Zohar Argov's Flower That Launched a Million Cassettes

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

"I remember I sat here and wrote the words," says Avihu Medina, pointing to one of the corners of his backyard in Petah Tikva. "After I finished writing, I thought about what to call the song, and then the neighbor's daughter came over. She was maybe 16 years old. I gave her the text and said: 'Read it and tell me what I should call the song.' She read it and immediately said 'Haperakh Begani' [The Flower in My Garden]."

Medina himself was 16 years old, maybe younger, when the actual story of unrequited love that is described in the song took place. It happened on Kibbutz Kisufim, where Medina, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1948, lived as an "outside child" between the ages of 14 and 18. The girl whom he loved lived in the room next to his.

Zohar Argov at the 1982 festival.Credit: Elitzur Reuveni

"When I knew she was in the room I would take my guitar and begin to sing and play. She loved music, and that was my way of trying to get close to her. I would bother her all the time, trying to get close to her, but I didn't understand the rules of the game between boys and girls. I didn't interpret her reactions correctly."

Can he reveal the identity of the girl? "I prefer not to," the singer-songwriter replies. "She died of cancer two years ago. She was married to my adoptive [kibbutz] brother."

The wound was particularly painful because a few years after young Medina was scorched by the fire of love, the girl revealed to him that she had also been in love with him. "We were already soldiers," he says. "I went to the pilots' training course and afterward to the Armored Corps. And she went to the Nahal Brigade and served at Bardawil [in northern Sinai]. One day I went to visit her entire group there. I asked where she was and they told me she was in the watchtower. I went to the watchtower, met with her, and after her shift we went to a party together. That was the first time I danced with her. While we were dancing I noticed that her legs were trembling. I asked her 'Are you cold?' She said 'No.' I said to her, 'Do you know how much I once loved you?' And she said 'It was mutual.'

"I was in shock. I didn't know how to react. It turned out that she had been in love just like me, but she didn't know how to show it. I returned to my base in shock, and the entire way I said to myself 'Stupid, stupid, stupid.' Like someone who was gambling in a casino and lost all his money. I didn't forget her. She was on my mind all the time. Even today, two years after her death."

Almost 20 years passed until Medina bared his soul, and the unrequited love story actually became a song, for which he wrote both lyrics and music.

"I'll tell you exactly how old I was when I wrote 'The Flower in My Garden,'" he says. "I was 34. That was the point in my life when I had already finished my obligations. I was in good shape financially. I already lived in this house, I already had two daughters. I had a diamond polishing business. I employed 12 workers and earned enough money to pay back my mortgage. In a sense I had made it. And you know what, when you become free and are done with the urgent problems in your life - you begin to look back and think about all the things you were unable to achieve."

"The Flower in My Garden" is written in language that is more like the Song of Songs than the Hebrew of Israeli pop. Why did you choose to write it that way?

"I don't think it was unusual at the time. The Hebrew on which my generation grew up was much more correct, and used many more metaphors, than today's Hebrew. Much closer to the Song of Songs. And the atmosphere was also entirely different. There was a desire to establish the State of Israel and its culture on the basis of Jewish sources. Only at a later stage did we begin to feel more confident, and then we let go and started playing around with street language."

And still, people your age in the more rock-oriented wing of Israeli music spoke an entirely different language. Shalom Hanoch and Danny Sanderson wouldn't have written "because you were the apple of my eye, every day, every night."

"Don't forget I came from a religious home, which the 'songwriters of Israeli rock' didn't have. Although I passed through the kibbutz, for me it's all combined: the things I absorbed in the religious world and the things I absorbed in the secular world. I think that the sum total is 'The Flower in My Garden.'"

When the song originally emerged from Medina's garden, it had four stanzas, one more than in the version that won Zohar Argov first place at the Mizrahi song festival in 1982 (officially called Lamnatzeah Shir Mizmor, when it began in 1971 ), exactly 30 years ago. "At the festival they removed one stanza because the song was too long," says Medina.

Medina wrote the melody to "The Flower in My Garden" before he wrote the words, and he says it was tailored to the requirements of the competition.

The cover of the album 'As of Today'

"I was quite an expert at writing winning songs for the festival," recalls Medina. "I had 11 wins in 10 years. I was in first place four times, third place five times, and I think second place twice. I knew that there was a formula that appealed to the audience, and I went with that.

"The truth is that at first 'The Flower in My Garden' had a Yemenite rhythm," continues Medina, "but then I was with [guitarist and composer Moshe] Ben Mush, and he said 'Why are you going back to the Yemenite rhythm again? Let's change the rhythm of the song.' He suggested a different one, and I liked it because it was more like flamenco, so we opted for a more Spanish style, which was emphasized even further in the arrangement by Nansi [Brandes, a musician and composer]. I think that this combination of Yemenite and Spanish was one of the things that turned 'The Flower in My Garden' into such a big hit.

"The song encompassed so many musical nuances from different places that everyone felt it belonged to him. Some felt connected to the beat, some to the flamenco, some to the Yemenite chorus. And when it's done well and properly, with a good singer, with good accompaniment that serves the music, with trumpets that don't exist in Mizrahi music - it's as though the Mizrahi music has become somewhat Westernized."

Although Zohar's voice reflected uncompromising Mizrahi qualities, not soft and not sweet. Hard core.

"You've now said two contradictory things. Mizrahi isn't hard core. Mizrahi is caressing, soft, rolling, curving in circles, not in hard turns. There's no syncopation in Mizrahi music. That exists only in Western music. And in 'The Flower in My Garden,' there is syncopation, because of Nansi's arrangement. In short, it's the kind of song that grabbed everyone because everyone heard in it something that was to his taste."

Zohar demurs

There was one person who found "The Flower in My Garden" not to his taste: Zohar Argov. Argov didn't like the song when Medina played it for him, and wanted to submit another number to the festival, called "Shir Prati" (A Private Song ). The songs that participated in the competition were chosen from among a large number submitted every year to Yosef Ben Yisrael, who was in charge of the event on behalf of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

"He played that song to me," Medina continues, "and I told him 'It's a pretty song, but not for the festival. For the festival you have to write music for the festival. Do you want to win or just participate?' Zohar said: You know what, I'll record 'A Private Song' and you'll record 'The Flower in My Garden' yourself, and we'll see who's accepted to the festival."

Zohar Argov was already a familiar and successful singer on the so-called "cassette music" scene. The Reuveni brothers, Meir and Asher, who were record producers, had signed him up in the late 1970s, on the recommendation of guitarist Yehuda Keisar. Meir Reuveni says that when Argov played the cassette he had recorded with Keisar, "20 to 30 seconds were enough for me to know. The moment I heard the first 'la la la' - I told Zohar 'You can stop the tape. I don't have to hear any more. Here's the contract.'

"During that period I managed a lot of successful singers, but I kept asking 'Where's the star? Where's the star?' After Zohar played his cassette for me, I called my brother and said, 'You remember that I talked about a singer who would bring about a revolution? You remember I said that some day he would come? So he's come."

The Reuveni brothers put Argov's first cassette on the market; it was recorded at the Barvaz Club in Jaffa with inferior equipment.

"I decided to make 10,000 cassettes, a very respectable number, and waited to see what would happen," says Reuveni. "After a week, my brothers started to tease me. They said 'We're in trouble, we're stuck with 10,000 cassettes that nobody wants.' I told them: 'Be patient. This will be the singer. It's etched in stone.'

"Another two to three weeks passed, and suddenly we begin to get phone calls from stores: 'Send us 20 cassettes, 50 cassettes, 100 cassettes, 200, 500.' It reached a point where there was a demand for 5,000 cassettes a day, and I couldn't produce such quantities. I found someone in Ramat Chen to duplicate the cassettes, and I duplicated them in my place above the store in the Hatikva neighborhood, and I still couldn't keep up."

And that happened almost without the cassette being played on the radio - Army Radio and Israel Radio.

Meir Reuveni: "When I came to Israel Radio and asked why they weren't playing Zohar, they told me: 'It's of low quality.' So I grabbled one of the broadcasters and asked him 'Do you like Chinese music?' He said 'No, what do I have to do with Chinese music?' So I said, 'But a billion Chinese like Chinese music and a billion Chinese aren't mistaken. Who are you to decide for them?'"

"Shir Prati," the song that Argov preferred to "The Flower in My Garden," failed to pass Yosef Ben Yisrael's selection, but Ben Yisrael suggested to Argov that he choose from among three other songs. Medina for his part submitted "The Flower in My Garden" and "Halomot" (Dreams ). At first they informed him that only "Halomot" had been accepted to the festival, but later on he heard "The Flower in My Garden" had been accepted too, and that the festival director was planning to give it to singer Aliza Azikri.

Medina didn't want Azikri to sing it, so he offered it to singer Shimi Tavori. "Shimi said 'Great song,'" says Medina, "but he didn't want to compete in the festival. He had already won several times and felt that the festival was beneath him. But he went to Zohar and told him, 'Listen, this is a winning song. If you don't take it you're a fool.' And only then was Zohar convinced."

Medina says that, "I wrote that song for him, for the color of his voice, for his tones, for his soul. I knew he would give it a good rendition, although he didn't sing in that style. But I heard him singing a Spanish song ... and noticed he had the Spanish trill in his voice."

Nansi Brandes talks about the musical arrangement that made him a part of Israeli musical history. "In Romania I had been a kind of John Lennon of Romanian rock," says Brandes. "I had a metal-rock-avant-garde band, something very sophisticated. Today they perform in stadiums, you can see it on YouTube. Along with the rock 'n' roll, I had another title as conductor of the symphony orchestra, and aside from that I was very connected to Balkan music. Those three elements - rock, classical and Balkan - that's what's in the arrangement of 'The Flower in My Garden.'"

In the late 1970s, shortly after immigrating to Israel, Nansi Brandes played the keyboard in Shimi Tavori's band. Asher Reuveni, Tavori's impresario, was impressed with his talents, and entrusted Brandes with the arrangement of "Moshe," the song with which Tavori won the 1979 Mizrahi song festival. When Zohar Argov agreed to sing "The Flower in My Garden" at the 1982 festival, the Reuveni brothers gave Brandes the job of arranging the song.

"The funny thing is that I didn't even know who Zohar Argov was," says Brandes today. "One morning Reuveni calls and says, 'Nansi, two guys will be coming to you, treat them nicely.' I was living in Bat Yam at the time. Not the safest place in the world, and these guys who looked like two 'ravens' rang the doorbell. Zohar and Avihu.

"So the two enter and Avihu says 'Nansi, this is the song, Zohar wants us to open with a mawal [an introductory section with trills in Arab vocal music]." I barely knew Hebrew, I was sure he meant malawah [a Yemenite fried bread]. I said, 'Guys, if you want to eat there's a Turkish restaurant downstairs.' Then he asked me to bring him a pot. Did I know that for Yemenites, a pot is a musical instrument? I thought they wanted to cook.

"In the end we cleared up the misunderstanding, and Zohar sang his mawal. What he did spontaneously is exactly the mawal that remained in 'The Flower in My Garden.' I was riveted to my seat when I heard it. That was really something. It's morning, a guy is singing with trills, and he's very moving. And he was so naive and modest, banging on a pot and singing. I recorded him on my tape recorder ... Without words, without anything. Even if there had been words I wouldn't have understood them. I understand melodies.

"A week later, we're at Binyanei Ha'uma [auditorium] in Jerusalem. Zohar, Avihu and Asher come to hear the IBA Orchestra, 64 players, playing my arrangement for 'The Flower in My Garden.' When the orchestra finished playing, I swear, Zohar is standing in front of me with tears in his eyes. He hugs me and says 'You're God. I swear you're God.'"

'To Nirvana'

The element in the arrangement that is most strongly etched in my own memory is the blast of the trumpets that opens the song. Avihu Medina claims that was his idea: "When Nansi began working on the song, I told him 'I want to hear a matador entering the arena, and the audience shouting, Ole!' He did one arrangement, while I was on reserve duty, and when I returned I said 'No.' After he understood what I wanted he did an arrangement that takes you to Nirvana."

When Brandes hears Medina's version of the story, today, he smiles. "I love Avihu," he says. "If he didn't exist, I wouldn't have achieved such recognition as a musical arranger in the State of Israel. But I didn't receive any guidance from him. In the film 'Zohar,' Zohar asks Avihu, 'Who's gonna do the arrangement for "The Flower in My Garden,"' and Avihu says, 'I'll do the trumpets and everything, trust me.' When the film came out I was somewhat angry. It's my baby, and suddenly they're saying 'This baby isn't yours, you're only a stepfather.'"

Amir Ben David, who wrote the screenplay for the film "Zohar" together with Moshe Zonder, says: "We gave Zohar the credit for the trumpet blasts."

Although it's not the truth.

Zonder adds: "It could have been. Zohar was opinionated and had ideas as to how the music should sound. But we weren't interested in the historical truth. We decided to give him credit for the trumpets because of the symbolism of it: This is the trumpet blast of a matador, not a troubadour. A bullfighter is going onstage. The war begins. Sometimes there's a moment like that when things come together. Here they did, and because it's such a significant moment we want it to be entirely Zohar's."

Argov had actually signed a contract with the Reuveni brothers, about two years before "The Flower in My Garden." He didn't like going onstage in a suit. "He used to say: 'What do I need that for, in any case my audience is all tchachtchakhim [lowlifes],'" Meir Reuveni remembers. "but my brother Asher insisted that a suit is a presence, it's a look, and Zohar got one."

Thus, Argov arrived at the 1982 song competition with two suits: The first he wore in the first round, the first time he sang "The Flower in My Garden," and the second suit when he did an encore, after winning first place. The person who was supposed to go onstage with a suit but instead came in casual clothes was the director of Israel Radio, Gideon Lev-Ari, who awarded the prize. Not only was Lev-Ari dressed casually, he was also chewing gum when he presented Argov with the statuette. Over the years that image became a symbol of the cultural establishment's disdain for Mizrahi music.

"You see that he's disgusted by the situation, that he wants to go home," says Amir Ben David. "His entire body language expresses profound disdain."

Reuveni says that from the moment Argov sang his song, it was clear to everyone in Binyanei Ha'uma that it was going to win.

"People didn't want to hear other songs," he says. "Zohar finished singing and they asked for an encore. An encore? This is a festival. But they wouldn't let him leave the stage. After he won I looked at Yosef Ben Yisrael. He told me and Asher: 'What a good eye you have. He gave an amazing performance. He has the dignified presence of a king.'"

After the event Argov drove to a club in Jerusalem. "Thousands stormed the place, trying to get in," Reuveni recalls, "and of course the next day he captured all the headlines. They wrote 'The King.' We didn't use that word. I never called him the king. But the newspaper headline said 'The new king of Mizrahi music.'"

"There's no question that 'The Flower in My Garden' was a turning point, both for Zohar and for Mediterranean music," says Avihu Medina. "A song that came from the 'rejected child' suddenly became a cornerstone. A song that emerged from this thing despised by the media - the Mizrahi song festival - that became everyone's favorite."

Ben David attributes part of the song's great success to the Lebanon War, which broke out about two months after Argov's triumph: "When the war broke out, Army Radio started to have programs with soldiers sending their regards to people, and they let the soldiers choose the music. And again and again and again they chose 'The Flower in My Garden.' It became a hit not because the program editors saw the light and understood that even a Mizrahi song can be of the highest level, but because they let the soldiers choose. That's when the Army Radio instituted a program that regularly broadcast Mizrahi music."

Symbolic event

"Dramas in pop culture are also symbolic," says Prof. Motti Regev, a sociologist at the Open University. "In other words, drama is attributed to an event in order to turn it into the symbol of something. The event isn't necessarily 'aware' that it's a symbol. What's important is what happens afterward."

Is the fact that "The Flower in My Garden' won the festival such a symbolic event?

Regev: "Without a doubt. It's a moment that was endowed with symbolism, because ... people saw it as a turning point in Mizrahi music's battle to remove the [negative] label of Mizrahi-ness and to be accepted as Israeli music for all intents and purposes. In 1982, this battle had already been going on for a while, for at least five to six years. 'The Flower in My Garden' was a significant moment because until then there was a kind of differentiation between radio and television [performances of music] on the one hand, and so-called cassette music on the other. The radio related to the music of the North African and Middle Eastern ethnic groups, but in the context of traditional music rather than pop. The singers who recorded with the Reuveni brothers were not played on the radio and didn't perform on TV. With 'The Flower in My Garden,' this distinction was undermined.

"The song and the album 'Nakhon Lehayom' (As of Today ) [where it appeared] were a significant moment in another sense too," notes Regev. "Until then the rationalization for downplaying and exclusion of Mizrahi music was that it wasn't of high quality, either artistically or technically. And with that record of Zohar's, suddenly people said to themselves 'Just a moment. It is professional. It's produced by a professional, Nansi Brandes. The material is original.'"

Why wasn't the symbolism attributed to "The Flower in My Garden" attributed several years earlier to the bands Tzlilei Ha'Oud (Sounds of the Oud ) and Tzlilei Hakerem (Sounds of the Vineyard ), when they sold hundreds of thousands of records.

"Because the conditions had changed: Nineteen eighty-two is not 1975. The sociopolitical atmosphere is different. The Mizrahi identity is [by 1982] more prepared to demand all kinds of things. In the 1970s, there was a movement to consolidate a viewpoint, an identity and a cultural strategy out of Mizrahi-ness. It began in the early '70s, with the Black Panthers, if you will, and it developed in all kinds of places. One of those is the 1977 political upheaval. We tend to see the upheaval as the cause of the change, but that's an optical illusion. The upheaval is one of the political expressions of a change that had begun earlier.

"The big question was whether the victory of the right would be repeated in the 1981 elections. Those were elections fraught with tension between Mizrahi-ness and what is ostensibly general Israeliness. And in that context ... when a pop song perceived as Mizrahi comes along and crosses lines, it's clear why it acquires symbolic meaning. It's a kind of hook on which you can hang some statement. If someone accused Mizrahi-ness of lacking a heritage and profundity and original creativity, now he could be told 'What are you talking about? There's high-quality Mizrahi pop, which expresses a type of Israeliness that is not the dominant culture but is no less Israeli than the dominant Israeliness.'"

Regev warns, however, about overstating the significance of the song. "It's very convenient," he says, "to see 'The Flower in My Garden' as some kind of point that set in motion an unequivocal chain of events that led to the 'success' of the Mizrahi battle, but the truth is that [success then] was very doubtful. From a distance of 30 years, we know that the real transition of Mizrahi pop to the mainstream took place only in the 1990s and the early 21st century. 'The Flower in My Garden' is one moment, but there were others."

Meir Reuveni says that on the night when Argov won the festival, he and his staff rushed to the factory to make make additional copies of "As of Today": "The next morning there were copies in the stores," he says. Reuveni is compressing events of days or weeks into an overnight story: The album "As of Today" was only issued after the festival but its sales indeed soared on the momentum of the victory.

It's not surprising to hear Nansi Brandes, who did all the arrangements for the album, tell about Argov's rare singing talent: "During those years it wasn't possible to correct mistakes with the computer as is done now, and we were used to sitting day and night over one song. We didn't complain; it was our job. And then came Zohar and fomented a revolution. I enter the studio, ready to sit for four hours over a song, open the mike, Zohar sings, I look at the technician, he looks at me and asks, 'What do we do now? He sang it perfectly. But what will we do with all the time we have left?' So I drive Zohar crazy, for no reason. 'Maybe you'll try to sing it again, to get into the text.' Nonsense.

"Zohar used to say: 'Nansi, go home to your mother.' In other words: What do you want from me? But he did as I asked. In the end he would leave us with four versions of each song, each one better than the last, each entirely different from the last ... He would sing differently each time. The composers didn't recognize many of the songs after he sang. His trills, the changes he would make in the melodies - that's what would make the song."

For his part, screenwriter Ben David says that even after he delved into the story of Argov, who committed suicide in 1987 at age 32, he was unable to formulate a clear concept of the man behind the singer. And Rino Tzror's new book, "Shahor" (Black ), a documentary portrait of Argov based on interviews with the people who were closest to Argov, doesn't provide a complete and profound portrait either. Argov's authoritative biographer, if and when he turns up, will have to confront that far-from-simple challenge.

Meanwhile, we'll remain with the legend.

"Zohar killed himself," says Meir Reuveni. "When I signed him up I saw his genius on the one hand and his insanity on the other. I said something to him - may God forgive me - I said: 'I'll make you like Farid al-Atrash.' Zohar said: But Farid died. I said: True, and you'll die too. Why? he asked. I told him: Because you don't love yourself. You hate Zohar Argov, that's what I read in your eyes. One day it will explode in your head. On the day of the funeral I said on the radio that there wouldn't be another singer like Zohar even in another 50 years. We're almost halfway there, 25 years. Is there a singer who comes close to him? There's no such person."