Sunday, November 17, 2013

Israel's "Mizrahi Music" - Some Selected Clips

Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has enjoyed a wide range of Hebrew music.  Many Israeli musicians have become quite popular and some have even wound up touring in North America and other places around the world.

Over the years, the musical genres have varied widely.  Israel has had it share of crooners (like Yehoram Gaon), folk musicians (Chava Alberstein), contemporary pop/rock artists (Shlomo Artzi/ Rami Kleinstein), hard rock (Benzine, Shalom Hanoch) and many others, including, of course, religious music.  I am not about to trace the musical history of Israel, which certainly could not be done in a short blog.

But while many non-Israelis have heard of some of the better known mainstream Israeli artists - Chava Alberstein, David Broza and the late Ofra Haza, to name a few, most non-Israelis have little exposure to the majority of popular Israeli music.  There are many great Israeli musicians and it is much easier today to access the music in an internet age.

But I thought I would open a bit of a window into a genre of music that is among the most popular in Israel today - at least among certain segments of society - "Mizrahi music" or "Oriental music" as it is sometimes translated into English.  This music is heavily influenced by Arab culture and sometimes the music of Greece and other surrounding Mediterranean countries.  Mizrahi music is ubiquitous at Israeli weddings, on radio stations and at many different types of large public gatherings.  One well known Israeli Mizrahi artist, who happens to come from Kiryat Eqron, is Dudu Aharon who has been named Israel's "Artist of the Year" on a number of occasions.

A fascinating recent phenomenon is the growing popularity of a group called "פרויקט של רביבו" ("Ravivo's Project").  This group has released a number of disks and videos seeking to revive popular 70s and early 80s Yemenite music that was often sung at group gatherings and was based on traditional Yemenite melodies.  The emphasis, as illustrated by the words, the music and the facial expressions of the band members, is on having a great time.  The group has recorded a number of videos, filmed in group settings, with a variety of people chewing Qat drinking beer and whiskey, smoking Hookahs and smiling - while singing medleys of Mizrahi music.   This first video by the Project really captures the spirit of Mizrahi music.  If you haven't really been exposed to it - try it out - at least for the experience... (If you like it, I will try to get you invited to a Yemenite Hina - where you can hear a whole night's worth and maybe even chew some Qat - or you can find out where this group is playing next time you are in Israel...).  To give you an idea of the popularity of this video, as of the time of the writing of this blog, it had been watched more than seven million times...

While the music may be sung in Hebrew, it is certainly not "religious" music.  In fact, one of the common slights of Mizrahi music is that the lyrics are often repetitive, simplistic and even base.  Unlike some of the other Mizrahi artists, Ravivo's Project has put together medleys of different traditional Yemenite songs, with traditional lyrics.  This is part of an effort to "revive" some older, once popular music.  The lyrics are not as "common" as some of the more contemporary Mizrahi artists, whose lyrics often have nothing to do with traditional Mizrahi music.

At the same time, the group has paid homage to some of the religious roots of Yemenite music.  In this next video, the group leader Raviv, explains that the group was asked by many people to put together a medley of Shabbat (Sabbath) songs.  So here it is - a medley of traditional Shabbat songs - sung to Yemenite melodies.  Some of the songs that make up this medley -like "L'cha Dodi" might be more recognizable - even if the tunes are not.  The last song of the medley (starting about the 7' mark) is the very well known ("כי אשמר השבת...) ("Because I observe the Sabbath, G-d will watch over me...").  This video has been watched well over two million times as of the time of writing of this blog.

Since I mentioned Dudu Aharon - I should probably also add a link to one of his most popular songs - "Tagidu la" ("Tell her that there is a guy who is asking to be the closest one to her....").  These are not traditional Yemenite lyrics - and the music, while somewhat influenced by Mizrahi elements, is not really viewed as pure Mizrahi music.  But it is enormously popular in Israel, especially at weddings and parties.  Dudu was recently featured as the star on a year long reality program - Israel's version of "The Bachelor." 

Finally, I had to add at least one video of Israel's true king of Mizrahi music.  Eyal Golan, has been popular in Israel for quite a number of years.  But this next song has been astronomically well received.  It is now sung at weddings, at the Kotel on selichot nights by groups of people walking to and from the Kotel between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - and at parties, clubs and all types of other occasions.  I have seen synagogues using it during hakafot on Simchat Torah (which shows how incredibly popular it has become in just a few years since its release).  The song "Mi she'maa'min lo mifached" - whoever believes, is not afraid, of losing faith, because we have G-d, the king of the world, to take care of us...") - is performed live here:

It is certainly a good thing that Eyal Golan professes such deep faith, since he is mired in a number of different scandals and has been forced to respond publicly to a variety of different allegations, none of which have been proven in court, and which I am not about to discuss in any detail.  

I have no plans to turn this into a musical blog...but the idea for this type of entry came to me as I attended a Mizrahi wedding on Wednesday night - and listened to this genre the whole evening.  I thought that it might be worthwhile sharing some of it with people who might not have had exposure.

If you already have a large collection of it, well - I guess you can skip over this post quickly.  But if you have never listened to it - you might find it interesting  to hear a type of music that you may not have heard before.

I have no comment on whether chewing Qat will make this music more enjoyable. This might be difficult in North America, where I believe it is a restricted or banned substance, even though it is generally not considered to be a narcotic.  Is is much easier to find in Israel and very common in Yemen and Sudan.

I can say that some nice single malt scotch would probably help, though I suspect that is not what the Ravivo Project guys are drinking in the video.  As for the Hookahs - and what they might be smoking in them - well - at this point, I will probably defer to a Toronto expert - the current Mayor Rob Ford - who seems to have quite a good handle on what to smoke at a party (or in a car, at City Hall, or just about anywhere else...). 

For now, one way or another - enjoy the music....

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Induction Day to the IDF...

וילכו שתיהן יחדיו...
It was an emotional day today as our eldest child, our daughter entered the IDF (the Israeli Defence Forces or צה"ל).  In Israel, there is universal mandatory conscription for 18 year olds, both men and women.  While some Israelis are exempt from military service, the vast majority serve for at least two to three years.

The  IDF is one of the more organized institutions in Israel, out of necessity, since Israel faces so many different types of threats.  High school students are tested, interviewed and screened for a whole range of positions.  Some of the more coveted positions can involve multiple interviews, physical and academic testing and even role-playing exercises.  Ultimately, many conscripts have a significant say in the type of service that they would like to peform.  Many recruits will learn a range of valuable and highly marketable skills during their service, some in sophisticated scientific, technical or computer related areas.  Many also develop a range of important leadership skills, especially those who become officers. 

Many Israelis take a year off to travel after comleting their military duty and then look at options for entering university, college or looking at other career opportunities.  But this is all down the road...

On induction day (יומ הגיוס), the conscripts are asked to show up at one of the IDF conscription centres.  The hundreds of 18 year olds entering the army are accompanied by family and friends to one of these large IDF bases.  Names are called out and the conscripts are asked to board a bus which will take them to the actual induction facility.  The newly inducted soldiers will then proceed to some type of "basic training," which can vary in length depending on the unit in which they will ultimately be serving.  Typically, basic training may last anyone from one to three months.  After basic training, the soldiers are dispersed to their assigned bases.

It is certainly difficult to see your 18 year old child entering the army.  But, sadly, it is a reality of life in Israel that the country requires a strong, capable and ready military, that is based on civilian involvement.  That is the price of living in the only Jewish country in the world - and being able to spend most of the time in relative peace, even while surrounded by hostile neighbours.  It is these young conscripts. along with Israel's full-time military personnel, who contribute so much to making that possible. 

Israelis are hoping for the day when such a strong and active military will not be required.  But that day seems like a long way off now.  For now, we are forced to wish our kids an "easy induction" - a "גיוס קל" which is an all too common Israeli greeting.

We hope that our daughter's service will be rewarding and successful for her.  We also hope that over the course of her service, Israel and its neighbours will come that much closer to a more peaceful coexistence.  While there are few signs that this is likely, it would simply be too depressing to give up all hope.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Stay at Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv

We recently had the unfortunate opportunity of having to get to know the Israeli medical system much closer than we might have liked.  I don't say "unfortunate" with any negativity towards the system - we had no complaints about the care that was provided - simply that we would have, of course, preferred not to have faced this type of occurrence.

I'm not going to write about the details of the medical situation that our family member faced.  But I thought I would provide a few points that you might find interesting.

Ichilov Hospital - Dana Children's Center
We spent 8 days getting to know the workings of the Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv - at the Dana Children's Hospital.  Ichilov is Israel's 3rd largest hospital complex.  It incorporates three hospitals with a total area of more than 150,000 square metres.  It also houses a bomb-proof emergency facility, that can supposedly withstand convenential, chemical or biological attacks.  Fortunately, the hospital was not put to a test of these features while we were there.

Certainly, from our experience on this occasion, the care was top notch.  The physicians were knowledgeable and experienced and made use of current technology to provide efficient and professional care. The nurses and attendants were attentive and diligent. We are thankful for this.

I found it interesting that the hospital complex includes a full shopping mall that is connected to the hospital - and located on hospital grounds.  It is also connected to a large outdoor complex.  This means that patients who are able to do so can leave their rooms  and take a stroll through (or be pushed on a wheelchair through) the connected mall or the other grounds.  The mall includes an Aroma Coffee Bar, among other places.  So you see a number of patients, in their hospital gowns, sitting in the Aroma (inside or outside, depending on the weather) with their visitors or wandering around in other parts of the mall.  While many patients would obviously not be well enough to take advantage of this, for others, this can be quite the breath of fresh air.

Ichilov Hospital Complex
A drawback for visitors (and immediate family members of patients) is that the hospital is located right in the middle of Tel-Aviv. The hospital therefore charges full downtown Tel-Aviv parking rates, which can get up to the full $30 daily maximum in no time at all.  Although we live in Ra'anana, we decided to go to Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv, rather than the nearest hospital - which is Meir Hospital in K'far Saba.  This was based on recommendations from first line physicians and others who were reluctant to recommend Meir. 

Our family member was required to stay over a Friday night.  So we had to decide what to do for a Friday night dinner.  Fortunately, two families of close friends insisted on preparing a full Friday night meal for us. They thought of everything - from the grape juice and wine to the Challah, soup, chicken and dessert.  So we took the meal and went to the deserted food court in the mall that adjoins the hospital.  We sat around some food court tables with our ready-to-eat Friday night dinner - and made Kiddush and enjoyed our meal.  It was a strange experience - eating in an empty mall on a Friday night -but we lucky to have such wonderful and considerate friends. 

Things are almost back to normal and everything seems to have gone well.  It is certainly comforting to know that there is very high level medical care near by and that we can count on such supportive and helpful friends and family members. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Trip to Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem

Mahane Yehuda
The weather was beautiful yesterday so we decided to visit Mahane Yehuda, the bustling outdoor market in Jerusalem.  It takes about an hour by car to get there from Ra'anana but we had to make some special deliveries anyways, so we  thought it would be nice to take a walk through and buy some fresh fruits and vegetables.

Visiting on a Tuesday, it seemed that it was quite a bit quieter than it might be on some other days.  The market was still hopping, filled with sounds of marchants calling out their daily produce specials and crammed with shoppers making their way through the winding stalls.  But it wasn't quite "wall to wall" as it has been on other occasions.

Mahane Yehuda Jerusalem - Pomellas
One of the interesting contrasts about shopping for produce in Israel is the seasonality.  Unlike Canada and the U.S., most Israeli produce is seasonal.  This means that the fruits and vegetables, that are in season, are very fresh, usually local and reasonably priced.  You will generally not find watermelon in November, strawberries in August,  or fresh figs in April.  But the strawberries that I have eaten  in Israel during strawberry season (between November and April) are among the juiciest, sweetest strawberries that I have ever eaten.  The same applies to the watermelon, fresh figs, and melons.  Tomatoes are more readily available but are generally much fresher and tastier than the tomatoes available in most places in North America.

As we were walking through the market yesterday, we coudn't help but notice that it was Pomella season.  Many of the vendors were featuring huge juicy green pomellas.  There were also many different types of apples, some remaining figs, some oranges and a variety of vegetables. 
Mahane Yehuda Pineapples
The cherry tomatoes looked particularly appetizing.  A few vendors were also selling locally grown pineapples.  But unlike the pineapples from Mexico, the Dominican or Hawaii, these Israeli pineapples are tiny - almost bit-sized, and are very expensive.

We then decided we would visit Itchikidana, the well known, Kosher vegetarian Indian restaurant in the Machane Yehuda area.  Unfortunately, as a news article last year had suggested, the restaurant wound up in a battle with the Kashrut authorities over the certification of the various vegetables that it was using in its recipes and wound up closing. This was a real shame.  I had never actually eaten there, though I had heard much about it and I was anxious to try the food.  The opportunities to get Kosher Indian food in Israel are quite limited.
Ichikidana - Last Look...

Later it was time to drive back to Ra'anana.  But it was close to rush hour and we knew traffic would be horrendous.  So we flipped on Waze, an Israeli invented traffic program that combines maps, GPS and up to date traffic monitoring based on peer usage.  It took us on a winding path, through a number of different side streets - and then to Hwy 431 instead of exiting Jerusalem through the main route - highway #1.  We bypassed much of the traffic and managed to make it back to Ra'anana in about the same amount of time as it had taken us earlier, despite the much heavier traffic conditions.