Searching for song and identity, from the Maghreb to the Negev

Neta Elkayam, an upcoming artist and musician based in Jerusalem, tells the story of her multi-faceted identity and presents her own personal mixtape. Café Gibraltar sat down with Elkayam to discuss her experiences growing up in a southern Israeli development town, her life-changing trip to Morocco, and the power of North Africa’s female singers.

By Hagar Shezaf and Khen Elmaleh

Where are you from?

I was born in Netivot, Israel. My experience has been one of a “southerner,” although I spent the second half of my life wandering. I lived in Be’er Sheba’s Dalet neighborhood, and then in the Hatikva neighborhood in Tel Aviv, before finally moving to the Katamon neighborhood in Jerusalem. I’ve lived in all the poor neighborhoods in Israel. I have also traveled – I spent time in the United States, France and I’ve visited Morocco. Today I feel like a Jerusalemite. I feel like this place suites me and I have no desire to go elsewhere.

When did you start becoming interested in music? When did it become part of your life?

I remember myself as a girl, being placed on the table – the guests arrive and I am doing impersonations of [Israeli singer] Rita and Whitney Houston. When I was young I had one foot in popular Israeli music – old Eretz Israel songs that we learned in school or in my choir, and the other in Israeli music that was played on the radio. I grew up with rock n’ roll and Fender alongside the Moroccan music that was played at events – weddings, Mimouna and piyyutim on Shabbat and during holidays. Moroccan music was played in the background every morning as I was driven to school, but there was also Efi Netzer, Haim Moshe and Yehoram Gaon for instance.

When I was in elementary school, I was the soloist in our choir which was called “Kibbutz Galuyot” (“the ingathering of exiles”). There were new immigrants from Russia, Ethiopians and me. No one in Netivot wanted to join this choir and all the rest of the people went to the cooler choirs, but I had a really interesting time there. Actually, after the wave of Russian immigration in the early 90s, my music life changed significantly. I met Marina, my keyboard and vocal pedagogy teacher. We had a crazy connection. From my point of view, she was someone who came from the diaspora – from a faraway, foreign country. This fascinated me.

In general, the most significant women in my life were women that were connected to their diaspora – whether it was my grandmother, my aunts, friends or Marina. I remember trying to get every bit of information out of her about what it was like in Russia and what kind of music they had there. She would teach me Russian folk songs. When the mayor of Netivot presented the choir, he would also say: “And now the ‘Kibbutz Galuyot’ choir will perform, with a soloist who looks Ethiopian but is Moroccan and sings in Russian.”

Searching for song and identity, from the Maghreb to the Negev
“My Daughter,” a joint work by Michael and Neta Elkayam. From the “Khut Shel Zahav” exhibition. (photo: Michael and Neta Elkayam)

Where did you go to high school?

I studied at an ulpana (a religious school for girls) in Even Shmuel, which was actually more of a boarding school. It was a religious school that had a good music program with a wonderful teacher – a classical guitar teacher from India. He was very well-versed in music theory, and it was through him that I was first properly exposed to classical, jazz and black music. He would show us operas such as “Carmen,” in different versions and each time that there was an indecent scene he would cover the screen with his guitar and say: “It’s better that you don’t see this, it’s immoral.” I saw it as a big joke – for him, the music came before everything.
At that time, anyone who had some money would send their children to boarding schools, since there weren’t any good schools in Netivot. The schools there belonged to the local council, and were not a good influence on children due to negligence and lack of investment in the educational budget.

I always wonder what would have happened to me had I stayed in Netivot. A little while ago I listened to a tape from my childhood in which me and my friend are speaking like little Moroccans – with the ‘khet’ and the ‘ayin.’ But with the years this changed. When I came to the ulpana, I saw kibbutzniks for the first time in my life. This was the period in which I listened to a lot of rock – Pink Floyd and even heavier things like metal. I met my first Ashkenazi friend when I was 14, and it was a really significant experience for me. We were best friends, but it was kind of funny since she had an Ashkenazi complex at the same time that I had my Mizrahi complex. We would spent Shabbat at each other’s houses and would share a kind of culture shock that we experienced as a result of the difference between the two homes.

What was your relationship to Moroccan music as a child? Did you enjoy it?

My father always loved saying “I told you so,” since he remembers me as a child saying “Abba, turn off the radio, what is this music?” Before I went to boarding school it didn’t bother me, I could live with [Israeli rock artist] Aviv Geffen and Moroccan music. But this changed with time, and of course my visit to Morocco later on had a great influence on the way in which I now understand Moroccan music.

Did anyone speak Arabic at home?

My grandmother Ganina, who I had the privilege of knowing until the age of 19, spoke Moroccan Arabic to me almost exclusively. She was a very significant person in my life. She came to Israel in 1956 with four children at the age of 40. As a girl I was ashamed to say her name because it sounded like “khnuna” (“nerd” in Hebrew): the moment in which the difference between the Hebrew letters “kaf” and the guttural “khet” was done away with, many words became funny as their meanings changed. Moroccan was always spoken in Netivot, both at home and outside of it. My parents spoke so that we wouldn’t understand (though we understood perfectly) and the children in the neighborhood peppered their Hebrew with Moroccan Arabic – it was part of the slang.

Searching for song and identity, from the Maghreb to the Negev
From the “Khut Shel Zahav” exhibition, by Michael and Neta Elkayam. (photo: Michael and Neta Elkayam)

Both your grandmothers were Moroccan?

Yes. My mother’s side came to Israel from Casablanca in 1963, straight to the housing projects in Yeruham. I recently found their documents: their identity cards, birth certificates, everything is written in Arabic and French. My grandmother Rachel had her child kidnapped from Soroka Hospital in 1965. He was a healthy baby, but only three days after breastfeeding, the staff asked her how many children she had at home. When she answered seven, they told her that her baby died. No death certificate, just like that. My grandfather Yaakov, who spoke seven languages and was always a strong man became ill very soon after the incident.

My father’s side was Jewish-Chellahi from Tanghir. Grandmother Hanina was a very significant figure for me – she was a strong, level-headed woman despite all the suffering she endured, with amazing spiritual strength and a connection with god. This is exactly what is missing in Israeli society – everything that we have rid ourselves of. The spiritual mysticism, the connection with god, the simplicity of it all. I knew my grandmother as a lonely woman, without a husband – I never knew my grandfather – and she inspires me until this very day. I experienced her as an independent woman who was free of all burdens. Whose home was her fortress and was an entire world unto itself. You enter this house and you’re entering her village in Morocco, which I later visited and helped me understand many things about her.

Did you feel she was conflicted between her Moroccan and Israeli identities?

The word “conflict” doesn’t really sit well with how I see my grandmother. The word “tragedy” is more fitting. Our generation lives with a conflict of identities, but her generation fell victim to a terrible tragedy. She lived as a refugee, both physically and mentally. Without leaving her house, barely speaking the language, but with a real belief, really leaning on the creator and with a longing for the Messiah. She didn’t know how to read and was always saddened by this. So instead of reading, she would improvise songs and prayers in real time.

After both her boys were killed in Israeli wars, she tortured herself and declared that she would not enjoy the pleasures of the world, not even to make couscous or other delicacies. She always felt that others wanted to move forward, that she was a burden and that they wanted to throw her belongings in the trash – she always spoke about it, and eventually it really happened.

When did you feel that you found your musical direction?

It happened recently. I have been an art teacher for many years, and although I always sang, I flinched from dealing with it too seriously since some part of me wanted to keep this place virginal. Two years ago, I wrote a song on the way back from Netivot to Jerusalem. The inspiration always comes when I’m driving to or from Netivot – the drive to the South opens the mind. Every time I come or leave I feel all of my history returning to my body. Every drive is a form of looking inward. So I sat and wrote the song during the drive and then I arrived at my home in Jerusalem and sat at the piano to write the music. At some point I finished the first verse but felt that the chorus just doesn’t work in Hebrew. I said to myself, “okay, I will try to write it in Moroccan. I wrote a few words that I knew and called a friend from Netivot who is much better at Arabic than I am for approval. This was the first time I ever sang in Moroccan Arabic. I played it for a few friends and they said “Wow, it’s amazing to hear the difference between how you sing in Hebrew and Arabic. When you sing in Arabic your throat just opens up.”

I decided to record a song for my mother’s birthday as a gift. We performed and recorded a song by Line Monty, a Jewish-Algerian singer whom we really love. It was during that time that I developed an irresistible thirst and excitement for North African music. I spent hours soaking it in on YouTube, or with friends and musicians. I can disappear for hours in this world. And of course, you get swept up in the responses to each song: the Jewish-Moroccan songs are accompanied by the never-ending conversation over the historical connection to the Jews – whether Moroccan Jews living in Israel are still part of the Moroccan nation or have they become Israeli. This brings up questions of normalization, which are constantly being talked about across the Arab world.

Can you talk more about the issue of normalization and Moroccan Jews?

The conversation comes up often. We have a friend named Kamal Hachkar, who is a film director from Morocco, who made a film about the Jews of Tanghir, where my grandfather grew up. He met a friend of mine in Morocco who told him that she has a friend whose grandparents are from that village, and who also sings in Moroccan. He became excited because he was in the process of researching the Jews who left Tanghir. When he worked on the film, he was always told ,”okay okay, these first-generation Jews are good, but what about their children? They’ve already forgotten.” All of a sudden he found proof that there is the next generation that lives in Israel and hasn’t forgotten. There were those who opposed the film because it documented Moroccan Jews who live in Israel, but the general consensus was in favor. Those who opposed probably find it difficult to hold complex identities, which makes it easy for them to classify it as “normalization.”

Jews are a lot more than the Zionism of the last 60 years – one cannot just turn all the Jews into Zionist-Israelis. There are people whose religion is Judaism and whose identity is Moroccan. On the day that I arrived in Morocco, I was asked about who and what I am. I naturally answered “Ana bint dal el-Yahud el-Maghreb” – I am the daughter of Moroccan Jews. Even today I identify this way. Before I didn’t know. No one asked me – here in Israel it is summed up in being Israeli, and many people from the outside probably look at us in a similar way. The reality forces an Israeli identity on us. In any case, we won’t be able to have all our property returned to us and become part of Morocco. But there are people who live in their own diaspora, in their own unwritten history passed down through stories and songs.

I want to continue to live here. I have no desire to move to Morocco, but I also want to preserve my own culture, to live it here in Jerusalem or any place that I will live. My grandparents wanted to move to Israel for religious reasons. They prayed for 2,000 years in the diaspora, but why did a million people leave only after the establishment of the state? This is the question that Kamal asks in his film “Tanghir Jerusalem” and the answers aren’t always so pleasant for many Moroccans and Israelis.

There is great interest in Jewish Moroccans in Morocco today. People there experience the disappearance of the Jews as a traumatic experience. There is a group called “Club Mimuna,” which is made up of Muslims in some of the leading universities in Morocco, whose goal is to preserve Judaism in Morocco as part of the history and heritage of the country. I was astounded that people my age, my counterpart in Morocco, often go against the grain in both the centers of power and the media in the Arab world, and show a real interest in Jewish history. I talk to people my age in Morocco who say, “you are my sister,” and “how is it possible that they made us think this way? You are part of me, I am part of you.” They also managed to circumvent the brainwashing because they heard stories from their parents about life with the Jews.

What is the next video you are filming?

Soon we will film a video for “Hak A Mama” by Zohra El Fasiya. It’s a beautiful song with an incredible beat. The singing style is called “Aweeta,” and it’s a style that is almost shouted. I love it. It is very different from ornate Andalusian singing – I love women who sing from the lowest part of their stomach. The ones that scream, that lay it all out, and Zohra is one of those. She screams those words, as a plea, as a prayer, as a demand. As a person who grew up with a religious education, I always hated the sentence, “a woman’s voice is as the vulva itself,” because it was actually forbidden, silenced. But when I began to understand the meaning and the power of the voice, I realized there is no other way. In my eyes, a good singer is one whose voice transmits her power and her sexuality – her passion. There is something very revealing in it.

Do you really see a difference between men and women’s singing in this context?

Yes, when I started to learn maqama (Arabic rhyming prose), I began to understand that most of the maqamas were written for men. I wanted to sing “Maqam Sahli,” which opens in D, but I could never sing it in that key. I asked myself, what did the female singers do? On the one hand you want to be loyal to the original, but on the other hand it brings the opera out in me, and forces me to sing in a timbre that I don’t like. And then I discovered that Line Monty brings down the ma’am to G, and that Reinette L’Oranaise sings it in A. Thus, it is understandable how much these women had to do in order to break down the walls and say “Wait, I also exist!” So this maqam was written in D but I sing it in A.

What’s on this mixtape?

The playlist opens with a piece by Ofra Haza in which she is speaking to a live audience, and trying to describe who she is and what kind of music she is presenting. I connect very strongly to this piece, which is why I chose to open the mix with it. From there I tried to put together a journey through the voices of women who have been inspirational to me and represent different moments in my life. The mix tape begins with Natacha Atlas who sings the prayer of the muezzin in such a compelling way that shows the connection between woman, faith and religion, which is usually male-dominated. After that we hear Haya Samir, an Arab from Israel who sings in Hebrew and Ofra Haza who sings in Arabic. After that, a few divas: Sezen Aksu from Turkey and Fairouz from Lebanon, followed by Aguzarova from Russia all in the spirit of the 1980s. The mix continues with the Berber Houria Aichi, Fadhila Dziria from Algeria and Buika, a latin singer who reminds us of how small the world is, and how close it is to North Africa. After, Biyouna, a contemporary feminist Algerian actress sings a guttural and upbeat version of “Ta’ali.”After her you get to hear Raymond Abuksis alongside her inspiration – Hajja Hamdaouia. Toward the end of the mix, you’ll be able to hear Valentina Ponomareva in a tearjerking performance from the Russian film “Ruthless Romance,” followed by Aster Aweke, an amazing Ethiopian singer, with a song of longing for a childhood friend who left only to never return. Then the Algerian-Jew Line Monty who has a classical style, and right after you’ll hear Beyoncé doing an acoustic version of Halo, which reminds me of how phenomenal a singer she is. The last song on the mixtape is a flamenco improvisation by Las Montoyas.

Want more? Listen to Neta Elkayam speak to Café Gibraltar’s Khen Elmaleh, Wednesday, July 10 at 9:00 p.m. on