Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shirim Mizrachi'im

I've been off the Shirim Ivri'im thread for a while, but there's still lots that could be said. So here's an installment.

Between sometime in the 1950s and the end of the 1970s, the strains of Israeli music which were deeply influenced by the surrounding culture were pushed aside, out of the mainstream: Arab music, Greek, Yemenite, Turkish. The music continued to be very popular, it just wasn't played nor accepted on the mainstream national platforms. (This would be impossible in the technology of the 1990s onward, of course, but the world was different in the 1960s). As usual with such narrow-minded censorship, society at large was the loser.

The change happened for various reasons; the single most significant, however, may have been the trickle-down effect of having a Likud government (though it could also have been the other way around, of course: there was a Likud government because of the coming of age of the Jews from Arab states). One way or the other, the early 1980s saw the resurgence of what was called Oriental music (musika mizrachit) into the mainstream, from which it never again departed. Oriental, meaning of course "non-European", not Japanese or Vietnamese.

The single most important singer to break down the barriers was Zohar Argov, 1955-1987. Argov was an unlikely character to be an enduring cultural icon, as his human flaws were considerably greater than most peoples', and included a jail spell for sexual assault and long bouts of drug abuse which eventually contributed to his suicide. Yet his exuberance as a performer and unabashed pride in his genre won him a permanent place in the pantheon of Shirim Ivri'im, and forever changed their contours. His 1980 album Elinor is apparently the best-selling album of Israelis songs ever, and some of his greatest hits are recorded again and again as if they came off the press for the first time just yesterday.

Here are two: Badad (Alone), and HaPerach Begani, (The Flower in My Garden), both from 1982. Haperach was the single most important battering ram into mainstream popularity.

Badad Hebrew lyrics

English translation
Alone, on the way to the nothingness
Alone, on the path to nothing
Alone, as the time flies
time does not forget
to set the limits.

Alone, without a carressing hand
alone, without a friend's shoulder
Alone, how good it is not to know
that your hand is already touching
the hand of some other man.

Chorus x2:
Alone I will walk - with no prayer,
alone, without a future, hope or dream

Alone, I will wander like the sun,
alone, in the hot desert
Alone, even tears are vanity;
suffering has no song to it
a song of the mute (of my mother).

Haperach Begani Hebrew lyrics
English translation
On a clear and crisp spring day
I remember you.
Already since then I knew well
that I won't give up,
for you were in my eye
every night and every day.
You were for me, as a heavenly angel
in the mist.
I wanted to ask for your hand.
I wanted to say to you
the secret of love that is in my heart
guarded from all.
I wanted to say to you, my love,
I loved and it's over
for I did not dare
also when it was too late.

You are my world at dawn.
You are mine all day.
You are my world at night.
You are the dream.
You are in my blood, my spirit and in my heart.
You are the sweet fragrance,
the flower in my garden.

Since you went my day is dimmed,
long and boring.
In vain I wish to forget
and not to notice.
Return fast, for without you
my world is desolate,
my vocal chords are silenced
and my violin is quiet.


Haperach Begani


Alex Stein said...

The King! Best Israeli singer ever, imho.

Anonymous said...


Thanks very much for introducing me to Argov -- the songs are really excellent. I am not sure how I managed not hear of him before -- maybe because he died so long before I got interested in Israeli music.

It is remarkable how "Spanish" his music sounds, at least to my ears. Of course, I have been living in the American Southwest for more than thirty years, so I am very attuned to Spanish and Latin-American music. Does it sound distinctly Spanish to others?

David E. Sigeti