Mediterranean Israeli Music and the Politics of the Aesthetic. Amy Horowitz. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. xvii+251 pp. (+ 19 songs on CD). ISBN 978-0-8143-3465-2

Reviewed by Motti RegevMediterranean Israeli Music and the Politics of the Aesthetic

Musiqa mizrahit, aka Israeli Mediterranean Music, is a category of popular music mostly known for its strong Middle Eastern and Greek tinges. It has been at the center of Israeli public discourse on popular music since the late 1970s. By 2010, the leading theme of this discourse is the “triumph” of the genre in the field of Israeli popular music. With prominent performers such as Sarit Hadad, Eyal Golan, Kobi Peretz, Moshe Peretz, Shlomi Shabat, Lior Narkis and others filling up the largest music venues in Israel, leading the sale charts and ruling the radio airwaves, Israeli Mediterranean Music is by 2010 the “mainstream” of Israeli popular music. Throughout its history, speakers for Israeli Mediterranean Music have insisted, against their marginalization, that this genre is the “true” Israeli authentic popular music, the one that should be at center stage of Israeli culture. Given the genre’s success in the 1990s and the 2000s, Edwin Seroussi and myself concluded some years ago that “the nationalist impetus that underlined musiqa mizrahit for decades has achieved its own self-declared goal of both bringing musiqa mizrahit into the mainstream of Israeli popular music and of affecting the sounds of all popular music in Israel.”[1]

This opening should serve as hindsight to Amy Horowitz’s book about the musiqa mizrahit. Given its inclusive title, one would expect this book to be a scholarly study of the process that took musica mizrahit from its beginnings in the Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Kerem ha-Teymanim and Ha-Tikva in the 1970s, through the controversies surrounding its artistic and cultural value in the 1980s, to the gradual shift of its status in the 1990s, up to its thriving success in the new century. This book’s undertaking however is quite modest: it depicts the voices and meanings of musiqa mizrahit in the years of its ascendance to becoming a prominent, not yet legitimate force in Israeli popular music – the 1980s and early 1990s. Limiting herself to this period, Amy Horowitz’s book reads like a postcard from the past. Based on her extensive ethnographic work, and written for the most part in the present tense, the book seems to be combating an already won battle. The underlying argument threading throughout the book targets prevailing notions about Mediterranean Music when it was still marginal and unwelcomed on the radio. Against dominant cultural forces that perceived musiqa mizrahit as a single, relatively monolithic musical idiom, the book argues that it is multivocal, consisting of a rich and diverse spectrum of styles. Against the downgrading of Israeli Mediterranean music and its exclusion from the media, on the grounds that it does not meet the standards of modern popular music, Horowitz’s analysis exposes the contemporariness of the music: its modernity. By 2010, however, the stylistic diversity of musiqa mizrahit is hardly disputed by anyone in the field, and its presence in all media channels in Israel is anything but excluded or marginalized. The changes in the field, in other words, render Horowitz’s argument obsolete.

The contribution of this book to the scholarly knowledge about popular music in Israel can be found therefore not in its arguments and theoretical framework, but in its ethnography: in its empirical aspects and their interpretations. The book consists of seven chapters. Four of them, chapters 3-6, directly discuss and analyze Israeli Mediterranean music. Horowitz nicely depicts here in some detail the ideological discourse, the claims and the feelings of the producers and musicians of musiqa mizrahit during the 1980s. She also does a fine job in scrutinizing sounds, lyrics and photographs for the meanings they carried at the time. These chapters faithfully reconstruct the cultural setting that eventually paved the way for shifting the position of Mediterranean Music in the field. Chapter 3 discusses the emergence of the genre, and surveys some of its major 1970s and 1980s musicians, most notably Daklon. It sets the analytical tone that accentuates the hybrid nature of the music, its stylistic diversity, and the variety of sources from which its creators drew their influences and inspiration. Chapters 4 and 5 are dedicated to singer Zohar Argov. Examining his career and its posthumous consecration, these are the best chapters in the book. Well researched, the chapters document Argov’s life and music, as well as their impact on Israeli culture. Horowitz keeps a reserved and balanced perspective here, and is quite precise in her analysis of what Argov’s meant in 1980s Israel:

In giving vocal expression to his community’s culture and feelings, Argov challenged the very fabric of Israeli society. He battled to win space in a seemingly impenetrable system that considered his style aesthetically unappealing and politically unacceptable. He struggled to win attention for himself and those groups like him for which cultural blending was the natural extension of multivocal selfhood. (103)

Another prominent voice of Israeli Mediterranean music, frequently quoted and referred to in the book, is that of Avihu Medina. A major composer, performer and influential spokesman for the genre during these formative years, his perceptions are largely quoted and interpreted at various points:

His comparison between fake and real flowers has less to do with issues of hybridization than with the question of who speaks for Israeliness: who gets to choose which kinds of foreign music become officially sanctioned and which remain outside mainstream Israeli sound…. Borrowing music is not only acceptable, but laudable when it involves true appreciation of and credit to the source of the inspiration, whether it is Japanese, Greek, Yemenite, or, for that matter, European. (79)

Medina’s perceptions seem to have had a strong impact on Horowitz’s own views and interpretations. This becomes apparent in her reading of Zehava Ben’s (early) career in chapter 6. The chapter revolves around Ben’s reclaiming of her Arab-Moroccan roots as a legitimate component of her Israeliness, best exemplified in her recording of Umm Kulthum’s “Enta Omry” and other Arab songs: “With these Arab CDs and live performances of Arab songs, Ben defied single-voiced categorizations and claimed conflictual identities and multiple indigeneities” (144).

For all its efforts to avoid romanticism and glorification, the book in the end offers a slightly overstated optimistic reading of Israeli Mediterranean music. Emphasizing the supposed counter-hegemonic aspects of the genre, and pointing to its hidden promise at being a bridge between Arabs and Jews, the book hardly discusses the nationalism of the lyrics, and the conservative, pleasing nature of its aesthetics.

[1] Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi, Popular Music and National Culture in Israel. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 235.

Motti Regev, Department of Sociology, Open University of Israel