“What is Israeli music now?” wonders the compiler, Dan Rosenberg, in a recorded interview that comes along with the album. “That’s really a tough thing to say.” The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel doesn’t answer the question, but it’ll help to show you why he found it so difficult. That skinny, pointed stretch of land along the shores of the Mediterranean is a place of daunting musical variety. Jews have made aliyah from hundreds of different parts of the globe and the result is a patchwork of different cultures living under the banner of a single religion, united by the Torah but not by a single instrument or a single idea of how music ought to sound
Israeli music has ouds. It has violins as well, and guitars, and electronica, and a cantor named Emil Zrihan who looks European in the booklet photograph but then he opens his mouth and Arabia falls out. His voice rises into curling countertenor wails and hitched notes that pull back on themselves like whips.
The part of the Jewish diaspora that migrated back to Israel from North Africa and other places in the Middle East has a strong presence on this Rough Guide, and Zrihan’s style finds little echoes of itself all over the album—in “Dezile Al Mi Amor,” for example, where Esti Kenan-Ofri’s voice performs a twisty miracle that sounds like a musical hiccough or a highly condensed yodel.
“Dezile Al Mi Amor” is sung in Ladino, the old Spanish that the Spanish Jews took with them when the Inquisition expelled them from the country in 1492. That’s one part of the Israeli patchwork. Yemeni Jews are another. Ofra Haza was born in a Yemeni area of Tel Aviv and grew into the country’s most widely-recognised pop diva. Rosenberg picks “Ode Le-Eli” from Yemenite Songs, her 1985 album that set Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic texts by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi to the excited, shallow swoop of eighties pop music. “Ode Le-Eli” is a good choice—not too sythesised, but just synth enough to remind us that this is pop and we’re supposed to be having a good time.
Yasmin Levy’s “Locura” is a tidy flamenco-sounding thing, and it seems so shapely and pleasant that you wouldn’t guess the song was about a woman who dances down the street driving men into a frenzy. Chava Alberstein is grown-up and rueful in Yiddish. Arik Einstein comes after her, strumming a guitar and singing softly, as if Jim Croce had decided to switch nationalities and put time in a bottle again. He’s followed by Levy. Their twin niceness ends with the Andalusian Orchestra stamping into “Sika Rondo” with all aural tassels flying and a proudly chocolaty whirl-and-crash rhythm that suggest fat gentlemen circling one another confidently and bumping tummies together.
Then Yair Dalal spends nine minutes on the violin. Why the track is credited to ‘Yair Dalal and the Alol Ensemble’ I’m not quite sure because the Ensemble make no noise at all, but there you are. (Why they print two photographs of him playing the oud is another mystery, but there you are again.) Two songs later and we’re listening to a piece of Hebrew rap with a stretchy funk backing, courtesy of Hadag Nahash.
One of the humane and commendable things about the Rough Guides is that they try to give you an example of every relevant genre they can stuff into a CD, which is why we’re treated to rapping so soon after a classical violin, and why we can have the Tea Packs being playful, and Emil Zrihan being serious, and Shlomo Bar and David D’or sounding as smoochily Mediterranean as the soundtrack to a Greek tavern, all on the same disc.
Rosenberg doesn’t tell you what Israeli music is, but his compilation is enough to leave you with the lingering impression that it might be something to do with voices: the clarity of the women, and the strong tenors of the men. On “Blessings For The New Year,” the sampled cry of an Ethiopian Jew seems to be taking the crier’s heart and stomach and possibly the lining of his throat as well, along with it as it exits his body in a cracking ache of ecstasy.
Blessings, blessings, ah, blessings. And the hairs on the backs of your arms stand up.