Amir Benayoun: A Society Divided, Even in Music

One doesn’t have to do very much to uncover the deep chasms in Israeli society, as I recently found out when I purchased a new compact disc. It wasn’t a standard purchase, but the purchase by an Ashkenazi Jew (i.e., one of European origins) of a CD by a Sephardi/Mizrachi Jew (i.e., of North African or Middle Eastern descent).

About a month ago, I had fallen asleep during the Champions League highlights (probably another win for Manchester United in the 19th minute of injury time), only to be awoken by a divine voice passionately exclaiming the most powerful of lyrics, in a live studio performance.

Now, good music is good music. Or so you’d think. But when I asked for the new Amir Benayoun CD in the Carmel Market, the following Friday morning, I was met with quizzical looks by the Mizrachi stall owner: “What would you be wanting with that?!”

And the bemusement has come from my ‘side’ too. One friend said that she would rather get out of my car, during a recent trip to Jerusalem, than be subjected to Mizrachi music, which she associates with “everything bad in Israeli society”, and whose proponents, she claims, are a bunch of petty criminals and drug addicts.

amir-benayoun2Amir Benayoun, I understand, also has his past. But he has found God. And the guy is not just good, in my opinion, but a phenomenon – a cross, if you like, between Shlomo Carlebach and (a thinking man’s) Eyal Golan. Check him out on YouTube. His new album, Omed Ba’sha’ar (“Standing at the Gate”), is simply stunning and the best I have heard in recent years, Israeli or otherwise. It has much of the passion and spirituality of Dylan’s ‘born again’ albums, Slow Train Coming and Saved (and there is no higher praise than that).

And Benayoun is not scared of tackling the issues. The track, Loh Kechol, Loh Lavan (“Not Blue, Nor White” [referring to the colours of the Israeli flag]) criticises, inter alia, the government’s treatment of Holocaust survivors, its indifference to the bombardment from Gaza of Sderot, and dares even do the unthinkable here – criticise assassinated Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who it brands “an arrogant drunk”.

Neither is Benayoun scared of tackling the music industry. Fed up with being robbed, he has set up a private label to manufacture and distribute his music.

Another friend, whose opinion on all matters cultural I value, admits, with discernible reluctance, that Benayoun is talented. But he has a “problem” with him being, since his ‘conversion’, “too right-wing”.

“If you were not brought up here, you just can’t understand,” my car friend, perhaps somewhat ashamed by her own prejudices, attempts to explain. If it means that I am free of them, then perhaps growing up in Hendon, rather than in Israel, was not altogether a bad thing.


One response to “Amir Benayoun: A Society Divided, Even in Music

  1. Hi Mike,

    Actually, I think that Amir Benayoun is more “acceptable” to many Ashkenazim than many of the more hard-core Mizrahi singers who are extremely popular among “the other half”. Benayoun does fit into the singer-songwriter ideal of Western pop, and his lyrics and music are often quite rockinfluenced, introvert and “poetic”…more so than, let’s say, Eyal Golan’s or Sarit Hadad’s. I’m sure that you would have had even stronger reactions if you had played a CD with Itzik Kalah or Ofer Levy, who both perform unadultered Middle Eastern music, often covers of Turkish or Arabic hits.

    As for myself, I think that your buddies are missing a lot of great music and singing-in fact, as a fan of Mediterranean (Greek-Turkish) and Middle Eastern music, I’d say that Israeli Mizrachim have some of the best vocalists in the Middle Eastern style.

    Itzik Kalah:

    Ofer Levy:

    Or, why not, Eli Luzon:

    If you like Benayoun, you should check Emil Zrihan and Shimon Bouskila (more known as a songwriter, but also fine singer) both proud “Marokaim”, just like Benayoun:

    (a classic “piout” composed by Acher Mizrachi)

    Best, Eva

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