Moussa, Israel Radio Arabic service
Zouzou Moussa, first violing player from the right, and the Israel Radio Arabic service's orchestra.
Text size

In 1956 Naim Rejwan, the bass player of the Israel Radio Arabic service's orchestra, heard a rumor that an excellent violinist from Egypt had arrived at the Mahane Yisrael transit camp for immigrants near Lod.

"We wanted the orchestra to grow and for that we needed more instrumentalists," relates Rejwan. "I went to see this violinist and heard him play. I recommended to the director of Israel Radio in Arabic that he bring him into the orchestra, but the director said, 'Impossible, there is no budget.' I told the director we needed musicians like him. Again he said there was no budget. So I said, 'Until there's a budget I will give up my own salary. Take it and give it to him.' He said, 'Wait a minute' - and half an hour later he came back to me and said, 'Fine, we'll bring him in.'"

And thus, according to Rejwan, Zouzou Moussa began to play in the radio orchestra, which had been founded as an ensemble of three instrumentalists in 1948 and expanded with the arrival of the wave of immigrants from Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s. Moussa, who died two weeks ago at the age of 83, played with the orchestra for 37 years, served as its first concertmaster and also managed it for more than 20 years. His name became synonymous with the music the group played, so much so that people called it "Zouzou Moussa's orchestra." The name did not do justice to reality, since Moussa may have been the first among equals (as he himself repeatedly stressed ), but he was a musician of the highest caliber who helped run the orchestra with a strong hand and unflagging initiative. Moreover, he made an important contribution to the long and frustrating process whereby Arabic music seeped into the Israeli cultural space and won, if disgracefully late, recognition as high art.

Moussa was born in Alexandria in 1928, and people who knew him relate that his father died on the same day. As a boy, he started playing wind instruments, but when his elder brother's music teacher by chance heard him playing violin, he was very impressed and Moussa switched. At the end of the 1940s, he joined the orchestra of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, a leading Egyptian composer, and later played in the orchestra of the great singer Abdel Halim Hafez.

"You can see him in the orchestra in at least two of Abdel Halim Hafez's films," says musician Yitzhak Aviezer, who composed many works for the Israel Radio Arabic service's orchestra. "With Abdel Wahab, for example, he performed the great work 'The Eternal River.' Simply to speak with Abdel Wahab was considered a great honor. And to play with him? Even more so."

In 1956, when the tension between Israel and Egypt increased, Moussa left Egypt. "Abdel Wahab really didn't want me to go," Moussa told Haaretz in an interview about 10 years ago. "He promised he would talk with [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser and ask him to allow me to stay. He was not the only one who wanted to intervene with the authorities [on my behalf], but I told them all it was too late because my mother and my four brothers were already in Israel, so what would I do there alone?"

Years later, legend has it, Nasser heard a recording of the Israel Radio orchestra playing a muwashah (strophic song ) better than their Egyptian counterparts. "I never heard that story," says Rejwan, "but it's true they really loved Moussa in Egypt."

Many excellent musicians who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries had to leave the world of music after they arrived, and make a living in other fields. The great oud player Yosef Yaakov, for example, worked for 20 years in a warehouse for tank parts before he became part of the Israel Radio Orchestra.

"But Zouzou was stubborn and persistent and there wasn't a chance he would leave music," says Ariel Cohen, a young ultra-Orthodox musician who worked and performed with Moussa toward the end of the violinist's life.

When Moussa joined the radio orchestra in 1956, most of its members were originally from Iraq. "He brought another flavor," says Aviezer. "We, who came from Baghdad, knew and played Egyptian music, which was predominant in all of the Middle East then, but there's a difference between a person who is familiar with music from hearing it and a person who knows the music from the inside. Zouzou knew it from the inside."

Moussa's manner of playing reflected an Egyptian musical tradition which, according to musician Yair Dalal, is different from the Iraqi tradition, which characterized the style of most of the members of the orchestra back then.

"If you listen to Zouzou play a taqsim [improvisation] and then you listen to one played by Daoud Akram or Saleh al-Kuwaiti [who both came from Baghdad, you will hear the differences," explains Dalal, who plays violin and oud, and composes. "The truncations are different, the glissando is different, the vibrato is different. The Iraqi playing is more pained, less sweet. It is penetrating, a bit stinging. The Egyptian playing is rounder. I sometimes envied Zouzou for this sweetness in his playing."

Eventually Moussa became first violinist, a position that traditionally involves some conducting.

"But in Arabic music you don't need a conductor like you do in Western [orchestral] music of the past centuries," explains Aviezer. "It is reminiscent of the way they performed in the West until the 17th century. There was no conductor and the first violinist served as one. He was in charge of the music."

"Zouzou had a quiet leadership ability," recalls Dalal, who knew Moussa well and says the fact that the radio ensemble was nicknamed "Zouzou Moussa's orchestra" was a tribute to his personality: "He wasn't a conductor who imposed his discipline, but rather he did everything with enviably pleasant courtesy. And it wasn't easy to deal with [musician] Yosef Shem Tov's grumbling or Salim al-Nur's pedantry and to see to it that there wouldn't be any quarrels. Zouzou, with his quiet charisma, knew how to do it."

Learning by rote

Moussa used to say that his fellow orchestra members had "a tape-recorder in their head": "They were wonderful musicians, but they didn't read music," says Aviezer. "Three of them were blind, but the main reason was because of the manner in which they worked: They played by ear. When I would bring in a new work I had written, I would play it for them on the oud and then a long process of learning by heart began, which could take up to half a year."

They would come to the Israel Radio studios every day, six days a week. At 10 A.M. they would start rehearsing and recording and at 1:30 P.M. they would finish. In the evenings they would play at events.

"Zouzou was very big with the Moroccans," remembers violinist Elias Zbeideh, a veteran member of the orchestra. Cohen notes that the reason Moussa was so familiar with Moroccan music, which is completely different from Arab music, is that he had Moroccan family roots.

At the end of the 1960s, in part at Moussa's initiative, the orchestra integrated into television broadcasts and eventually had a permanent slot on the program "Masa al-Hir." Many Israelis who had no experience of Arab culture thought this was a curiosity, and even scorned the group of musicians, who were elderly by then. Among them, the blind qanun player Avram Salman stood out (indeed, quite a lot of people thought he was Zouzou Moussa, though Salman says he'd never heard that before ).

Cohen notes, and rightly so, that alongside those who scorned the TV show were many for whom "Masa al-Hir" was a connection to the traditions they left behind when they immigrated to Israel.

"However," he says, "the treatment these amazing musicians received was unworthy and it continues to be unworthy. Did you know that at Israel Radio in Arabic they don't play the old recordings of the orchestra anymore? A few years ago, there was a weekly program, every Monday at 11:30 P.M., on which they would play the orchestra's recordings. As someone who, as a kid, admired those musicians, I would wait for it impatiently. But it isn't played any more, and this music, most of which in any case was erased because they would reuse the same tapes over and over again [at the station], is vanishing."

Cohen says that the musicians in the orchestra, Moussa among them, were sometimes treated unfairly, but even if they felt that way they were not eager to say so.

"I'll tell you [of a time] when there was a sense of being discriminated against," says Rejwan, who served as the head of the musicians' union. "Once, the instrumentalists of the Israel Broadcasting Authority's symphony orchestra were given a certain pay grade. We thought we deserved the same grade, but the Israel Radio's Arabic management compromised on a lower one. After we waged a big war, we won and got the same pay grade. After that there weren't any more outcries."

Sanderson's 'Octopus'

The orchestra concentrated naturally on music from the Arab world and on works by Israeli composers who came from a tradition of Arabic music, but Moussa himself promoted openness and brought in more contemporary works. The best example of this is Danny Sanderson's "The Left-Handed Octopus."

"I think it was in 1971," recalls popular singer-songwriter Sanderson, who at that time was a demobilized soldier and a member of the Schnitzelim band. (Kaveret was founded later .)

"I came to Israel Radio and all of a sudden I heard the sound of Arabic music - which very much attracted me at that time - coming from one of the shacks [where the radio was housed] there. In weird ways it was very similar in my mind to rock 'n' roll and especially the blues. So I knocked on the door of the shack and when I went in I saw 20 men playing, with Zouzou leading. I told him I had written a piece influenced by Arabic music and he said, 'Bring a sketch.' That shows what an open person he was. No one knew me back then. He could have thrown me out the door."

Moussa was impressed by "The Left-Handed Octopus," and the orchestra recorded it, initially with the Schnitzelim and two years later with Kaveret. Were the other musicians in the orchestra impressed as he was, we ask.

"I think they mainly got a kick out of it," says Sanderson, "out of the fact that a red-headed Ashkenazi was standing there who looked like he'd fallen from another planet."

In the mid-1980s the orchestra began to break up. Officially it still existed, but some of the musicians left, new musicians were not hired to replace them and its activity dwindled.

But Moussa did not stop working. He continued to perform and to teach young musicians, mostly from the ultra-Orthodox sector; he had by then begun to be religiously observant thanks to the influence of this third wife, Aida Alfasi (his second wife was actress and singer Lilith Nagar; they had no children ). There were also many young liturgical singers who sought him out for help.

"I met him when I was 15 years old," relates Cohen. "He was over 70, after a glorious career, but he spoke to me as an equal - as though the two of us had played together in Abdel Wahab's orchestra."

"After Zouzou became religiously observant, he became a superstar among the Orthodox audience," adds Dalal. "The moment Zouzou began wearing a skullcap the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi audience started seeing him as one of their own. To this must be added the fact that most of the piyyutim [liturgical songs ] have Egyptian melodies, and Zouzou was the symbol of the Egyptian tradition. For the ultra-Orthodox audience his death is a big loss."

Two months ago another member of the same Israel Radio orchestra, Elias Shahsha, passed away at the age of 89. "His greatness was in performance. He was a magnificent violinist, oud player and singer," says Dalal of Shasha. "He could pick up the oud at 7 in the evening and play until 4 in the morning."

Unlike Shasha, who was quite unknown outside the circle of lovers of Arabic music, at his death Zouzou Moussa did attract a certain amount of media coverage. However, Cohen, who was one of the liturgical singers whom Moussa had instructed and attended his funeral, was disappointed about the meager number of mourners there.

"He was a great musician and many more people should have been accompanying him to his final resting place," Cohen observes. "He should have had a funeral like Ehud Manor's, like Uzi Hitman's. Never mind that there was no television there. There wasn't even a single representative of the State of Israel. The man gave 40 years of his life to Israel Radio and the state couldn't send even a single person to his funeral. In my opinion, this is a shame and a disgrace."