5. Social Networks


Given the wide variety of approaches to producing music, what justifies a comparison of these musicians other than the marketing label? I maintain that, despite their musical differences, these musicians are participants in a scene that has both local and international manifestations. It is useful to look at them and their work and audience from this perspective because it implies something other than a taste community or a marketing category. Without minimizing the potential for differences there is the likelihood of shared values and cultural agendas. But the participants in this scene are not so closely bound as to constitute a subculture. As Straw has noted subcultures are tighter than scenes (2002: 252). The young “neo-hippies” that follow bands like Sheva might so qualify as would the followers of new Indian-influenced, mystical Judaism (see Halevi 1998) but the audience for the musicians I have discussed here does not appear to be uniform in age, class, or ethnicity. Judging by appearances and conduct in performances, the audience attracted to these bands in Israel is socially quite heterogeneous. The relatively small number of musicians active in this scene attract an audience that extends well beyond Israel’s borders, primarily to Europe and North America. Audience numbers may be small compared with the stars of the world music scene, but the impact is far from negligible. Bustan Abraham enjoyed slow but steady sales of its recordings for years. It overlapped stylistically with similar fusions of Middle Eastern and Balkan musical resources with elements of jazz and recent popular music by musicians from other countries such as Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Night Ark, Rabih Abou Khalil, and Charbel Rouhana. Quite a few of these musicians have appeared at WOMAD festivals in England and elsewhere and they have collaborated with ‘world music’ performers in Israel and at festivals abroad. In many respects this scene is part of a much larger international world music scene that crosses many borders in terms of performers, audiences, and musical resources. Most of the musicians in this scene are aware of and interact with this international ‘ethnic roots’ scene. Initially inspired by foreign musicians through recordings (many of them own the same recordings, citing those by Shakti and Night Ark, for instance, as influences) they have met up with musicians such as Jan Garbarek, Paco de Lucia, and Omar Faruk Tekbilek at international festivals and performed with them there or when the foreign musicians visited Israel. There is a circuit of such festivals and venues that is well-trodden by a relatively limited number of musicians who see each other repeatedly and probably enjoy a significant overlap among their audiences. These links to the world music scene are of fundamental importance: it can be argued that in Israel’s ongoing crisis (economic and political, with the two convolutedly intertwined) most of these musical endeavors would long since have failed were it not for performance opportunities outside Israel.

Yet as much as this local scene might appear to be just one small part of a larger one, crucial particularities must not be ignored: this is more than just a local manifestation of an international phenomenon.  While one might be tempted to draw parallels to the likes of Johnny Clegg in South Africa (Taylor 1997), Rabih Abou Khalil (see www.enjarecords.com) in Europe, or Simon Shaheen (www.simon-shaheen.com)  in the US, the musicians under discussion here come together to collaborate within uniquely fraught social frames which affect their interaction and shape the way they are seen and heard by their audiences.

One of the more striking aspects of this scene is its intensely interconnected network of musicians. Within Israel’s intensely densely compressed social and cultural world this  “everyone knows everyone” characteristic is hardly unique. Far more important is the creation of links between hitherto separate networks of Jewish and Arab musicians. Bustan Abraham arose out of the network of mostly Jewish musicians whom Farjun knew and the mainly Arab circle of Elias’s associates. Likewise, Jamal drew on his network of Arab musicians to form Alei Hazayit while Shoham brought Jewish bass players to the band through recording studio connections. This linking up of otherwise discrete social worlds has occurred not only in the formation of these bands but also through other venues where musicians have taught, studied or otherwise worked together. I believe that its importance will be long-lasting particularly because of the educational links. It is these links that are most indicative of a transition from scene to ‘art world.’

Many of the musicians I have mentioned in this article are involved in teaching. Taiseer Elias founded and directs the department of Arab music at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. Nassim Dakwar and Zohar Fresco, his band mates in Bustan Abraham, also teach in that program. Several of their students are central figures in the ethnic music scene, including Naor Carmi who replaced the original bass player in Bustan Abraham and Peri, the leader of Joseph and One mentioned above. Yair Dalal has taught classes in Middle Eastern music at the Rimon Jazz School and at Bar Ilan University as well as at his own  studio in Jaffa. Jamal Sa’id taught drumming at the Center for Classical Oriental Music and Dance, a school on the borderline between Jewish West and Arab East Jerusalem. He brought one of his students  into Alei Hazayit as a drummer and he took on a key role in a Jewish belly dance company through association with other students. All of these teachers are creating a next generation of Jewish and Arab performers that is better versed in the musical practices of the Middle East. They are also helping to raise the status of a body of music that was ignored or denigrated by much of the Israeli public and most cultural institutions until very recently. But performing together occasionally or studying in the same institution does not necessarily afford the closeness that membership in the same ensemble does.

The links formed between Arab and Jewish social networks are also indicative of the socially transformative power of these musicians. Within the two bands that I have discussed, Bustan Abraham and Alei Hazayit, strong social bonds have formed that go well beyond joint musical performance. These have been strengthened through long-term association and patterns of mutual dependence and assistance too thickly entwined to unravel here. Without a steady band, Dalal’s collaborations with Palestinian musicians have been different in nature. This does not mean that there is necessarily less trust or respect, but that the mutual ties are looser.

Trust is one of the crucial elements missing in the current political impasse. Palestinians do not trust the Israeli government to implement meaningful concessions or pull back settlements while Israelis do not trust Palestinians to cease attacks on civilians. The carnage wrought by Palestinian suicide bombers is their most immediate and obvious achievement, but the more lasting damage is the undermining of trust and, in its place, the entrenchment of a racialized gaze. Even Israelis who were averse to categorizing others based on their appearances find themselves scrutinizing each Arab-looking individual in their vicinity, wondering whether he (or, now, she) is carrying explosives beneath the clothes. There is no lack of trust-destroying actions by the Israeli government either, though these take a radically different form, channeled through the readily identifiable figures of soldiers, politicians, and settlers.

Groups like Bustan Abraham have served as living examples of the possibilities of trust. As a cohesive ensemble that usually looked like it was truly enjoying itself onstage, with members actively responding to one another both in music and in gestures of approbation, the members of this group displayed mutual respect and trust. Indeed, it is difficult to make music together at their level of technical intricacy without lengthy collaboration and the establishment of substantial trust and mutual respect. This is most evident in the precise ensemble execution of complex passages at high speed. It can be perceived, too, in the generous support offered the soloist during featured improvisations and in a lack of competitive grandstanding. This does not mean that these musicians bask in utopian peace, love, and mutual admiration, rather that there has been a conscious decision by each member of the ensemble to invest the time and effort in a group endeavor.

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