Mizrahi Music’s New Arab Israeli Muslim Queen
Is Israel ready for an Arab Mizrahi singer? When I posed the question to Nasreen Qadri, the 28-year-old vocalist, in the sleek offices of the Tel Aviv PR firm that represents her, she put her hands on the table and raised her voice in exasperation, cutting me off. “Do you know how many people have asked me that?”
Qadri’s an up-and-coming face in the Israeli pop music scene, and her music straddles two of the most volatile fault lines in Israeli society today. An Arab Muslim trying to make it in the mainstream Hebrew music business, Qadri is inevitably judged not just for her art but for what that art might say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her choice to sing Mizrahi, or Eastern, music—one of the first Arab musicians to do so—is no less fraught. With roots in the musical traditions of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa who came to Israel in the 1950s and ’60s, this genre developed as part of the counterculture of these Mizrahi Jews and their descendants, many of whom were—and still feel—discriminated against by the country’s Ashkenazi elite.
But Qadri’s frustration does not come from a fear of conflict or a lack of political opinions. Tall, sturdy, and confident bordering on brash, Qadri is no wispy waif; she knows exactly what she thinks and is not afraid to say it. Still, ask her to talk about it and she’ll return with a riff on dedication to the work behind the music: “I live music, I breathe music, nothing else interests me,” she explained. “Nothing having to do with Jews and Arabs.”
“Ana Bahibak” is one of the most powerful cuts on Qadri’s new, self-titled album. A ballad of love lost, the song is backed by a pared-down accompaniment that allows the singer to showcase her powerful alto voice. This is especially true in the song’s Arabic refrain, which means “I love you.” Qadri belts out the words, and they seem drenched in pain and sadness. It is a demonstration of her mastery of the trills and quarter tones that are the vocal hallmarks of contemporary Mizrahi style.
Qadri grew up in Haifa in a family with financial difficulties. This economic imperative is what pushed her, she said, to build on a precocious love of music and a starring role in her high-school choir and to start singing in nightclubs at the age of 18. Drawing on a repertoire of Arab pop and classics—the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum but also the contemporary Lebanese pop icon Nancy Ajram—that she had learned as a child, Qadri performed throughout Israel as well as for Palestinians in the West Bank. “I loved it,” she said, “but I was also thinking of how to help my parents. That’s the only thing that gave me the courage to perform.”
Qadri’s big break came in 2011, after seven years spent performing in clubs and for private parties. At the urging of some Jewish friends, she auditioned for Eyal Golan Is Calling You, a reality-TV music competition hosted by one of the most successful Mizrahi singers in Israel. For Qadri, the program was stressful not only because of the competitiveness and public exposure, but because she was competing on unfamiliar musical terrain. “We would listen to Zohar Argov and Ofra Haza,” she said, referring to the influential Mizrahi singers she first encountered in her youth, “but we wouldn’t listen to them every day; we would focus more on our own singers. Even Eyal, I had heard about him but I had never heard his songs. I came from a different musical tradition, and suddenly I found myself in Hebrew music.”
Qadri quickly immersed herself in Mizrahi music and the effort paid off: The season concluded with Qadri standing on stage at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv before a crowd of thousands, sharing the competition’s top prize with fellow contestant Maor Ashwal, who has since released a handful of singles and is steadily building a career of his own.
That prize is Qadri’s new album, produced and distributed by Golan’s own production company. The album’s 12 tracks include a mix of dance numbers and slower ballads, all powered by Qadri’s commanding voice. Given her musical background, though, it is surprising that almost all the album’s songs are in Hebrew. Listening to her belt out the Arabic refrain in the two partial exceptions, the ballads “Hayati” and “Ana Bahibak,” is like watching a prizefighter who has been jabbing with his left suddenly let loose with his right; the passion in her voice makes the Hebrew songs, powerful as they are, pale in comparison.
“The goal is to do original Arabic songs,” explained Haggai Ozen, Qadri’s manager, a former music journalist who also wrote two of the Hebrew tracks on the album. However Ozen does not want Qadri to be confined to the much smaller Arabic music scene. “We’re not going to force it—as if just because she’s Arab she has to sing in Arabic.” If stretched for a comparison, it might be considered the Israeli equivalent of African-American country star Darius Rucker’s transition from rock and R&B to debuting at the Grand Ole Opry.
Even if the songs are in Hebrew, for Qadri the album stays close to her musical roots. “I combined the authentic music that I know, my knowledge of Arabic music, and Mizrahi music,” she said. “That’s the secret of my success.”
The win on Eyal Golan and her album release have garnered Qadri significant media attention and very positive reviews, but she has not become an instant celebrity or a household name. Qadri is a hard-working singer who is ascending the career ladder rung by rung. She adheres to a demanding, almost nightly, performance schedule and is attracting more and more fans. In January, for example, her headlining performance at Tel Aviv’s 700-seat Reading 3 performance space sold out.
Qadri’s combination of traditional Arabic music and contemporary Israeli pop represents, in a way, a return to the origins of Mizrahi music. In the 1950s, following the mass immigration of Mizrahi Jews, many of whom came to Israel as refugees, some of the Arab world’s greatest musicians would play for immigrant audiences at private parties and in cafés around Tel Aviv. Popular as the Kuwaity brothers—the Jewish composing and recording duo who ruled the Iraqi airwaves before leaving Baghdad for Israel in 1951—and others remained back home in Egypt, Morocco, and elsewhere in the Arab world, they were largely ignored by Israel’s dominant Ashkenazi culture, as Mizrahi music would be until the 1980s. Over the decades, this Arabic component fused with other styles: most importantly Greek nightclub music, but also French ballads, popular Zionist songs, American rock ‘n’ roll, and more. Mizrahi music today is far removed from the Arabic tradition of that first generation: It “became Western popular music overlaid with Eastern codes and ethnic colors,” write Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi in their Popular Music and National Culture in Israel, a situation “that accurately reflected the general position of Mizrahi Jews in Israel.”
Along with her success, Qadri has also garnered opposition from both Jews and Palestinians for how and what she has chosen to sing. On one of the episodes of Eyal Golan Is Calling You, she sang the well-known Mizrahi song “When the Heart Cries,” written by prominent lyricist Yossi Gispan. Qadri’s performance caused a furor on social media not only because the song includes lines from the Shema, the central Jewish prayer, but also because it was written as an elegy for the two Israeli soldiers murdered in Ramallah at the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000. “Suddenly everyone attacked me, Arabs and Jews,” Qadri said of the responses. “That song is not intended to be about any religion. There’s only one God, and I turned to him; I know that the text is about soldiers and the situation, but that’s not what I intended.”
Qadri is not as naive as this statement seems to imply. She, and certainly the producers of the program, are savvy enough to know that an Arab artist performing a song so laden with Israeli trauma would provoke an emotional response; this is no Justin Beiber cluelessly wishing that Anne Frank would have been one of his fans.
As she herself recognizes, the decision to sing “When the Heart Cries” garnered Qadri significant name recognition; from a PR perspective, the move was a success. But Qadri seems no more cynical than she is stupid. She seeks out this difficult position in the middle: between Jews and Arabs and authentic to both sides, an artist who can give voice to the pathos of each. “Who can I represent?” Qadri asked rhetorically when pressed on the question of her identity. “Myself. The two states that I live in,” referring to her Arab-Israeli identity. “Maybe that will bring peace.”
On a recent Tuesday night, Qadri performed at Café Tel Aviv, a large Mizrahi music club in the south of the city. Despite work the next day and the rain outside, the venue was packed with fans, energized by her exuberance and voice. Expecting to hear the new album, I was surprised when Qadri sang almost exclusively Arab pop, belting out one hit song after the other. But Qadri knows her audience: That’s what got the crowd to its feet, dancing, clapping, and going wild.