November 19, 2019

Spectator – A Musical Trek to Israel

For 2,000 years, Jewish music has been a hybrid compounded of elements picked up from our neighbors. Salamone Rossi created Italian Baroque settings of Hebrew texts. Chasidic niggunim drew on Viennese waltz music and Eastern European military marches. Sulzer and Lewandowski wrote like German Protestants. In the Diaspora, Jewish music has always been a hyphenate.

One might expect that the creation of a Jewish state might bring about a change in such affairs, but listening to the excellent new compilation “The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel” (Rough Guide/World Music Network) one realizes that, for now at least, Israeli music, too, is an amalgam of local and global influences, ranging from the dance-beat driven songs of the late Ofra Haza to the hip-hop of Hadag Nahash.

Of course, Israel itself is a crossroads, situated in the midst of so many different cultures, and a catch basin for all those different sounds, but for obvious reasons, Israel is a particularly fertile ground for a fusion of Jewish musics — Moroccan, Algerian, Yemenite, Ethiopian, Ladino, Yiddish and so on. And Dan Rosenberg, who compiled this CD has made a point of drawing from all of them. The result is both a useful snapshot of Israeli pop today and a highly danceable record in its own right.

The Jewish Moroccan tradition is a particularly rich one musically and is fittingly well-represented here with selections by Shlomo Bar (of Habrera Hativit) and David D’Or, Emil Zrihan and Kol Oud Tof. But there are equally telling contributions from Bustan Abraham — a Turkish classical composition turned into a devastatingly syncopated dance treat — and old folkies Alberstein and Arik Einstein.

There are no real duds here, although the harmonica-driven Tea Packs is a band more redolent of American vaudeville than some will care for, and Ofra Haza’s discofied “Ode-Le-Eli” probably wouldn’t cut it at a traditional Yemenite wedding. But even those two songs are better-than-average representatives for artists whose popularity is too large for them to be ignored in this context.

The best thing about “The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel” is that it will introduce listeners to the entire range of music coming out of the country. If you can get your parents to put away their Hillel and Aviva records and check out the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra or Idan Raichel’s Project, you’ll be glad you did. (How your parents will feel, that’s not my problem.)

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.