Old-New Songs: Israeli Music with Arabic Roots
Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti were superstars of Iraqi music in the 1930s and 1940s, when their songs beamed from radio stations in Baghdad, Beirut and Cairo. But with state-sanctioned anti-Semitism on the rise, the al-Kuwaiti brothers joined the mass exodus of Iraq’s Jews to Israel in 1951.
As the new nation forged a Hebrew-speaking society, there was little space for the music of immigrant communities. The al-Kuwaitis played at clubs and on Israel’s Arabic radio station, but they never again found a mass audience. Citing his disappointment, Daoud advised his children not to become musicians.
Nonetheless, Daoud’s namesake grandson, Dudu Tassa—born in 1977, a few months after his grandfather died—became one of Israel’s leading rock performers and composers. In 2009, half a dozen albums into his career, Tassa attended the dedication of Tel Aviv’s Al Kuwaiti Brothers Street, honoring his grandfather and great uncle. Two years later, he released an album of their songs, Dudu Tasa and The Kuwaitis, followed in 2015 by Ala Shawati. Both albums became hits in Israel and have been played throughout the Arab world as well.
Tassa is part of a trend of Israeli artists with family roots in the Arab world singing in Arabic. The newest stars of Israel’s Arabic-roots scene are the Haim sisters of A-Wa (pronounced Ay-wa, Arabic for yes), whose debut album Habib Galbi (Love of my Heart) launched in 2016. The three sisters, who grew up listening to Yemenite songs, wrap their enchanting harmonies in styles ranging from traditional and folk to Israeli pop and hip-hop.
Other artists of Yemenite descent include Shiran Karni and her band, Bint El Funk (Daughter of Funk); the jazz/avant garde Yemen Blues, led by composer Ravid Kahalani; and Liron Amram, whose first single is “A-Lail” (Tonight). Etti Levi is a leading Israeli figure of Moroccan music.
Arabic music has always been present on the Israeli airwaves and digital channels. In addition to the nation’s Arab population and the reach of radio stations from neighboring countries, Jewish artists often included Arabic lyrics or tracks in their mostly Hebrew albums. What’s different today is a larger-than-ever cadre of artists launching albums that are predominantly or entirely in Arabic and reaching a borderless audience of Hebrew and Arabic speakers.
Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti didn’t live to see Arabic music hit the Israeli mainstream, but their lyrics and compositions did.
Alan M. Tigay’s music reviews appear on his blog, www.worldlisteningpost.com.
Disc and Tracks
A-Wa, Habib Galbi
Habib Galbi (Love of My Heart)
Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitis, Ala Shawati (On the Banks of the Tigris)
Bint el Funk, Bint el Funk (Daughter of Funk)
Yemen Blues, Insaniya
Etti Levi, Marrakech