Mediterranean Israeli Music and the Politics of the Aesthetic.
photos, CD. $29.95.
Back in 1988, my colleagues Pamela Squires-Kidron, Jeff Halper, and I opened a lecture in an academic conference on music in Israel held in Tel Aviv by playing the song "Eizo medinah" ("What a country") performed by Eli Luzon. The audience's reaction ranged from surprise and astonishment to giggling and even to body language reflecting some discomfort. Known at that time under the broad label musica mizrabit ("Oriental music"), this repertoire, to which "Eizo medinah" belonged, was still a marker of "low brow" culture removed from academic discourses or settings. Within a remarkable short period this attitude was dramatically reversed. Amy Horowitz's 1994 dissertation "Musika yam tikhonit yisraelit (Israeli Mediterranean Music): Cultural Boundaries and Disputed Territories" represented one of the first comprehensive efforts to document the emergence of this repertoire and its artists and audiences as well as to contextualize them in the framework of the political and cultural transformations that took place in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s (especially the rise of the right in the 1977 elections).
The present book is a revised and more "theorized" version of Horowitz's pioneer dissertation (with an interesting reversal in the title from "Israeli Mediterranean Music," at the time a concession to leading figures of musica mizrahit who perceived this last term as demeaning, to "Mediterranean Israeli Music," hereafter MIM). Using theoretical postulates and concepts from cultural studies and anthropology, such as the "rhizome" of Deleuze and Guattiri (pp. 31-32), Horowitz reconsiders her ethnography of the 1980s in a new light, offering more subtle interpretations. Based on a copious number of interviews and written sources (especially the Israeli press), the book traces the social sources of MIM and its inherent hybrid style. Meticulous monographic chapters on the trajectory of major MIM artists such as Daklon and Avihu Medina (Chapter Three), Zohar Argov (Chapters Four and Five, forty-two pages long, almost one fourth of the main text) and Zehava Ben (Chapter Six) are among the best texts published so far published on the subject.
The text is enhanced by an index, an appendix with translations and commentaries of song lyrics, and a CD that opens with an intriguing "medley" conceived by the author followed by eighteen songs discussed in the main text and accompanied also by special notes about each one. Some inaccuracies (e.g., in the song "Mal'u asamenu bat," p. 244, the lyricist and composer's names are reversed; Seroussi's ancestry on p. 54 is not Moroccan but Egyptian), or literations (p. 167 Saharana for Saharane; p. 172 nigen for nign) do not hamper this well-documented text.
To those acquainted with Israeli popular music today, the publication of this book in 2010 will cause their eyebrows to raise. The mobilized and redemptive spirit that characterizes this text stands out against the fact that MIM is today the mainstream of the Israeli soundscape. Of course the narrative addressed by Horowitz ends sometime in the mid-1990s, and yet one could expect a more incisive conclusion addressing critical questions such as why and how a musical genre that was socially and culturally deprived becomes in a short period the dominant one. Sympathetic to the MIM milieu and personally involved in it, Horowitz appears to deny agency by Mizrahi Jews in challenging the hegemony of the Ashkenazi-dominated cultural establishment in Israel. Mizrahi Jews were "uprooted ... and rerouted" to their new country that was in a conflict with "their former homelands" (pp. 152-153). To what degree such statements can be sustained in light of modern Zionist activism throughout the Lands of Islam, the animosity of Arab regimes towards their Jewish populations in the postcolonial era, and the rapid integration of Mizrahi Jews in the echelons of the Israeli political landscape is doubtful. While the author proposes "resisting binarism" (pp. 30-32),"absorbing binaries" (pp. 155f0 and ((transgressing boundaries" (pp. 171ff.), the reader is exposed throughout the text to a constant bifurcation between the European-Ashkenazi/dominant/ hegemonic versus Mizrahi/dominated/non-hegemonic culture. "Newly ghettoized Mizrahi populations in contemporary Israel were estranged within the homeland by marginalization, extrusion, ejection, and hence subjugation" (p. 160) sounds like a direct quote from the Israeli Black Panthers platform of 1970-1971, rather than a balanced evaluation of facts on the ground. The legitimate aspirations of the Mizrahi citizenship in Israel to better social and economic status were and are framed by their allegiance to and identification with the narrative of the (European-inspired postcolonial) Zionist state and its institutions and not by its subversion.
The "Pyrrhic" victory of MIM in becoming Israel's mainstream music can be read as surrender to the insurmountable hegemonic power of the music industry or to its flexibility to domesticate rebellious music genres in Israel and elsewhere. Yet one may also argue that from the get-go there was nothing subversive in MIM. Its texts, sometimes based on paraphrases of the religious canon or dialoguing with modern nationalistic Hebrew poetry, betrayed MIM's affinity to the mainstream of the Zionist cultural agenda. MIM artists and producer's aspirations were no different than those of the producers and artists of other genres except that they developed a "strategy of exclusion" as a means to advance their goals. In fact, in some contemporary hard-core sectors of mizrahi music-making, MIM is judged as a watered-down and complaisant genre that "betrayed" the cause of real resistance to Euro-American aesthetics. The "politicization of the aesthetic; discussed by Horowitz at length in her concluding chapter (pp. 162ff), calls for a more nuanced reading of more recent intersections between politics and music in Israel.
Today, when composer, lyricist, and singer Avihu Medina, one if not the spokesman of MIM and a main (and most quoted) hero of Horowitz's book, is the CEO of ACUM (Israel's ASCAP) and thus a most powerful figure in the entire music industry, the tone of Horowitz's text reads slightly "out-of-tune In spite of these observations, Horowitz's book is a provoking, exhaustive, and most informative text for readers interested in one of the most contested, challenging, and exciting fields of Israeli popular culture.
Edwin Seroussi Hebrew University of Jerusalem