7. Musical Mediterraneanism as compromise

The "Mediterranization" of musiqa mizrahit (already latent in the name of "Azyt") is thoroughly linked to its growing ‘Israelization’ and ‘rockization’, as exemplified by the songs of the most popular mizrahi singers of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eyal Golan, Sarit Hadad and Amir Benayun. These songs are successful crossovers of mizrahi and mainstream Western pop styles (e.g. disco). The cultural ‘cost’ of this success however has been, besides the watering down of the early mizrahi sound, a dilution of the sense of identity that had been for long associated with it. Musicians who refused to melt down classic musiqa mizrahit in favor of a softer 'Mediterranean' sound and continued to produce in the late 1990’s musiqa mizrahit that sounds as the one made in the 1970’s, paid with the persistence of marginality, inferiority and labeling as non-mainstream Israeli.

This split between the yam tikhoni (Mediterranean) and hard core mizrahi (Oriental) signifiers in relation to the same genre reflects the ambivalence of Israeli mizrahiyut in general. The ‘story’ of musiqa mizrahit can be read in terms of ‘resistance’ and ‘subversion’. It could be argued that musiqa mizrahit is in fact the authentic and rebellious expression of mizrahiyut against its marginalization and inferiority within Israeli culture. In accordance, the success and ‘crossover’ of musicians such as Golan and Hadad under the label of Mediterranean can be interpreted as the appropriation of musiqa mizrahit by dominant Israeliness and its accommodation to the patterns and interests of mainstream Israeli popular music, i.e. Israeli rock. In other words, Golan’s and Hadad’s success can be interpreted as a ‘failure’ of the original subversive aim of musiqa mizrahit.

Given the essential commitment of musiqa mizrahit artists and producers to national Israeli culture, however, the general 'Mediterranization' of popular music in Israel, could be interpreted as goal achieved. That is, musiqa mizrahit speakers have persistently argued that their music is Israeli, and that their interest is to be recognized as legitimate and authentic. With musiqa mizrahit turned into musiqa yam tikhonit placed at center stage of Israeli popular music, with rock and pop musicians influenced by the Mediterranean sounds of musiqa mizrahit, and with mizrahi/yam tikhoni musicians such as Avihu Medina and Zohar Argov canonized as ‘all-Israeli’, one could hardly interpret this situation as a cultural failure. The nationalist impetus underlining musiqa mizrahit has achieved its own self declared goal of bringing musiqa mizrahit, under the disguise of Mediterranean music, into the mainstream of Israeli popular music and of Mediterranizing the sound of popular music in Israel.

Militant "new journalists" perceive the staggering public appeal of mediterranized musiqa mizrahit and its embracing by the media as a threat to its primordial authenticity. Since the cultural hegemony in Israel is Western oriented, musiqa mizrahit has to retain, according to these critics, its oppositional status. Rock journalists became concerned with the success of musiqa mizrahit to attract wide audiences under the Mediterranean signifier. A review of Ha-ossef ha-yam tikhoni ("The Mediterranean collection"), a four CD pack edited by Shimon Parnas, the chief exponent of musiqa mizrahit/yam tikhonit in the Israeli radio and TV, asks rhetorically: "is the culture war [between mainstream rock and musiqa mizrahit/yam tikhonit] of Israeli pop behind us?" and he answers:

Whoever did not pass through the old Central Bus Station of Tel-Aviv in the 60s, 70s or 80s, will find in this collection a fine introduction to the different trends and faces of this music, that was called with names such as musiqa mizrahit and musiqat qassetot [cassette music] before it earned its present name, musiqa yam-tikhonit [Mediterranean music]….

Musically, the songs represent well the yearning of most of the creators of musiqa yam-tikhonit to find for themselves a good place in the middle. The history of the musiqa yam-tikhonit in Israel is a short history of anger and offence, of longing for legitimacy and of the will to create a bond with the centers of power of the popular culture and of the Israeli society at large.

All this is very nice and harmonic, of course, but for the sake of the coming generations it is worth to remember that in less commercial circumstances, it could be possible to make another anthology. The spirit of fraternity that invades this record cannot conceal neither the critical relations between some of the participants in the anthology, nor that which is not included in it. (Gidi Avivi, "Mitga’age’im la-beyahad," Ha’aretz, 23/4/1997 ["Yearning for integration"])

These recent approaches to musiqa mizrahit reveal yet another paradox. While celebrating what appears to be the final acceptance of musiqa mizrahit as a legitimate expression of Mediterranean Israeliness, there is also a sense of a loss of authenticity. Mediterraneanism signifies in this context the concessions made by mizrahi artists to accommodate to the technological and aesthetic demands of the Western-oriented popular music industry of Israel.

The Mediterranean signifier, to conclude, is a constant feature in the Israeli discourse about music since the 1940s. Appearing first as an option between East and West or as a set of particular musical traits identified as characteristic of Oriental music, all forms of musical Mediterraneanism in Israel can eventually be read as an escape from the Middle Eastern predicament of the Israeli condition. Caught in the center of the Arabic/Islamic world and with a sizeable part of its Jewish population originating in Arab countries or being Palestinian Arab, the Western-orientated Israeli culture is constantly faced with the challenges posed by its immediate geographic surroundings. Israeliness thus looks westwards, embarking into its adventurous odyssey from the pleasant shores of the Mediterranean Sea whose endless horizon seen from the beaches of Tel Aviv appears as a pleasant refuge from the anti-Israeli rage coming from the East. From this perspective, musical Mediterraneanism in its different manifestations was always a strategy to avoid full-fledged Arabiness while at the same time to develop a sense of belonging to the blurred, and yet not "all-European", Mediterranean cultural area.

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