Altalena, Oil Lamps and Elvis, Too

A nostalgic conversation with veteran Yemenite singer Daklon, who is still the life of the party at family and charitable events and has just put out a new CD.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

At a Bnei Brak intersection, on his way to perform at a family event in Ra'anana, Daklon stops beside a driver who committed a minor traffic violation, and starts to chide him: "If you want to turn left, why are you blocking the lane that turns right?" Another singer might have hesitated. Who knows how this story will be presented on the gossip pages? But his reproach is brief and the passengers in the offending car identify him despite his cap. "Daklon!!!" they exclaim excitedly. And while the driver mumbles, "You're right, it was really unbecoming," someone in the back seat begins singing one of the veteran Yemenite singer's hits.

Daklon smiles. "Nu, okay, you're forgiven," he says, turning right toward the Geha highway.

Daklon. Credit: Yanai Yehiel

Twenty minutes later he enters a synagogue in Ra'anana, where he will perform at the 60th birthday party of a blind woman, Esther Bidany. In his right hand he clutches a case with discs for sale; in the other hand, a mixer for the playback. He climbs the stairs to the top floor, where the event is to be held, and sees that the Bidany family is still setting the tables.

"How many times have I told you? Go to the place, see what's going on and call me just when it is about to begin," he reprimands his keyboardist.

People go over and shake Daklon's hand, smiling warmly. "The values that are important to religious Yemenite families are love of God, love of Israel, and love of the land. There is no singer who expresses all that in a nicer way than Daklon," says the event's organizer, Bidany's sister.

One family member has an especially bad idea: Perhaps Daklon would sing "Happy Birthday" when Esther enters? Fortunately, her sister rules that out immediately and tells the singer: "I'd like you to sing 'Yimloch Hashem' ('God Shall Reign' ) when she comes in." He obliges. Bidany enters and is led to her throne.

"Esther, do you know who is here? It's Daklon," her sister tells her. Daklon is not good in such situations, but after a few moments the awkwardness dissipates and the synagogue's top floor becomes a modest palace of Yemenite music at its best. The men dance in a circle in the middle of the room and several women dance at the side, but after Daklon sings "Ayelet Hen" (written by a Yemenite rabbi and traditionally sung to grooms ) and switches into Yemeni Arabic, things heat up, the separation between the sexes disappears and there is boundless joy.

Daklon sings for about 20 minutes and joins the family in a festive meal. He converses with the birthday woman's brother-in-law and reminisces about the old-time Yemenite singers, who used to perform for a drink, nothing more.

"In the 1970s, in our neighborhood, there wasn't a house that didn't have a Daklon cassette. Not one," says the brother-in-law. "Did you know that?" Daklon doesn't raise his eyes from the soup bowl, and says with characteristic dryness: "I didn't get a penny from it."

Also from his new album, "Re'ah Bustanim," (in English, "Bustan Scent," literally, "The Fragrance of the Gardens" ) Daklon won't see a windfall: "In bygone days, I didn't make much money from records. The livelihood always came from performances. There was a time when one did make something from records. Today - nothing. A catastrophe. You invest and invest - and don't make money. The story is over."

Thus, today, at 66, Daklon - born Yossi Levy in Tel Aviv's Kerem Hatemanim (Yemenite ) quarter - makes a living from performing at family and charitable events. He does not appear in clubs and or do concerts in halls. On the way back from Ra'anana, when asked if he would travel as far as the Galilee for a family gathering, he says: "What a question. Of course. Safed, Tiberias, Kiryat Shmona. That's my job."

Daklon's albums from the past decade include only religious songs. "I became more devout and decided that in God's honor, I would sing only religious songs," he explains. "One must, as the Talmud says, respect God. Whomever God has blessed with a good voice, his voice is his capital. Thank God, things are going well. There is a huge demand for such material. Most of the singers who sing religious songs are Ashkenazi ... I sing to all communities: to the Yemenites, the Iraqis, the Moroccans. The people are eager."

Nevertheless, "Re'ah Bustanim" does not contain only religious songs, and includes "more general material," says Daklon, explaining that it was Meir Reuveni of the Ahim Reuveni Production company who initially approached him about recording a new CD. Daklon and his Tzliley Hakerem band started their careers with that company.

"He played material for me by a singer who was going to make a disc with him, but didn't. I liked the music," says Daklon "The lyrics, however, were about a relationship between a man and a woman. I said I did not want to sing those words. Reuveni asked that new lyrics be written. Those, I sing.

"'Re'ah Bustanim,' as the name implies, contains songs that make a person think of the beautiful Tel Aviv of the old days. Think of that word, bustanim. There was a time when you went to a house and saw grass. Now you see asphalt and parked cars. It's upsetting. I think of the era in which I grew up; the changes [since then] have been so great that it seems to me like an earlier incarnation. They talk to me about the Internet, but I belong to the days of the Primus [old-fashioned stove]. Really, I remember the Altalena [the Etzel underground's arms ship that was shelled on government orders in 1948]. I was 4 years old at that time. I remember we ran from the Kerem and saw it burning. I remember when we got electricity. Before that we used an oil lamp. In short, it's a different world."

Altalena, oil lamps - but Elvis, too. Especially Elvis. Daklon is an avid fan. In the course of the interview he sometimes sounds jaded. But in his car, after the interview, when he plays Elvis' songs, he goes back to being a kid: "This is 'A Fool Such as I.' Ah, if I had a dollar for every time I listened to it I'd be a millionaire. Listen how the guitar enters here, listen how the violins fly in the background," he says, getting excited.

"Elvis had three periods," he lectures. "The first one, from 1954 to 1957, was when his voice was coarse. I don't care for it. The second was from 1957 to 1961 - those were his best years. His voice was clear, fantastic. I remember that in 1961 the record 'Elvis is Back' came out. I was 17. My brother came from the army and I asked him for a loan to buy the record. He gave me 21 pounds. I went to a store on Allenby Street, and on the way home I hugged the record like I hold a Torah scroll. We, eight brothers, used to sleep in one room and at night, when everyone was asleep, I would go out to the porch, turn on the record player, play it quietly and cry."

After the slight sentimental digression, Daklon reminds himself that he is in the midst of a lecture. "Elvis' third period was after the 1968 comeback. Again he had a coarse voice of which I am less fond," he continues, putting on another of The King's songs: "If I Were You." He then plays his own version of it. Daklon did not translate the song into Hebrew, but wrote different lyrics: 'As long as the candle is lit, it can be fixed.'"

"There is a story of a tzaddik [pious man ] who passed through a Jewish village in Europe and saw, through a window, a shoemaker sitting and working near a candle," Daklon explains. "The tzaddik told him: 'Jew, it's late.' And the shoemaker said: 'As long as the candle is lit, it can be fixed.' He meant it, literally."

And what is the meaning behind all this?

Daklon: "It is written [in Proverbs]: 'The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.' A person's soul is a candle. As long as the candle is lit, as long as the soul is alive and lit within you, you can correct your deeds."

Daklon's talent for singing was discovered when he was an adolescent, in the mid-1950s. Sa'adya Damari of Israel Radio, the brother of veteran singer Shoshana Damari, came to the Talmud Torah school for Yemenites in Tel Aviv to look for young talent.

"He took me and two other pupils," Daklon recalls. "We used to record on Wednesdays and on Fridays we would hear ourselves on the radio. I felt like a superstar."

He did not serve in an entertainment troupe in the army, but afterward teamed up with guitarist Moshe Ben Mush, with whom he later established the Tzliley Hakerem band. They sang Elvis and Cliff Richard songs, too, but their model was a band from Kerem Hatemanim called the Shubelim, whose members were about 10 years older than Daklon.

"They sang in houses and backyards, and didn't take any money," says Daklon. "Once we appeared with them in Hadera and someone stuck 50 pounds on [singer] Moshe Meshumar. Meshumar told him, 'Take the money and I will sing whatever I want, because the minute you pay me you can determine what I sing.'

"We were like their apprentices," continues Daklon. "From them we learned how to create the right atmosphere, make people happy. They only had a mandolin and a drum, but you wouldn't believe how ecstatic people were when they appeared."

In the past Daklon and Ben Mush complained that another, newer band, Tzliley Ha'oud was putting out a record that contained the very same songs that Tzliley Hakerem sang.

"It was a world war," says Daklon, adding, however, that ultimately the rivalry between those two groups is not what's important: The real story is the stunning success of the records that created a market for so-called Oriental music, and even more importantly, that the true origins of that repertoire were not Tzliley Hakerem or Tzliley Ha'oud, but rather the Shubelim, whose songs were never recorded.

In 1977 ("exactly when Elvis died" ) Daklon and Ben Mush went to London. Ben Mush returned to Israel within a few months, but Daklon stayed on with his family. When he returned home, he discovered that Ben Mush had brought into Tzliley Hakerem a superb young singer, Haim Moshe. Thus, from 1978 to 1982, Tzliley Hakerem had two soloists - "and it worked beautifully," says Daklon. "There was no envy and finally I could let my throat rest. As a single soloist it was hard for me. We appeared almost daily."

Tzliley Hakerem performed in clubs, but most of its work was at weddings. "Endless weddings," he notes. "Money kept pouring in like sand, but I did not know how to save properly."

You sold many records and cassettes?

"Records? All you had to do was to sneeze - and it was sold. Everything was sold."

In 1982 Haim Moshe launched his own meteoric career with Ben Mush as his musical director, and Tzliley Hakerem disbanded. Daklon collaborated with producer and keyboardist Haim Haddad and recorded one of his best-known hits: "Shabhi Yerushalayim" ("Praise Jerusalem" ). He continued performing in clubs and at weddings, "but then the deejays came and took all the work. At first we laughed at them, then they laughed at us. So I started going out on my own, just with the keyboardist, without a band ... I would come and put on a show. Then I switched to playbacks. If someone has the money and wants musicians - fine. If not, that's also fine."

Don't you consider singing with a playback somewhat humiliating?

"Humiliating? No. You have to understand that at Oriental weddings the singer is like a king. Even more than the groom. They come out to greet you: 'The singer has arrived.' So I don't feel any degradation. When you appear with musicians you always have problems. One can't come, another is sick. The playback is my band. The performances for charity are only with playbacks. It sounds terrific. But the truth is that I am not fond of weddings. They want you to get the people to dance. I prefer performing when people sit down. That suits me. It is more serious."

In 1997, shortly before he switched to singing religious songs, Daklon appeared in Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium before 3,000 people. "Today everybody boasts that they appear in the Mann Auditorium, but I did that 15 years ago. The truth is I did not want to do it. My keyboardist colluded with my wife and cornered me. They threw me into cold water."

Why didn't you want to perform there?

"Stage fright. It is not easy for me to stand in front of 3,000 people. The first wedding in which I performed was Yigal Yefet's - from the Shimshon Tel Aviv soccer team. I had to drink half a bottle of whiskey. Over time I got over it."

Still, when you now see all the Oriental singers, the new ones and the old-timers, appearing in Caesarea and the Mann Auditorium - wouldn't you like to go back and appear in big halls?

Daklon: "The truth is I got somewhat tired. Diabetes weakens me, too. [He's had it for 15 years - B.S.] In order to appear in a big hall I really have to get a hold of myself. So I work with welfare organizations. I come, sing a few songs, short performances of 20 to 30 minutes. My son says: Let's sell tickets, there is a club in the Tel Aviv Port." I say: "We'll think about it.' You have to be in shape, with a good throat and today I cannot guarantee that."

On the second floor of the synagogue in Ra'anana, though, Daklon sounds great. After the meal, a minute before he grabbed the microphone again, a woman came over and told him her daughter is named Na'ama because of his song. "We were debating what to call her," she said, "and suddenly we heard 'Na'ama' in the background and said: That's the name."

When it was time for requests, the woman asked for "Na'ama," of course, but before that he sang his version of Cliff Richard's "Sing a Song for Freedom." As he warmed up, he performed a number of other real hits. Meanwhile, the discs Daklon brought were grabbed from the makeshift table at the entrance to the room, and since he was both singer and salesman, he gave change while singing.

The celebration continued for some time and ended - as could be expected - with Daklon singing his wonderful "Praise Jerusalem."



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