2. Analytical Frameworks

I propose to analyze this phenomenon in terms of particular individuals acting within, across, and against social and cultural conventions of thought and behavior. In other words, this is a study of individual agency in relation to habitus – negotiating the boundaries between and the pull across several different socio-cultural “worlds” with unique conventions and assumptions. I shall also discuss some of the connections to the transnational world music/roots music scene. The Israeli/Palestinian endeavors are not merely a local manifestation of this global phenomenon but neither are they fully independent of it. Few of the musicians under discussion here would have persevered had they not had both exposure to and performance opportunities in this larger scene. But the music that they produce is not simply a reflection or extension of music made elsewhere.

Culture clashes and various types of hybridity characterize this ‘space’ both in Israel and in the larger international scene. It is the nature and meaning of the ‘fusion’ resulting from collaboration among musicians of different backgrounds that particularly interests me. In order to ‘triangulate’ this field of cultural production I shall present three brief cases that exemplify different possibilities and positions within the field. By examining the interplay of individual choices and larger social dynamics in a politically fraught situation I hope to demonstrate the socio-political resonances of musical acts. After introducing the theoretical perspectives that inform my analysis — scene, network, competence, and interaction — I present the three contrasting groups of musicians. I compare the constitution of these ensembles, discuss their careers, self-presentation, reception, and positioning in relation to other types of music and conceptions in Israeli and Palestinian culture. I conclude with an evaluation of the accomplishments, challenges, failures and impact of these collaborations in relation to the claims made for it by its proponents.

As my focus here is directed toward the interaction of musicians of diverse backgrounds working in contemporary Israeli society I have chosen analytical frameworks that highlight the nature of the relations, both social and musical, that bind these musicians. These include the scene that they have constituted, the network of links that has emerged to connect them to one another, the types of musical competence that they bring to rehearsal and performance, and the modes of interaction that emerge in these events.

Given the relative novelty of this phenomenon and the lack of a clearly defined musical profile associated with it — not to mention its problematic commercial title ‘Israeli Ethnic Music’ — the analytical concept of scene, revisited by Will Straw in a recent article (2002), is useful both for stating and refining the nature of the relations between the musicians and audiences under study and for exploring some of the questions that he poses. The concept of scene “compels us to examine the role of affinities and interconnections which, as they unfold through time, mark and regularize the spatial itineraries of people, things and ideas” (Straw 2002: 253). It is this unfolding that I propose to sketch here, though the scene I discuss is a transnational one, unfolding over far greater spaces than the scenes that Straw discusses. I shall also point to some of the itineraries traversed by people and ideas. As the scene ‘matures’ certain trajectories have become more common and facilitating institutions have arisen, leading me to argue that the formation of an ‘art world’ (see Becker 1982) may well be at hand. The myriad associations that connect musicians within this scene constitute a tightly-knit “small world” network. Even if two members of this scene (A and B) have yet to play music together, they are no more than two nodes apart (A has played with C who has played with D who has played with B). Space does not permit a full application of network theory here, but I would ask the reader to bear in mind that the rather different bands I shall present all exist within this small world as clusters that are far from hermetically sealed.

I was first drawn to study this phenomenon because of my interest in musical competence and how it is attained, deployed, and altered in interaction among musicians. Here we have situations in which musicians from starkly contrasting backgrounds come together to perform. They must figure out compatible ways to make music. Inevitably there are misunderstandings and incompatibilities, but in any successful band these are outweighed by the solutions that the musicians discover. The process of working things out can be arduous and time-consuming, resulting in development of a shared competence in addition to a shared musical repertoire and identity. This is one of the features that sets these bands apart from the formulaic approach of most Israeli rock and musika mizrahit bands, for instance (cf. Regev 1996). In a close study of the rehearsals of one band I found that the musical interaction was intimately linked to the social interaction of these Arabs and Jews who were working out how to communicate verbally, physically, emotionally, and musically all at once.

Negotiation of differing types and levels of competences lies at the heart of these encounters. In a book on musical competence and interaction (Brinner 1995) I point to numerous aspects of competence deserving of analytical attention. Competence involves not only ‘purely’ musical knowledge such as the application of harmonic or maqam theory or the technique required to play fast in precise ensemble coordination, but expectations about the nature of interaction and individual contributions to the overall process and product of performance. Here it will suffice to note some of the different types of knowledge that musicians bring to the table.

Performance conventions, a central component of musical competence, are not necessarily articulated explicitly. They are part of a set of practices, ideas, and material goods - such as instruments, recordings, and costumes- that are wielded by these musicians in pursuing their careers, whether it be continuing established modes of performance or forging new paths. Many of them are taken for granted, much as other conventionalized aspects of life are, a phenomenon that Pierre Bourdieu subsumed under the rubric habitus. This concept has been invoked by Israeli sociologist Motti Regev to explain the background for developments in Israeli popular music (1996).

It is precisely against some of those largely unquestioned understandings shaping mainstream popular music that the musicians in the “Israeli ethnic music” scene are reacting. Individually, they decry various aspects of commercialized popular music, its ‘cheapness,’ its perceived lack of complexity and skill, and so on. Not all of their complaints are established fact, of course, as Dardashti has shown (2001).

  Eize Min Olam.

Lyrics by Danny Shoshan, traditional Turkish melody sung by Zehava Ben.  (mp3 file)

Neither do all of them criticize to the same degree. In fact a few of these musicians work in commercially mainstream popular Israeli and Arab music to make a living, turning to the new, more esoteric ‘ethnic music’ endeavor for their artistic fulfillment. Musika mizrahit and contemporary Arab pop are particularly troubling to many of these musicians who feel that they mangle the nuances of Arab music and fuse it with elements of Western pop (such as harmony and instrumentation) in formulaic, aesthetically unsatisfactory ways.

Of course, these same musicians are also attempting a fusion of Middle Eastern musical practices with elements drawn from Euro-American musics, but they tend not to see this as a parallel effort. Be that as it may, the fusion of different musical resources and practices brings two or more radically different types of habitus into confrontation, exposing some implicit assumptions and requiring their modification and the creation of new ones.

It is this breaking down of barriers and bridging of differences that endows these bands with their socio-political transformative potential. As Deborah Wong has recently argued for Asian American Improvisation (2004: 288), I see in these endeavors musical process as a means of modeling social process. This is a distinctly different sort of self-exposure and opening up to the other from that which takes place, for instance, in Palestinian-Israeli dialog groups. I shall return to this point at the end of the article.

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