The year of isolated vocalists

Look beyond the mainstream for the musical gems that have emerged from Israel this past year.

If there are no thunderbolts in the three weeks remaining until the end of the Hebrew calendar year, this year will be remembered as pretty much a drought year in the history of Israeli music. No new and interesting message has come from the major and semi-major vocalists of what in better days used to be called the local industry.

Mizrahi pop (Mizrahi being a term used to refer to Jews of Middle Eastern descent ) has continued to party in Caesarea and at the Nokia arena, but the level of its new output, which even previously had not been sky-high, has plummeted to below the lowest common denominator. In two words: Omer Adam. The bleak state of non-Mizrahi pop is demonstrated by the new hope of the genre, the young singer Natan Goshen. In two words: pernicious anemia. Israeli rock, in its various branches, has produced some beautiful albums (my favorite is Noam Rotem’s “Iron and Stones” ), but anyone who was looking for some thrilling and exciting energy or an album you hear and it brings you to your knees (no, I don’t think Berry Sakharof’s “You Are Here” is an album of that sort ), will have difficulty finding them.

What about young indie bands of the Facebook and Indinegev generation? Here too there were a few things, but they did not add up to a real movement and in this department too there wasn’t even a single album that made me stop everything and say: “Wow, there’s nothing better than a new guitar (or synthesizer ) band.”

Nevertheless, there is no need to eulogize this past year. There was one big thing, that is to say little thing, that is to little big thing. The mainstreams barely trickled along in a weak or middling way but in a number of isolated enclaves – which have no connection with the power centers of the industry and also no connection with one another – deep, courageous, relevant and stunningly beautiful music was made. And this isn’t just a matter of two or three such enclaves, which don’t add up to a significant statement, nor of four or five.

At least 10 excellent albums, some of them really rare, sneaked out this year one by one from those enclaves, and even though they are very different from each other and cannot coalesce into a single camp that will rescue them from their isolation and try to join forces to influence the mainstream, they nevertheless are together waving a little placard that says: This was the year of the isolated vocalists.

It is a bit of a harsh word: isolated. Maybe it is somewhat exaggerated, at last in the case of some of the artists who will be discussed here. But it does reflect to a large extent the prevailing mood of the vocalists who have released the outstanding records of the past year. This is not about independent artistry in the superficial sense of the word. Nearly all Israeli musicians, including those working in the mainstream, are independent artists.

The industry is dead, long live the Internet: All of them are recording and marketing themselves by themselves. The artists discussed here are independent artists in the deepest sense: musicians whose methods are completely different from the method popular in the market, and therefore they are condemned to a certain degree of isolation.

Some of them are also isolated in the geographic sense – from Ronit Bergman who is working in Macedonia to Amal Murkus who is working in Kfar Yassif. For others, like Shalom Gad or Barak Elnekave or Yankele Rotblit, the isolation is more a matter of mind. And there are those like Nino Bit ton and Dudu Tassa who, in completely different ways, are living in a cu ltural world that has been exiled to the area of the isolated because of continuing cultural eradication.

All these albums – notwithstanding their sharp uniqueness, determined independent tone and their particular coefficient of isolation – are accessible or relatively accessible works. There is no need to try hard in order to enjoy them – you just have to want to listen. And believe me, it’s worthwhile.

Best of the bunch
Amal Murkus – Baghani. You don’t have to understand Arabic in order to enjoy and admire this excellent album. As is the case with every great singer, Murkus’ voice expresses something universal. Feelings and moods like sadness, hope, happiness, passion, despair, amazement at the beauty of the world, revolt against injustice – all these receive beautiful vocal expression here and Murkus’ clear and wonderful singing is borne on stunningly beautiful original melodies (by Nassim Dakwar and Maharan Mur’ab ), which combine the beauty and concision of the folk song with the sophistication and broad vision of the art song. To my taste, one of the two albums of the year.

“The Slave” – “Songs of the Land of Israel.” Someone in the Israeli music blogosphere has called this album “songs of the destruction of Israel.” Shalom Gad exceeded himself this year and created an absurd, macabre and wonderful musical, which brings a number of skeletons out of the national closet and causes them to dance with each other with their bones creaking and a chilling smile, on a bed of choice melodies. The other album of the year.

Undone – “If We Are Here.” Ronit Bergman, formerly the soloist of the total noise band “Plastic Venus,” returned to musical activity this year after long years of absence. The bad news is that apparently very few people have noticed. The good news is that the disc by Undone, the band she heads with her Macedonian husband, is an excellent album – musically rich and dynamic, sharp and precise with respect to its verbal contents. In her mid-40s, from her home in the Balkans, Bergman is still Israeli music’s best poet of foreignness.

Barak Elnekave and the Ghetto Swingers – “Hora Lashot.” The prize for Israeli music’s best fringe production this year is a shoo-in for the second and excellent album relased by Barak Elnekave and the Ghetto Swingers. Elnekave’s enclave sounds a little like a Berlin cabaret or a chansons wine cellar on the fringes of Paris, but they speak creative and fascinating Hebrew there, play complicated but accessible music and it is possible to feel strongly, if not really understand, the special logic that guides Elnekave, who presents the songs like a theatrical panther.

Nino Bitton – “Nino Bitton.” And here is another wonderful vocalist who sings in a language that isn’t Hebrew. Until not long ago, Nino Bitton as a well-kept Jerusalem secret, a master of Algerian music who is revered by his students but not known in wider circles. The truth is that Bitton has remained a well-kept secret even after the release of his first solo album two months ago, but now at least he can be enjoyed without traveling to the cafe in Jerusalem where he performs with his students every Friday afternoon.

Yankele Rotblit – “Tsomet Alul.” We remain in Jerusalem, with another Jew who is no longer young. Yankele Rotblit is the first to admit he is not a singer, but this isn’t stopping him from continuing to release solo albums. And rightly so. The qualities that made Rotblit (his rich yet simple Hebrew, panoramic vision, profound humanism, mix of the personal, social and political, and his ability to paint a picture in words ) are also evident in this new album, only in a much rawer form than in the old lyrics.

The relevance of this album, which happened to come out during the Tahrir revolution, is manifested in Rotblit’s song about Egypt, “Umm Kulthum’s Voice,” as well as in things he said in an interview half a year ago: “This will reach us too. Of course, this has to happen. What did this start from in Tunis? From a guy who didn’t find work in his profession and had to sell vegetables, and they came and overturned his stand. Are there not things like that here?”

Zeev Tene – “It Sings.” Jewish men who are no longer young, and Jewish women who are no longer young, star on the list of remote singers who did great things this year. There are more people aged 60-plus than people aged 30-plus on the list. This year Zeev Tene, an eternal disrupter, released “It Sings,” a wonderful album in which he succeeded, in contrast to his previous albums, in putting his wild words and uncensored expressionism into a dynamic and orderly – though of course not too orderly – musical framework.

A late addition
The nine albums that feature on this list came out during this past year. Very recently another excellent album has come out, which only reinforces the sense that this year was the year of the wonderful isolated singers.

“Shira,” the new album by Jerusalemite singer Ilana Eliya, opens with a song by the late poet Yona Wallach. Armond Sabach composed beautiful music, Eliya sings wonderfully (in her special, throaty, reverberating style, which sometimes creates the impression that she is singing from the top of a mountain and her voice is coming back to her from all the other surrounding hilltops ) and Wallach’s words outline the area of the psyche where the whole album roams: the hidden cleft, the cliffs of the heart, the source of life, the lone gazelle, love.

For years Eliya, who until now has sung mostly in Kurdish, dreamed of recording an album of songs with lyrics by Hebrew poets. Now, at last, she has realized her dream and done this in a courageous and admirable way, which is likely to surprise music aficionados who know and love her (and constitute about one-tenth of the audience she deserves ).

Eliya’s previous albums (there are only two, the last of them from 1997; in the subsequent years the singer devoted her energies to caring for her ailing mother ) combine two aesthetics: the folk song and the art song. Both of these are also present in the new album, but the innovation is that they have been joined by a third aesthetic: synthesized electronic music, almost pop-like.

This is quite a daring gamble, which is liable to get into trouble, and in the first two songs in which it occurs (Shelly Elkayam’s “The Daughter’s Prayer” and Dalia Ravikovitch’s “Mechanized Doll”, both with Eliya’s own melodies ), the feeling is that the success is not perfect. The following songs, the Kurdish folk “Jablio” and Zelda’s “The Sun Illuminated a Moist Branch” (melody by Rali Margalit ), are excellent, but they go back to the familiar folk aesthetics.

And then, in the sixth song, Yona Wallach’s “Identity Problems” (melody by Armond Sabach ), everything comes together in a gorgeous and perfect way – the synthesized electronics, the East Asian musical instruments, Eliya’s voice, the meanings of the text.

“Identity Problems” is part of a sequence of five excellent songs, which holds together the entire middle section of the album. As this sequence progresses it accumulates more and more power and when the song that closes it arrives, Ravikovitch’s “Little Woman” (with a beautiful melody by Rali Margalit ) a rare thing happens: It is truly difficult to take in all this beauty, power, sensitivity and pain. It is necessary to keep a very firm hold on the reins of emotion lest they drop. Or maybe it is better to let go of the reins and allow the emotion to rise and overflow.

The launch performance for this album will take place on September 14 at Confederation House in Jerusalem.


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