Sex, drugs and the ‘Mizrahi sound’

Silsulim, the most common feature of what has come to be known as ‘Mizrahi music’ doesn’t just have its origins in Israeli rock – it is Israeli rock in its most basic sense. After years of being suppressed, ignored and reviled by Israel’s elite, it has become a symbol of pride.

By Hagai Ozen

They were the bad girls of conservative Israel, the ones who did it wherever they could – especially in dark clubs. In order to breathe, they got up on whatever stage they could to spread their youthful spirit, the kind that the establishment refused to recognize. These were the “lehakot ketsev” – the Israeli “rhythm bands” that played real rock n’ roll. It is highly unlikely that this kind of music would be recognized as rock today. Some might call it “Mediterranean,” “pop” or even “Mizrahi.” But that’s how it is when the singers were comprised of Boaz Sharabi, Nisim Seroussi, Avner Gadassi and Shimi Tavori – the founding fathers of Mizrahi music in Israel.

No matter how we look at it, Mizrahi, Mediterranean, silsulim (the vocal trills that characterize much of Arabic, Mediterranean and Mizrahi music) or however we call it, is a form of Israeli rock. First of all, musically, a rock band is made up of guitar, bass and drums – the same instruments that were used by mythological groups such as “Tzlilei Ha’Kerem” (Sounds of the Vineyard) or “Tzlilei Ha’Oud” (Sounds of the Oud). For years, guitarist Jackie Keissar and bassist Jackie Asoulin performed in neighborhood haflot (parties), as did Moshe Ben Mosh and Daklon. Guitar-bass-drums. They played Greek and Arabic songs as well as Elvis Presley and Cliff Richards tunes. Margalit Tznani sang Aretha Franklin numbers in the same breath as Fairouz’s “Habaytak.” It was the most natural thing in the world. And let’s not even talk about Aris San, a real guitar hero, and the first Greek-Israeli that influenced the knight of Israeli rock, Berry Sakharof. The influence went the other way, too. Yehuda Keissar often said that Danny Sanderson (of Kaveret fame) was the person who influenced him to want to play guitar. It was because of Sanderson that Keissar bought his first guitar (the same kind Sanderson played). And even if the sounds that came out of that guitar were different, they reflected the same youthful spirit – the main characteristic of rock n’ roll. The reason this worked was simple: it all took place in an era that predated musical categories. Categories that eventually turned into fences.

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Tzlilei Ha’Oud:

Aris San – Dam Dam:

There is a basic contradiction between life and art. While life demands a kind of order for the purpose of continuation and existence, art necessitates the exact opposite. Complete freedom. No fencesinc, no restrictions. There is no such thing as a good fence. Every fence is a wall on the journey to freedom. The freedom to do, to create, to endanger oneself and be curious. This is what musica mesalselet did from the beginning. It is more daring. It could take a classic Hebrew poem from the likes of Nathan Alterman and change it to the point that even the poet himself wouldn’t be able to recognize it. Musical categories forced every style into its own drawer. After the jovial 60s and 70s came the musical categories. All of a sudden there were different rows for every style – “Israeli,” “Israeli rock,” “Mizrahi.” As time went on, more “politically soft” categories came into existence, among them was “Mediterranean music.” All of these categories created distance, primarily between artists and themselves. A gap too difficult to bridge. All of a sudden there was a struggle between Mizrahi music and Israeli rock. A struggle that never existed beforehand, between two styles that had previously done incredible things together. Now they were enemies.

The project “Two Sides of the Same Coin” showcases Mizrahi artists performing rock songs, while “Israeli” artists did their renditions of Mediterranean songs. The most obvious result is the fact that the project comes out sounding like one big mess. When Keren Peles sings Amir Benayoun’s “Morah L’Chaim” (“Teacher for Life”), or when Dudu Tasa Mizrahifies “Hasida Tshora” (“White Stork”), it’s clear to any listener that the difference is in the packaging, the presentation, the branding. If we’re to speak in purely musical terms, it’s obvious that one could find those same chords in any genre. The production is what, ostensibly, makes the biggest difference. Take Ha’Chaverim Shel Natasha’s song “Melancholy“: producer Nadav Bitton turned the rock song into a Mizrahi song that sounds perfect when sung by Ishay Levi. Go explain to someone with an untrained ear that the Eagles’ “Hotel California” uses the same chords as Levi’s “Ananim” (“Clouds”). The differences is the choice of sound. Instead of a crunching electric guitar, Israeli rock chose a guitar based on silsulim. Even in terms of messaging, there isn’t a huge different between Pearl Jam’s “Last Kiss” and Roni Achil’s classic “Mi Hemtzi Et Ha’Mila Ahava” (“Who Invented the Word Love”). The repertoire of the rhythm bands included songs that could have easily fit into the genre of silsulim.

Keren Peles performs Amir Benayoun’s “Morah L’Chaim” (“Teacher for Life”):

“Mi Hemtzi Et Ha’Mila Ahava” (“Who Invented the Word Love”):

Although there will always be those who will point to the use of different instruments and the use of quarter tones – which, by the way, no longer exist on the musical landscape – we’re still talking about pure rock. Over the years, the genre has undergone a number of changes. The Doors used a keyboard that, back then, was considered revolutionary. Violins were an inseparable part of Aerosmith’s sound, not to mention countless others. There exists a wide variety of musical possibilities. German rock, for instance, is entirely different from Greek rock, which is quite similar to Israeli rock. There, in Greece, there is no difference between rock and silsulim – just ask Vasilis Karras, the man responsible for “Fenomeno.” In Israel, it is Stellos and Shlomi Saranga who sing Fenomeno at parties, without us knowing that we are listening to an authentic piece of rock music. Moreover, there are many similarities between rock and silsulim in terms of passion and groove. All it takes is one look at the crowd during an Ofer Levi concert.

Vasilis Karras – Fenomeno:

In terms of lifestyle, there is no doubt that Israeli rock is rife with silsulim. If we go back to Aris San, it is clear that we’re talking about a rocker. The man lived a life of sex, drugs and silsulim until his death. Similar to Elvis, San’s death was a mystery, and there are those who are willing to bet that he is still alive and performing. Zohar Argov’s “Ma Lach Yalda” (“What’s Wrong, Girl”) and “Nachon Le’Hayom” (“Today”) or Avner Gadassi’s “Nifradnu Kach” (“This is How We Parted”) are rock songs in the full sense of the word. Before Zohar Argov released his classic album “Elinor,” he tried his luck by releasing two singles for radio play. One of those songs was “Kol Yom Sh’Over” (“Every day that Passes”), in which he sounds like an “Israeli” artist who has rid himself of the guttural “khet” or “ayin” common to many Mizrahi singers. Years later, when he was already a big star, he rerecorded some of those songs in a more authentic version. This only proves that these same songs can become part of any genre. Today, Moshe Peretz knows how to work this into his performances, changing his songs from the “baladi” Arabic style to reggae without blinking.

Zohar Argov – “Kol Yom She Over” (“Every day that Passes”):

The fact that silsulim was off limits only further proves how rock n’ roll it really was. Over the years, the genre was suppressed, ignored and even hated. It’s enough to remember Nissim Seroussi’s performance on Yaron London’s show. London couldn’t fathom where this person came from. This is the initial reaction to rock. First you spit it out, then you swallow it. The real proof of rock’s existence is found in the elite’s revulsion and shock. When your parents worry that it might turn you into a person of low culture, that’s called rock.

The fact that silsuim, Israel’s rock, has become forbidden fruit, only served to strengthen the genre. Silsulim was and still is like the woman you don’t tell anybody about. The kind you can never talk about, but only with them do you feel a sense of freedom. This lover had a child that became even more beautiful than her mother. No one can be sure who the father is, because no one was willing to take responsibility for her. That is why her daughter, contemporary Israeli rock, is much more moderate. She learned her lesson. That’s why she only goes to Tel Aviv’s cultural center and other ritzy places.

There is no reason to be frightened of this process. We’re talking about a natural evolution. Today’s musica mesalselet underwent the same process as rock did all over the world. The popularity turned the product into something more elegant, clean and polished. Or in other words – pop. But the same sound that could be found in Tel Aviv’s (old) Central Bus Station, the same silsulim that were played in neighborhood haflot with Daklon and Haim Moshe, are played today. The only difference: the embarrassment has been replaced by pride. This music is neither shy nor humble – it is a powerhouse. No longer are there any rules or boundaries – only artistic freedom.