On a cold Saturday evening in January, the Israeli DJ, Gal Kadan gives a talk on Mizrahi music (Oriental Jewish music) at Lefter Records, a basement record shop in Kreuzberg. Around him, a mixed Israeli-German crowd has gathered to listen to Gal talk about the gradual rise of Mizrahi music in Israel, from sidelined musical style to hot in-demand sound.
Mizrahi literally means “of the East” in Hebrew and refers to Jews from the Middle East and north Africa, who have traditionally played an accessory role to European Ashkenazi Jews, who have more or less set the tone in Israel.
Gal himself says that he is not of Mizrahi, but rather of Ashkenazi roots, his family coming from eastern Europe and the Balkans.
He first got his start as a Balkan DJ in Israel. Later he DJed at such venues as the famous Anna Loulou, which was a mixed ownership Palestinian-Israeli bar in Jaffa, whose closure last year was much lamented.
“I think we were trying to find a way for everyone to party together,” says Gal. “We were playing a very mixed range of music with a very strong Middle Eastern accent. It was both Arabic music and Israeli music, Palestinian music specifically.”
Tonight Gal is standing over a set of turntables, wearing a t-shirt that says, “Arabs do it Better” (giving a nod to the popular Arabic Berlin party line). He plays brief snippets of tracks by Jo Amor, Aris San, Zohar Argov, Omer Adam, Eyal Golan… artists belonging to the Mizrahi category.
At the end of his talk, Gal refers to hip avant-garde Tel Aviv hybrid acts like Boom Pam, A-WA and Balkan Beat Box, who draw inspiration from Mizrahi music and who in turn have helped to fuel a global trend in Oriental beats, palpable on the dance floors of Paris, London and Berlin.
“I think that Berlin is quite behind on the rest of Europe in that sense,” Gal told me over at a Turkish café in Schöneberg recently.
“In France, in Switzerland, in Belgium, in some parts of Holland it has been going on for some time now. And actually, I was surprised to find the Berlin club scene musically quite conservative – basically only house and techno.”
Ever since Syrian refugees started pouring into Europe beginning with the outset of the civil war in 2011, the Oriental touch has become more pronounced among liberal, globally-minded European DJs. At the same time critics have accused some of these well-meaning DJs of cultural appropriation. Gal, is also aware of pitfalls of DJing Arab music as a non-Arab.
“I think that in some sense these DJs are failing to see the ownership they are taking of other cultures, because their ability to understand other cultures than this culture is obviously limited if you don’t speak the language, if you don’t grow up with it. You can totally enjoy it, process it, create within that sphere, but you also have to recognize your perspective, your outside perspective.”
“Music can do anything,” continues Gal. “It can build bridges, it can destroy bridges. Music can oppress, it can liberate. Music as a thing has no value. It’s the value that we put into it. Music has been used in propaganda and in liberation. It’s just like film, any kind of art. It’s all about how you employ music.”
With the rise of Oriental music on global dance floors comes a kind of cringy playing with ethnic stereotypes, belly dancers, party-goers donning turbans and fez and flyers featuring cliché imagery, like camels.
There is also a more subtle kind of racism at work in non-Arab Arabic music DJs and aficionados who seek out only Oriental sounds that are low-tech and analogue – a new spin on the old “noble savage” routine.
“Once it starts to get too close to normal Western music then people lose interest in it,” says Gal. “It has to stay exotic, inaccessible, rare, only on vinyl. Only on tape. Only on a synthesizer built from old calculators that the guy found in a second-hand market. It has to stay poor. The production has to sound poor. From cassettes, from these put-together instruments. Why are we only enjoying it when it is more primitive than what we are used to, more rudimental?”
Sometimes it’s not only non-Arabs who pander to Arabic stereotypes, but Arabs themselves. Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, who takes the stage dressed in jeballah and Arabic headgear, is a good example.
“If he was looking like a rock star then many people would react differently about it,” says Gal, stressing that part of Souleyman’s cachet among his European hipster fans, is his clichéd Arabic look.
“I think that we want to have people in that category. And a lot of people don’t want to see these people mixed into our normal modus. Do you want to keep this divide? That is what Edward Said said in Orientalism about structures that keep the division between East and West alive. And what I am saying is that we should break this divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.”
Israelis are themselves in a particularly tricky bind when they play Arabic music. On the one hand there are the Mizrahi Jews, for many of whom Arabic music is as natural as mother’s milk. But there is also the oppression of Palestinians to take into consideration.
“If a German or European or French or a British guy has to confront their colonialist past in relation to the music they play, then in Israel it is not so much in the past,” says Gal. “An Israeli artist has to deal with his present.”
In the end Gal as a non-Arab, non-Mizrahi Dj playing Arabic music has had to deal with his own personal identity issues.
“I don’t own the European culture so much. I definitely don’t own Middle Eastern culture so much. I’m stuck in between, but I have this kind of observation point. And that’s what drove me now to my new project about white people playing Arabic music: Awesome Orientalists from Europa.
“I’m hunting for those records that try to give a nod to Arabic music in an exotic way. Like, there are so many artists here that are sampling Arabic tunes and employing Arabic instruments to give their music a flavor of exoticism, and I’m looking for those specific tracks, reissuing, reediting, reusing them to try to get people to think about why are we so fascinated by this thing? What is our fascination? Why are we drawn to this? What makes it so sexy? Or mystic.”
Sometimes, says Gal, a house or techno track will feature an Indian tune, a call to prayer, the soulful sound of the ney, for instance, evoking feelings of mysticism, while the music may be entirely secular or spiritually neutral. Thus, despite the feel-good vibe, listeners and audience members are ascribing a non-existent quality to a sound or a people that in essence adheres to old categories.
“And,” says Gal, “that’s Orientalism.”
By Robert Rigney