When Mizrahi singer Sarit Haddad does a cover of a classic Israeli song, you know that Mizrahi music is now the dominant genre. Matti Friedman explores Israel’s cultural revolution in The Globe and Mail:
Sarit Haddad: ‘musical ISIS’
The division between Jews from Europe and from the Islamic world remains one of Israel’s most painful fault lines, and it has played out in pop music. For many years, the Mizrahi sound was scorned by the curators of Israeli culture and kept on the margins. In record stores, you’d have a section for “Israeli” music, meaning mostly music by artists of European ancestry and orientation, and a separate section for “Mizrahi” or “Mediterranean” music, even though this music, too, was in Hebrew and produced in Israel. There was a time when you could barely get Mizrahi music played on the radio, and anyone who wanted to keep up with the latest hits had to go to a cluster of scruffy cassette shops around the Tel Aviv bus station. That reality was an expression of the broader disenfranchisement of Israelis from the Islamic world, who were rarely spotted in the academy or in the corridors of power.
Recent years have seen a reversal. Mizrahi music is now the country’s leading pop genre. When the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot published a list of the most-played songs of the year in 2017, the paper’s political reporter Amihai Attali remarked on Twitter that all 15 of the artists were Mizrahi: “Anthropologically, it’s an incredible statistic,” he wrote. These days, it’s Mizrahi performers who fill the biggest venues. Stalwarts of the old music scene line up for collaborations with stars such as Ms. Hadad, which would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago.
The Israeli army’s official 70th anniversary song (yes, there is such a thing), released in early March and sung by a military entertainment troupe, is also a cover of an Israeli classic, Don’t Worry, a comic number popular after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the song, a soldier at the front writes to reassure his girlfriend that he has plenty of time to rest “between bombardment and barrage,” and asks her to send fresh underwear. The original is very much a product of the style and sentiment of the young Israel. But the new cover makes it a product of the present by adding a reggae beat and a Mizrahi twist, featuring two up-and-coming Mizrahi singers doing their mandatory army service, and adding warbling Mideastern-style vocals.
Not everyone loves this development, or what it signifies. Asked last month for his opinion of a different Mizrahi cover by Ms. Hadad, this one of a 1974 hit by the beloved Israeli rock band Kaveret, band member Efraim Shamir called the new version “a musical ISIS” – that is, a particularly Middle Eastern kind of desecration. He was echoing an infamous comment from Tommy Lapid, a late politician and Cabinet minister born in Yugoslavia : Asked for his take on a Mizrahi song, Mr. Lapid joked, naming a Palestinian city, that “we didn’t conquer Tulkarm, Tulkarm conquered us.”
The contentious politician responsible for this year’s anniversary celebrations – and for Ms. Hadad’s cover – is the Culture Minister, Miri Regev, a combative voice known for railing against the old cultural elites. Ms. Regev, who is of Moroccan descent, belongs to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, whose political base has traditionally been heavy on Israelis with roots in the Islamic world. Ms. Regev regularly stokes nationalist sentiment and is reviled on the left; the liberal daily Haaretz has called her “Trump in high heels.”