For the upcoming Jewish holidays, on which more soon, I thought I would compile a playlist of influential or unique Jewish musicians. The Jewish musical tradition goes back as long as the religion itself. This is especially true in the Sephardi (Middle East/North African) community, whose prayers are traditionally much more lyrical and tuneful than the spoken Ashkenazi (Central/Eastern European) prayers. My family is as Ashkenazi as it is possible to be, but when my parents moved to a town in the Galilee in 1975 which had been established to accommodate Moroccan immigrants, our European traditions went out of the window. We don’t miss them. My mum cooks flavourful, colourful Sephardi food and my dad sings the Friday evening prayer to the more lyrical Sephardi tune. I mention this because there are disproportionately more Sephardi singers in my list, and that is entirely fair.
In compiling this list, I wanted to cast my net as wide as possible, to ensure there would be something for everyone. My only principle was that the music should reflect something of the Jewish or Israeli tradition, and not simply be by a Jewish singer (apologies in advance to any Barbra Streisand fans). I also aimed for songs where you don’t necessarily need a grasp of the language, but can simply enjoy the melody or the singing. It’s why you’ll find everything from reggae to rock, from Hebrew folk classics to hip-hop adaptations of Yemenite folk-songs. Some of these you might be familiar with, hopefully at least one will be new to you. I’ll be adding a new one every day, over on twitter @WanderJewBlog, and on Facebook. Let’s get started:
Fiddler on the Roof
Where to begin if not here? Possibly the most widely-recognised Jewish music of all time comes from this Broadway musical and film based on “Tevye the Dairyman”, the series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem. The story, set in Tsarist Russia in the early 20th century, is a timeless Jewish tale of the struggle of balancing religious and cultural beliefs with a contemporary lifestyle. The songs from the musical are the gold standard for Ashkenazi klezmer music. L’chaim!
The Idan Raichel Project
To Israelis, it might feel like the Idan Raichel Project has been around forever. In the 14 years of the group’s existence, they have become the global standard bearer for Israeli music. Since Idan Raichel was first told that his brand of multi-lingual, African-inspired world music would have no traction in Israel, he’s topped every chart and won every award domestically, as well as several abroad. For speakers of other languages, the project has songs in French and Spanish, as well as often vocals in Amharic, Arabic, Hindi and Yemeni, among others. I chose two songs: HaKol Over (Everything Passes), because the singers voice is so soft and melodic, and because when people talk about which languages are “beautiful”, I think of sign language, and this video. And “Mima’amakim” [From the Depths], one of the most successful Israeli pop songs of all time, which was voted the Israeli “song of the decade” in 2009. It’s also a perfect example of their music, with half the song in Amharic.
Balkan Beat Box
Impossible to pin down, Balkan Beat Box’s style of music draws on so many different influences that I don’t even know where to begin. One thing’s for sure, their bi-lingual music is joyous and uplifting, and has seen them perform at some of the biggest festivals and in major cities across Europe. They’re an openly political band, as attested to by their Hebrew/Arabic collaboration with Palestinian rapper Saz on “Ramallah-Tel Aviv”, a song about the need to set aside differences and make peace. Amen.
Today’s is a theme, a genre, rather than a specific singer. Unfortunately, it’s a genre that Israel has gotten rather too good at. With so many fallen soldiers in the many wars Israel has fought since its founding, there have been some beautiful songs written to pay tribute, and here are two of them. I’ve provided translations of the lyrics too. Gilad Segev wrote “Achshav Tov” [Now It’s Alright] in memory of his brother, a Captain in the IDF, and a day they had spent together a few weeks before he fell in combat. “Million Kochavim” [A Million Stars] was written by 17-year-old Amit Farkash in tribute to her brother Tom, a combat pilot whose plane was shot down in the Second Lebanon War, 2006.
These three sisters are half-Ukrainian/half-Yemenite. A-Wa (pronounced Ay-Wah) was born of a desire to revive and revitalise the folk-songs of their father’s homeland, an attempt that was more successful than they could have imagined. This, their first single, became the first ever song in a language other than Hebrew or English to top the Israeli charts, and also made waves in the Arab world, including Yemen. They were included in America’s National Public Radio “10 Favourite Global Music Picks” of 2015 and have spent this year touring around Europe.
Long before A-Wa, there was Ofra Haza. For a long time, Haza was the queen of Israeli pop music, and often drew comparisons to Madonna. She was also a Yemenite Jew who released an album entitled “Yemenite Songs”. A remix of one track from the album, “Im Nin’Alu”, based on a 17th-century poem by Yemenite Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, spent nine weeks at the top of the West German charts in the summer of 1988. In 1994, she released the single “Le’Orech HaYam” [Along the Sea]. It would later become iconic as one of the songs sung at the memorial for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. It’s not all downbeat, she was also a runner-up in Eurovision 1983 with the upbeat and poppy “Chai” [Alive].
What a life and career Matthew Miller has had. Starting out as an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student whose beatboxing skills provided joy for his classmates, he became known as “the Hassidic reggae superstar” (in the face of very little competition, to be fair) after the release of debut album and single “Youth”. Further success came with hymn for hope “One Day”, heights he never quite recaptured. He’s no longer Ultra-Orthodox, but his music retains the same spirituality as ever, as the video for “Sunshine” proves.
One of the founders of Israeli music as we know it today, a singer and songwriter responsible for some of the songs at the very heart of Israeli culture. None more so than “Jerusalem of Gold”, a love song to a city unrivalled in its lyrical beauty. My favourite version is the original, performed by Shuli Natan (scroll down on the video for lyrics). After the assassination of Itzhak Rabin in 1995, Shemer translated and set to music Walt Whitman’s poem “Oh Captain, My Captain”, and it was performed by Meital Trabelsi at his memorial. Finally, I’ve also included “Lu Yehi”, her iconic reworking of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”. It’s performed by Shemer herself alongside HaGashash HaHiver, the most successful music and comedy entertainment troupe in Israeli history, and a staple diet of my childhood. You can see a translation here.
That concludes this installment of Jewish/Israeli music history. There might be another one to come in future, we shall see.
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-The Wandering Jew-