His Political Tune Has Changed, but Ariel Zilber's Melody Remains Timeless

I never imagined that I would be caught singing the words to 'ein od milvado' at the top of my lungs, but that's exactly what happened.

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Ariel Zilber will be 70 years old in September. There’s nothing that contemporary Israeli culture likes more than celebrating the “round” birthdays of its great artists, and nobody will deny that Zilber is a great musician, but it looks as though his upcoming birthday celebrations are not going to be a big draw.

The Zilber legacy is celebrated occasionally, for example in the recent tribute to him by the rock band Nikmat Hatraktor − but in general, the singer and his work ‏(principally that of the last decade‏) have been ignored since he began to spout his philosophy advocating the “transfer” of Israeli Arab citizens.

Zilber’s new album, “Ha’atalef Ve’hatarnigol” ‏(“The Bat and the Rooster”‏), which was released before Passover, as if it were a pleasant, consensual mainstream Israeli CD, is not being received with great enthusiasm. Most critics, for example, seem to be maintaining their right to remain silent. And unjustifiably − for two reasons.

The first reason is that “The Bat and the Rooster” makes it clear that if Zilber has “lost it” when it comes to his statements on current events, he hasn’t lost it when it comes to music. The second is that this album is not political. It’s very religious, but it’s not political. Or almost not political. The philosophy it expresses, with the exception of one song, should not interfere with enjoyment of the music, under the assumption that Zilber has not forgotten how to turn the brilliant and mischievous spark that still is inside him into a good musical composition.

Before examining whether this assumption holds, we have to talk about the spark. It is ignited the second the album begins. What fun it is to listen to. You press “play” and immediately you hear Zilber’s beloved musical language. Zilber takes the short psalm “Simchu Ba’shem” ‏(“Be Happy in the Lord” − “Many are the sorrows of the wicked; but he that trusteth in the Lord, mercy compasseth him about,” Psalm 32:10‏) and sets it to music in such a way that, on the one hand, is clearly not standard ‏(the meter is not logical, the pronunciation of the words is almost impossible‏), and one the other hand is wonderfully musical.

The smile aroused by this song actually turns into laughter at the beginning of the second track, “Ein Od Milvado” ‏(“There is None Other Than He”‏). And that’s not only the name of the song, it’s the entire text. Three words! But Zilber concocts an entire carnival from them. He begins with a wild instrumental introduction that comes straight from his glory days, in the 1970s. After that he sings ‏(together with a men’s choir‏) the mantra “There is none, none other than he,” and then adds a typical rooster’s cry to it. I have never imagined that I would be caught singing the words “ein od milvado” at the top of my lungs, but that’s what happened each time I listened to this song.

If we’re already talking about a rooster, the third song on the CD is the title track, “The Bat and the Rooster,” and it also retains the amusing momentum with a nice tale by Zilber about the fact that faith does not belong only to the righteous. But then, in the fourth song, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh enters the picture, and things start to go awry.

American-born Ginsburgh is one of the extremist settler rabbis. Among other things he wrote the brochure “Baruch Hagever,” which justified the massacre of Arabs by Baruch Goldstein in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. But the rabbi’s political and moral opinions are not relevant to his participation in “The Bat and the Rooster.” The only text that he contributed to the album is the short and harmless “Tit’orer” ‏(“Wake Up” − as in, “Wake up, wake up / Because you are in great darkness”‏).

The problem is the four melodies that Ginsburgh contributed to the album, almost half of the tracks on “The Bat and the Rooster.” They may sound acceptable and even beautiful to people who like Hasidic music. To me they sounded simplistic, boring and tiresome, especially in songs such as “Hashem Melekh” ‏(“God is King”‏), which lasts for five and a half minutes, and “Matir Asurim” ‏(“He Who Releases Prisoners”‏), which is more than seven minutes long.

I suspect that “Hashem Melekh” will be the song where Zilber’s CD will lose the few secular people who bother to listen to it. The combination of Ginsburgh’s banal melody and the text that demands our people’s exclusive right to the land ‏(“And Abraham thought about Ishmael son of Hagar − and God explained that he was not the chosen one / And Abraham asked, What does that mean? And Ishmael was sent to another country / And drew a map for himself with the information: From the River of Egypt to the River Prat”‏) diverts the entire CD to a path that is totally different from that set out by the first three lovely songs.

Later there are another two very short and cheerful melodies by Zilber, and another beautiful track concludes the album, but the heavy presence of Ginsburgh’s melodies ‏(some of which have inferior Hasidic trance arrangements‏) extinguishes the initial spark of the album. It’s not Zilber, but his album, that loses it.Ariel Zilber will be 70 years old in September. There’s nothing that contemporary Israeli culture likes more than celebrating the “round” birthdays of its great artists, and nobody will deny that Zilber is a great musician, but it looks as though his upcoming birthday celebrations are not going to be a big draw.

Ariel Zilber during a recent performance in Jerusalem. His new CD, below, is not political. It's very religious, but it's not political. Or almost political.Credit: Emil Salman
Zilber's first, eponymous album, from 1976.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Zilber's new CD is not political. It's very religious, but it's not political. Or almost political.Credit: Emil Salman

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