"My Jewish friends say that I am becoming `Ashkenazied' and laugh about the fact that I got a 98 on my five-unit matriculation test in Hebrew and failed my matriculation test in Arabic," says Bassam Beromi, the singer in Khalas, the only Arab rock band in Israel today.
Beromi, who speaks Hebrew fluently, dresses provocatively and from an early age has listened to Western rock and roll more than Arab music, does not see himself as "Ashkenazied." "This is an additional way to be an Arab in this country," he says. "An Arab with an open mind."
The band is also different from other Arab rock bands that played in the past. Khalas was formed in 1998, but is only now releasing its first album - "Ma'adash Fiha" (We're Fed Up). There are no darbukas or trills, and no attempt to combine East and West. Khalas sounds entirely like a Western rock band - except for the Arabic language.
Khalas was very influenced by Nirvana, Pearl Jam and heavy metal. The band reflects almost no influence of classical Arab music. From this perspective, it is very different and an exception in the Arab world. Instead of the customary use of literary Arabic, the band uses colloquial language - direct, brusque and sometimes even crude. They do not hesitate to mention sex and drugs, and are not afraid to criticize the Arab family, leaders and religious officials. Even in comparison to artists considered to be relatively permissive (such as the Lebanese singers Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wehbe and Ruby, who have adopted a more restrained style during the past two years), Khalas takes this one step further.
Life outside the palace
The few Arab bands that have created contemporary music in Israel combined Arab music and rock. The most important band until the breakthrough of Khalas was A-Shati, a band that helped pioneer Arab rock in Israel, playing in the early 1990s and disbanding in 1995. A-Shati broke new ground in Israeli Arab music, but did not create energetic rock and roll, bold and powerful, like Khalas.
"The slogan `Sex, drugs and rock and roll' is not tolerated in the Arab world," says Beromi. "Arab society, the overwhelming majority of which is Muslim, is still led by corrupt dictators who dictate what to do and what to hear. The Arab public is not exposed to rock because of censorship. For example, we sing the song `The king is naked,' which talks about the Arab countries, where the king lives in a palace and lacks nothing, while his people have nothing to eat. With a song like this, there's no way they'll publish an article about us in the entertainment newspapers in Jordan."
Khalas was started in 1998 by Beromi, the drummer Amir Ruby, and the guitarist Abed Hathot, who were then members of various metal bands. (The name "Khalas" (Enough) was chosen as "the No. 1 word of protest," the members of the band explain.) Soon they became known as "those musicians who make noise," says Joseph Atrash, the band's producer. By the year 2000, the composition of the band had changed. Ruby left the band to move to the United States and was replaced by Fadel Qandeel, and guitarist Tarek Shaban joined the band. During the same year, Atrash came aboard as producer, and he has been largely responsible for making the band more professional. The band members are in their twenties. All were born and still live in Acre, except for Beromi, who has moved to Ramat Gan, where he works in an advertising firm.
The band started performing more frequently, and was invited to appear in 2001 at Students' Day at the University of Haifa in front of 6,000 enthusiastic Arab students. During the same year, the band began to work on an album with the musical producer Danny Lipschitz ("Roster"). During the same year, when the group's first single ("Reaching Heaven") was sent to Arab radio stations in Israel, many people were surprised by the new format. "This was the first single of an Arab rock band ever to be released," says Atrash. "Until then, a few complete discs were released by Arab bands, but no singles. People asked me, `Why is the cover so thin? Why a complete disc with just one song?" Ultimately, the song "Reaching Heaven" was given considerable air time on Radio Shati and in 2002 was selected as the No. 1 song in the station's annual hit parade.
On Valentine's Day this year, the band released another single, "Ablick" (In Front of You). The song was played at many parties that day and aroused interest at the Shams and Al-Amal radio stations, and at the University of Haifa's "Voice of the Campus, FM106." The band held performances before Arab audiences and appeared before mixed crowds, including a gig at the Festival of the Dove and an appearance two weeks ago at the City Hall club in Haifa to celebrate the new album. Their performances are characterized by lots of energy, including throwing confetti and candy into the crowd, and turning the microphone over to the audience.
Whose leather pants are these?
The band's decision to ignore Arab music, in its customary form, is not a simple matter. Beromi's uncle is the singer and violinist Samir Shukri and his grandfather is Sudki Shukri, a well-known violinist, music teacher and one of the prominent figures in Arab music in Israel. "Even though I come from a musical family that has a strong Oriental bent, until age 14 I regarded Umm Kulthum as a fat woman - excuse the impression. From a young age, I went to concerts by Aviv Gefen, Berry Sakharov and `The Jews,' and I felt electricity in the air. I was androgynous, the only one to go around school with a pony tail and listen to Led Zeppelin and Doraz. Most of the students didn't even know who they were."
The members of his family, Beromi says, preferred that he would become a lawyer rather than a musician. The wife of Qandeel the drummer is a devout Muslim who wears a veil, but she supports her husband, even if she does not come to most of the performances because alcohol is sold at these events. The families of some of the band members sometimes have reservations about their musical activities, but Khalas has aroused interest in the Arab sector and the band members are familiar figures, starring in gossip columns in the Arabic entertainment press.
Khalas is getting positive responses from the music industry. The band was signed by the Israeli agent for EMI Music Publishing under the label Primary Music, and intensive efforts are underway to market their music abroad. Atrash recently met in Istanbul with representatives of EMI and the largest record company in Turkey, Muzikotek.
Four words in two hours
When Mohammed Abdel Wahab, one of the greatest classical Arab musicians, sought to hint about intimacy between a couple, he would do this indirectly, in literary language full of pathos. Not in the songs Khalas, which includes this line in the song "Where Have We Come To": "My hand fondles your breast." The song describes a stormy romance, and the opposition of the woman's family. The harsh song ends with the woman's brother murdering her in the name of "family honor."
As in this song, the texts in Khalas' album, which were mainly written by Beromi and Hathot, express criticism of Arab society. "Khalas says `khalas' (enough) to many phenomena in the [Arab] sector," Atrash says, including "the hierarchy in the Arab family and government, Arab fundamentalism and anti-Westernism, and people who make a monster of God and then are afraid of Him."
"Reaching Heaven," for example, echoes John Lennon's "Imagine," including the lines: "Imagine a world with no politicians .... Imagine a world without fathers who rape their children." The title song ("We're Fed Up") criticizes religious officials who rake in money.
The album is influenced by rock from the 1970s, grunge and heavy metal. (The band members claim to be the only Arab group in the work to record metal songs.) There are almost no signs of influence from the music of the 1990s and subsequent years. "There are more influences from the classical period in the album, because the Arab audience did not grow up on rock music," explains music producer Danny Lipschitz. "It's impossible to do something advanced from the 1990s or 2000s, like Prodigy or Lincoln Park before the audience is familiar with slightly more classic works, such as the Beatles, David Bowie or Ozzy Osbourne."
All of the songs on the album are original, except for the opening song "Inta `Umri," which was composed by Abdel Wahab and performed by Umm Kulthum. Khalas decided to do without the words and created a rock metal rendition in the classic tradition. This is their "biggest act of protest," according to the members of the band.
"Umm Kulthum was the opium of the masses. Four words that repeat themselves over the course of two hours, and all of Egypt comes to a halt," says Atrash. "This is precisely what Khalas is protesting. To open the album with a song in which the melody, the words and the performance are the antithesis of what we represent. Umm Kulthum lulled the crowd into `tarab' [rapture] - a type of complete inaction - while they listened. We made people move when they heard it."