3. Musical Mediterraneanism in Israel:
Approaches, models and styles
|Texts that attempt to define musical
Mediterraneanism in Israel present three different
approaches. The first approach focus on musical
Mediterraneanism as a cluster of traits, such as
particular scales, modes, rhythms, textures, musical
instruments, etc. Following this approach, one may say
that Mediterraneanism posses a particular 'sound'. A
second approach considers the specific contexts in which
music of Mediterranean characteristics or origins is
performed, e.g. spaces such as a reconstructed Greek taverna.
Indeed the most popular show in channel 1 of the Israeli
TV in the late 1990s dedicated to Mediterranean popular
music was called "At the taverna". Finally,
Mediterranean music is sometimes defined as all music
consumed by "Mediterranean taste-publics", a
euphemism for blue-collar Jews of North African and Near
Eastern origins. Although different combinations of
elements from these three approaches appear in texts
about musical Mediterraneanism in Israel, the traits'
list appears to be the most frequently used.
Mediterraneanism appears in different contexts and periods of Israeli history in relation to various types of Israeli music. Falling short of proposing a rigid typology that covers all expressions of musical Mediterraneanism in modern Israeli discourse, I would suggest here three models that may help in contextualizing the diverse musical styles that are frequently associated with the signifier "Mediterranean".
First, there is the "synthesis model". In this model, the Mediterranean signifier serves as a solution for the East-West paradoxes in which the inventors of modern Israeli music were trapped in. These paradoxes, as we have seen, have concerned Zionist cultural policies almost since its inception. Conceived among the Jewish urban elites of Central and Eastern Europe, Zionism looked eastwards for alternative sources of cultural identity that might challenge the established patters of traditional Jewish life in Europe. The Mediterranean as a getaway from the East-West paradox was used both inwards, i.e. as an inter-Jewish process of combining cultural elements from different heritages, as well as outwards, i.e. as a compromise between mainstream Israeli and its surrounding Eastern Mediterranean cultures. On the surface the inwards aspect of Israeli Mediterraneanism was meant to reflect the aspiration of the Zionist establishment (for which the Western nation-state and culture was the ideal) for some kind of synthesis between the Jewish cultures from East and West. This ideal was encapsulated in two Zionist slogans: "ingathering of the exiles" and "the melting pot". In fact the results of these cultural policies lead to the ethnic "coloring" of a basically Western culture. On the other hand, outwards Mediterraneanism describes a synthesis between the Western-oriented Israeli culture and the civilizations of its non-Jewish surroundings. Stretching this second aspect to its limits, one may even argue that in the Israeli context Mediterraneanism can be also interpreted as an oblique, even unconscious form of resistance to global "MacDonaldization" (Ritzer 2000).
The perception of the Sephardi and Oriental Jew as the "aboriginal" or "noble" Jew in the eyes of European Jews is the basis for the second, Orientalist model of Israeli Mediterraneanism. In this case, Mediterraneanism is related to the use of the authentic music of the "other" Jew, i.e. of the Sephardi and Oriental Jew perceived from the standpoint of the Eurocentric establishment of the Zionist movement. Unlike the synthesis model that on the surface aspired to the amalgamation between equally legitimate Jewish heritages, the Orientalist approach naively believed in the existence of an authentic Jewish "other" whose music can serve as the basis for the new Israeli musical culture. The influence of music scholarship on the shaping of this view can be hardly denied. The most vivid example is the monumental work of the musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (who lived and worked in Palestine between 1908 and 1921). His publications, most particularly the first five of his ten-volume Thesaurus of Oriental Jewish Melodies that are dedicated to the liturgical music of the "Oriental" Jews, contributed to the perception that the musical lore of the non-Western Jewish communities (especially the Yemenite) were the most authentic expression of Jewish continuity in music (see the discussions of this issue in Bohlman 1993 and 2002:55ff.). This is one of the reasons for the presence of Yemenite motifs or performers in relation to many Israeli musical styles labeled Mediterranean. The incongruence between the geographical location of Yemen and the Mediterranean Sea is irrelevant, showing once more that the Mediterranean signifier in Israel does not refer to a well-defined geographical area but rather to the vaguer signified of "non-European".
"Subversion" is the hallmark of the third and last model of musical Mediterraneanism in Israel. As such it is used by Jews from Islamic countries who massively immigrated to Israel especially after 1948 as a label to describe a mixture of musical Arabiness, Turkishness and Greekness that offers an alternative type of Israeliness to the Western-oriented mainstream Israeli music. This model contrasts with the intellectual attempts represented by a synthesis between East and West or the search for the authentic roots of Jewish musical traditions that characterize the first two models. The subversion model is unique in that it sprung from the ranks of Zionisms others as a spontaneous reaction to internal social processes in Israel rather than as a predetermined intellectual initiative.
Musical Mediterraneanism in Israel is then extremely varied, full nuances, contradictions and combinations. Yet, we can locate three main and distinctive styles of musical Mediterraneanism in the Israeli musical discourse. Each of these styles was described by their creators or by their critics with the Mediterranean signifier. Through a brief incursion into these styles we would like to show aspects of the approaches to, and of the three models of musical Mediterraneanism suggested above.
The first style appears in the late 1940s in the field of "art" or "learned" music (Bressler 1985; Hirshberg 1995, chapter 15 are basic texts on this style) as the "Mediterranean" or "Eastern Mediterranean" school. This style can be interpreted as the main exponent of the synthesis model, although it shows aspects of the Orientalist model as well. Soon after, a form of Mediterraneanism appears in connection to the Israeli folksong whose source of inspiration is sought in a most authentic form of Mediterranean Jewish music, the Sephardi (Judeo-Spanish) folksong (the introduction to Levy 1959 is a key text on this regard). Finally, in the 1980s Mediterraneanism reappears in its most contemporary and prominent manner in relation to the genre of Israeli popular music called musiqa mizrahit (lit. "Oriental music"; for this style see Halper, Seroussi and Kidron 1989 and 1992; Horowitz 1994 and 1997; Regev and Seroussi, forthcoming, chapters 9 and 10). This last case exemplifies the "subversive" model of musical Mediterraneanism in Israel. Let us now review some aspects of these diverse manifestations of musical Mediterraneanism.
Forward | M&A contents page