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Roots and Beats: What We Can Learn From Israel’s New Pop Music Trend

Today’s participant blog post comes from Becca Garfinkel, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. Becca's group is living, learning and volunteering in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Becca’s personal blog, which can be found here.

I’d like to share with you all a very surreal encounter that I just had. I was in my kitchen, making pie with my roommate and dear friend Adrienne. We had both decided to stay home that Friday night and eat pie for our Shabbat dinner—it was a heck of a time, to be sure. As we kneaded the dough for our pie crust we listened to some of the newest jams that I had downloaded onto my iTunes a few days before. Adrienne and are both really into Arab-inspired pop music right now (more on that in a minute). We are singing and bobbing our heads to a catchy Yemenite folk song elaborated with a synth and some great percussion. All of a sudden, I hear a beep signaling that my laundry is ready. I retrieve my darks from the machine and head upstairs to the roof, where we hang our clothes out to dry. I step out onto the roof, a heap of clothing in my arms, and I hear… the same music! Except the instrumentation is not pop, it’s traditional, with authentic drums and winds and voices. And it’s coming from the neighborhood across the street. That’s when it hit me: the tunes we hear on the radio, jazzed up to suit pop trends of the day, are not only grounded in the Arab world’s rich musical culture. Even today, they are crucial elements of community and identity among Israelis with roots in Arab countries.

Allow me to flash back a bit further, to the 1950’s. The new state of Israel was fighting a multi-decade, multi-front threat from surrounding Arab countries. Jews in these countries are facing intense persecution from their governments and neighbors, so many choose to make aliyah to Israel. Unfortunately their arrival to the homeland doesn’t go as planned: they are thrust into development camps known as “ma’abarot”, where they have no choice but forego their former trades as merchants and craftsmen for hard agricultural labor. They face poverty and harsh discrimination for having come from Arab countries, the very nations that the Israel is at war with. Many Mizrachim are encouraged to abandon their cultural customs in favor of the new, culture of Israelis that are building Israel from the ground up.

Now, that forced assimilation is taking its toll. While Mizrachi (Hebrew, for “Eastern”) Jews are an integral and thriving part of Israeli society, much of the cultural heritage that they came to this country with has fallen by the wayside. Israelis my age whose parents or grandparents made aliyah do not speak Arabic or French, and do not celebrate traditional holidays such as Mimouna, a Moroccan holiday that marks the end of Passover. However, in recent years efforts have been made to reclaim the cultural heritage of Mizrachi Jews. In fact, from what I’ve seen, Arab-infused style has become hip and cool, a sort of bohemian-desert-hippie vibe that embraces many elements of Arab culture, like its coffee, dress, and most significantly, its music, which has been dominating israeli pop charts as of late.

So, by way of this lengthy introduction, I’ve decided to share some of the musical artists we've been grooving to while making pies and pursuing social change in Lod. For me, the tunes are not only catchy and fun, but a way to learn about and appreciate the varied cultural history of this country, especially in its Arab ties. I encourage you to give them a listen, and share what you think!

First up is A-WA. This is a trio of three sisters who take Yemenite folk tunes from their childhood and combine them with hip hop, reggae, and electrodance music to create a seriously cool, seriously fun vibe.

Listen to: Habib Galbi—a crazy fun dance tune that you won’t be able to turn off! It was also the first every Arabic-language song to grace the top of Israeli pop charts. Their Yemenite Rain Song is also so, so beautiful.

Next, check out Yemen Blues. Led by super talented front man Ravid Kahalani, they bring a groovy mambo/blues/funk inspired flavor to traditional West African music sung in Arabic and French. I saw them perform live in April (pictured above), and haven’t stopped listening to them since. Their style is over the top flashy and fun, with vocal riffs and percussive elements that will blow your mind.

Listen to: Ma’ahla Asalam (left) and Jat Mahibathi (right), both on the traditional side but with huge flavor

Last, one for you mainstream pop-lovers out there (nothing wrong with that!) Balkan Beat Box is a mainstay in Israeli music culture that should not be overlooked. They incorporate Balkan, Mediterranean, and Arabic old-world influence into current hip hop and reggae beats. Their frontman, Israeli rapper Tomer Yosef, is also a solo artist in his own right. Both are funky and vibe well with current pop music—Jason Derulo even sampled one of Balkan’s songs, Hermetico, for his song “Talk Dirty”.

Listen to: I Trusted U, a big time hit, and their album “Blue-Eyed Black Boy”.

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