Echoes in Modern Music: Israeli Pop

Aviv Kammay led us this evening through a journey of Israeli music through the 1980’s and beyond — with imagery from Ezekiel — shared by Rabbi Andrea Steinberger.

Because the emergence of Israeli culture stemmed from a population of immigrants — and  because there was no one cohesive culture — except for Jewish religious liturgy…and because so many of the immigrants were classically-trained musicians from all over Europe, they had to somehow invent an Israeli folk culture.   This somehow set a high standard for what was considered ‘pop’ music in the new State of Israel — and there was (at the time) also this way of thinking that the music would have to have some form of sophistication.

Aviv Kammay teaching about modern Israeli popular music.

A man named Yecheskel Brown (his name is Hebrew for Ezekiel), emigrated in the 1920’s to Israel.  He was a classically-trained German Jewish musician.   He felt as though Israeli music should sound like the desert, the palm trees, the bedouins.   He was inventing ‘folk’ tunes — based on messages of hope.

From Ezekiel he used “And the tree of the field shall yield its fruit and the earth shall yield its produce”. (Ezekiel 34:27)

Brown sought to make the music sound exotic.  He wanted to evoke positive imagery to bring hope to a new population of immigrants.   It has odd meters — seven beats per measure…creating a mediterranean sound.

The mission:  to work the land to bring forth new life.

Ezekiel the Prophet similarly gave a message of hope.  Although he predicted the exile, he also predicted the return to the land of Israel.   Not surprisingly, the public did not listen to him (did they really, really, listen to any of the prophets? — during their lifetimes, the prophets were almost all social outcasts)   Ezekiel is seeing G-d in some form — he sees the cherubim — the messengers who can lead him to G-d.

There is a word used in Ezekiel — “Cheshmal” חַשְׁמַל — the modern use of this word translates to “lightning, electricity, radiance” — but for the prophet Ezekiel — he used Cheshmal חַשְׁמַל  as the energy and communication from G-d.

[It is also interesting that another use for Cheshmal חַשְׁמַל is Amber — the stone which is petrified pine sap — which is thought to have magical properties — to be able to spark.   It is also translated as “Bernstein“, or Goldstone. ]

Back to the emergence of Israeli music, it is notable that at the beginning of the folk period of Israeli music, because so many people were classically trained, there were singers, lyricists, composers.   Nowadays — mostly singer-songwriters.

Early folk music groups were comprised of military/ensemble-style ‘show choirs’.

Everyone in the photo above is wearing military uniforms — in the late 1940’s there was a popularity of these type of “show-choir” groups.  They continued in popularity in the 1960’s-1970’s.   The model began with military show choirs performing for soldiers…these songs were all about peace.   One example of this is Shir L’shalom by Miri Aloni:    Shir L’shalom by Miri Aloni (click on the link to listen)

As young people got older, more into their 20’s, they were no longer in the military but their penchant for this style of music continued.     Then, in the 1970’s, there rose the popularity of Poogy (actually, Kaveret, כוורת meaning ‘beehive’) — with their debut album Poogy Tales.   Poogy mixed military-style show choir style (yes, they all met in the military) with skit and humor.    Here is Poogy’s winning entry in the 1974 Eurovision contest.

Poogy (Kaveret) albums

Next, we explored Arik Einstein, who began recording and performing in the early 1960’s — in many different styles.   In 1967, the opening track of his first Israeli album was called “Ezekiel” – but the song was actually banned on some stations because it was thought to have insulted the holy text.

Ezekiel — chapter 37:14, a verse that is still, today, at Yad v’Shem in Jerusalem:

“And I will put my spirit in you — and ye shall live — and I will place you in your own land.”  

Still, even in the diaspora, Ezekiel has given us a message of hope.

Arik Einstein

By the 1990’s, Israeli groups had entered Eurovision music festivals and had won for multiple years.

In 1998, for the 50th Anniversary of the State of Israel, Arik Einstein and Judith Ravitz collaborated on Atur Mitzchech Zahav Shachot (“your brow is crowned in black gold”) LISTEN HERE — which represented the marriage between art song and popular idioms in song.     This song has been voted multiple times as the most popular Israeli song of all time.

(Judith Ravitz also performed this song — she was, incidentally, also the first Israeli recording artist to come out as gay.)

Album cover from popular modern artist Ehud Banai
Aviv showing Yehudit/Judith Ravitz

Even in children’s music, this style of highly intellectual writing continued — to make the music stimulating even for little ones:  Shalom L’Chem (children’s song)