is an extremely famous Israeli singer. Extremely. Google him in English and you'll find picture upon picture, disc upon disc, article upon article by him and about him. Google him in Hebrew and you'll find even more.  Moshe Peretz is an Israeli celebrity, a member of the rich an famous: a true pop-rock star who is known for his Mizrachi voice and dark Middle Eastern good looks. So how is it that I've never heard of him?

To really answer this question, let me take you back a few decades to Israel's earliest national cultural movement.

Israeli Cultural History 101 (in a few paragraphs or less): Most of the early Israeli immigrants were European and Eastern European.  This lead to the establishment of Westernized national institutions.  Israeli education was Western, with an emphasis on subjects that had been revered in countries like Russia and Germany.  Israeli dance resembled a mix of European and Eastern European folk dance and the music was quite similar. You know- violins, accordions, clarinets, etc. This was the music that played on the radio and the Western aesthetic was perpetuated in all cultural areas of life.

Fun fact: you may be surprised to hear that the guttural "r" of today's modern Hebrew was actually thought to be ugly and improper in the days of Israel's infancy. If you pick up a popular music CD from the 50s,60s or even 70s, you'll notice that the singers prononce their "r"s with a flipped tongue, like a Russian "r".  Only in the mid to late 70s did it slowly become acceptable for singers radio news casters and other official public speakers to pronounce the popular gluttoral "r". In short, Eastern pronounciation = no-no and Eastern European pronounciation = yes-yes.

But, lets get back to Israeli history. Despite the fact that most early immigrants were European, by the 1950s, thousands of immigrants poured in from Greece, Turkey, Yemen, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, and other Eastern and Middle Eastern countries.  They began performing their genre of folk music in Hebrew- they began singing Hebrew lyrics to Eastern tunes played with Eastern instruments, and sung in an "Arabian" way with trills and guttoral consonants, creating a new form of Israeli folk music called Mizrachi music, which literally translates to "Eastern music".

Shoshana Gabay, co-creator of a documentary on Mizrachi music called "Yam Shel D'Maot" (Sea of Tears) was interviewed about the genre by Jewish Federation of North America in  June 2010.  In their article, "Once Considered an Oriental Sound, Mizrachi Music Now Pervades Mainstream", Gabay explained the Mizrachi music phenomenon as a new interpretive mix of music:

"They had all these parties, and at those parties they took what they had learned in school -- Russian-inspired Israeli songs, some Chasidic songs -- and made them Oriental sounding. They blended these songs with popular Arabic songs and traditional Yemenite songs and made a mix out of them. They were making an interpretation, their own interpretation."

But, just as the gluttural "r" was initially met with antagonism, so was Mizrachi music. It wasn't played on the radio, nor was it taught in music school. Only in the 1970s when the cassette tape emerged did some Mizrachi songs make it into the radio with "Perach B'Gani" (פרח בגני, Flower in My Garden) dubbed as the first major Mizrachi hit.

Hits like these became more and more popular among the younger generations of Israelis who began buying Mizrachi cassettes, but it took nearly another decade before Mizrachi music hit the mainstream radio stations, night clubs and bars.  Today, Mizrachi music is extremely popular in Israel.  Extremely. I head it in the streets, and I imagine it's especially popular in my neighborhood- Hatikvah- an area that is filled with Moroccan and Yemenite families.

So, how don't  I know who Moshe Peretz is?

Well, as I said before, I haven't been diligent enough with my Israeli music education. I don't really listen to popular radio. I don't have a car so I don't listen to radio on long drives, and at home our music is saved on our computer. Second, I don't go to pick up bars. I'm  just not a fan of tightly pack spaces infused with the smell of ten different colognes and perfumes and then topped off by air conditioned cigarette smoke. Plus, I have a boyfriend :).

Finally, as much as I appreciate the Eastern singing and Eastern musical beats and instruments, most of the popular Mizrachi music is syrupy pop-music, which I have a very small palate for.  The most popular songs are pretty cheesy, with similar themes as those found in American country music or R&B- the man is sad about his woman leaving, or the woman is mad at her man for leaving, or the two are just so in love with one another that they have to sing about it.  I don't hate it, but I don't love it either.

Now, Mizrachi fans have fought long and hard to be accepted by music critics, and are still fighting the fight. All I can say is, Mizrachi music is a hugely popular genre that is already big with the young'ns.  They way i see it, it will be accepted sooner or later by the critics and academics. But it's still a touchy subject.  In fact, I happened to find a 2009 ynet article about the crappiest Mizrachi songs and I thought it was pretty funny, but many took it hard.

Whatever the case may be, I now feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see Moshe Peretz, if not up close, then through nearby glass walls that enclosed the smoke-filled dance floor at my cousin's wedding, and to see how many Israelis my age have opened their arms to Arabic-style, Eastern culture and music.

Moshe Peretz on Stage with the bride and groom

Dancing To Mizrachi music usually involves waving your hands in the air either in a motion that seems to signal that the rest of the crowd get up out of their seats to dance with you.

Hands in the air- all the pretty ladies that like Mizrachi Music :)



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