Magic Carpet to Yemen

Zion Golan is the preeminent Yemenite singer of his generation, and one of the last to preserve an ancient tradition. But despite his popularity, he hasn't lost his modesty.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

When singer Zion Golan entered the wedding hall in Yehud at 7:10 P.M., the atmosphere was sleepy. Hardly anyone was there, not even all the waiters; it would be another two hours before the rest of the guests arrived and the wedding ceremony began. Those who were present no doubt wondered what Golan was doing there so early, since wedding singers usually show up only once the festivities are at their height. You won't catch Moshik Afia or Lior Narkis entering a wedding hall before the first cigars are passed around.

But Golan is a different type of singer. "They told me the ceremony would begin early, as close as possible to sunset, so I came early," he said - though he no doubt understood, from 35 years of experience at thousands of parties, that "early" is a relative term at weddings.

Zion Golan.Credit: Moti Milrod

He politely rejected a guest's suggestion to change the groom's choice of first song. "Young people don't know the traditions," the guest said. Golan promised to check with the groom, but he naturally insisted on the song he had already chosen.

It isn't as if the groom had asked for a contemporary wedding song like Sarit Hadad's "Sanctified." Affairs like that don't feature Zion Golan. The groom, a member of an ultra-Orthodox Yemenite family from Bnei Brak, chose a traditional Yemenite song. Golan sang it in his beautiful voice, with its sure and flexible intonations, and with great modesty - ingredients that have made him the preeminent Yemenite singer of his generation.

He is not well known outside the Yemenite community. He sings almost exclusively in Yemenite Judeo-Arabic; radio stations almost never play his songs; and charisma is not the first quality one would associate with him. But for Jews of Yemenite descent, Golan is not only a great and beloved singer, but also one of the last keepers of a singing tradition in danger of extinction.

He recently brought out his 28th recording, "Alef Mabroukh," which became an immediate a hit in the community. Non-Yemenite music lovers should also listen to this album, as well as to the live recording from his appearance in Caesarea, released two years ago. They will encounter music that combines rhythm, innocence and tradition with fun and great singing. Popular Mizrahi singer Eyal Golan, it turns out, is not the only Golan around.

The updated versions of songs on his new disk, Golan said, are unique. "I noticed that there's been less Yemenite music around in recent years. Since young people like the new styles, I decided to connect tradition with an updated sound. I didn't change my singing at all, not by a millimeter; it's exactly like the original was. But I modernized the music. Some of the songs will even sound like pop Mizrahi music to you."

That isn't exactly true, and that's a good thing. Golan's sound on the album, produced by brothers Levi and Ravid Kashti, keeps its distance from the synthetic standard of the new Mizrahi pop. It is more like the Mizrahi music of 10 or 20 years ago: a lean, vibrant, down-to-earth sound, without tiresome synthesizer adornments and cheap rhythms. It supports Golan's gifted singing, which never tries to force emotion on you and never sounds bombastic.

Gaon's secret weapon

The 57-year-old Golan was born in a neighborhood of Ashkelon where Yemenite Judeo-Arabic was the lingua franca. "I didn't know Hebrew when I was little," he said, adding, "Well, I'm exaggerating. But the whole atmosphere was Yemenite. I was a really good student and known for my trills when chanting" religious texts. When Israel's great Yemenite singers, headed by Aharon Amram, played in his neighborhood, Golan would approach the stage and ask to sing.

As a youth he admired Yigal Bashan, Uzi Fuchs and Gabi Shoshan in addition to Yemenite singers. At the age of 16, he won first place in a music festival, singing "The boy's 16." He did his military service in the army rabbinate's choir along with Dudu Fisher and Moshe Giat. After his release, he began to perform regularly.

During this time, he also worked as an electrician at Israel Military Industries ("My father told me to learn a profession" ). But when his musical career took off, he quit his day job. "Dealing with electricity when you're tired is dangerous," he said.

Golan became famous in the Yemenite community in the late 1970s, when he won first prize at the Diwan Festival with the song "Ya Izali" - one that emphasizes his particular skills, and especially the way he collects material. The greatest problem with Yemenite music, Golan said, is that it is very difficult to find new songs: Almost no one writes them. Aharon Amram carried the banner for many years, but he is older now, and the new generation has produced almost no writers and composers of traditional Yemenite music.

Golan began to write songs only recently, but for many years he relied on a secret weapon: his mother-in-law, Naomi Amrani. Amrani, 75, is a gifted musician who sings at pre-wedding henna parties as well as at weddings, but has never made a living from music.

"She has a great treasure in her head," Golan said, meaning she still remembers many songs from Yemen that have never been recorded and are preserved only orally. "Before I went into the army, she heard me sing and said, 'Come to my house; I have a lot of songs.' I went over to listen and not only received songs, but also her daughter," Golan said with a smile. Today, Golan and his wife Kochava have four children and three grandchildren.

"Naomi was my teacher. Everything that comes out of her mouth is a jewel. One day I was on the stairs and she was singing, just plain singing, and out came a refrain. I asked her, 'Are you willing to sing that again?' I took the song and made it a hit.

"Sometimes when I record in the studio, I run into a word that doesn't flow. I call her and she corrects me immediately. It doesn't matter what time it is, even if it's 2 A.M. I am uncomfortable, but she says, 'No, Zion, I like this.'"

In addition to Amrani's songs and the ones he writes, Golan uses material people bring him from Yemen. It seems there is a considerable amount of musical trade going on between Israel and Yemen.

"People who moved from Yemen to Israel in 1993 are allowed to visit [there] today; they have Yemenite passports," Golan said. "So they bring my disks and sell them to Muslims. Without bragging, I'm considered popular in Yemen. They know my recordings, and young Yemenite singers record my songs. There is even a singer there who calls himself the 'Yemenite Zion Golan.'

"My friends who travel there bring me back disks and I listen to them, choose the good things and use them in my songs. We are even. I don't produce the song the same way, but take the general idea, rework it, change the beat so it will be more understandable to the audience and add a different text. Sometimes I can also take a secular song from the diwan of Rabbi Shalom Shabazi and make it religious."

Is it a problem from the point of view of Jewish law to take a love song written in Yemen and turn it into Jewish religious music?

"Not at all. The opposite is the case. I see this as a purification."

'Singing in Hebrew isn't me'

Of his 28 recordings, only one album is based on songs in Hebrew. When Golan is asked about this, he seems to shift in his seat uncomfortably.

"I feel a big difference between singing in Yemenite and singing in Hebrew," he said. "For me, it flows in Yemenite. I can sing for four hours and not feel that I've made any special effort. It's as if I hadn't been singing at all. I sing fine in Hebrew, but I'm just another singer. There are many singers better than I am in Hebrew, and as they say, it's better to be a fox's head than a lion's tail."

So why did you record an album in Hebrew?

"I don't remember. I think friends encouraged me. They said, 'You sing beautifully, why won't you try Hebrew?' I approached great song writers: Aviyahu Medina, Nurit Hirsch, Yoram Tahar-Lev. And they wrote beautiful songs for me. But it's not me. You hear the Yemenite accent when I sing Hebrew and it's a problem. Sing Hebrew if you sing Hebrew. It doesn't work for me.

"You can't take the Yemenite out of me. And my mission in life is to preserve the Yemenite song tradition. I feel it's my mission, and I'm practically the only one."

Golan performs a lot, but only when invited. He doesn't sell seats to his shows. He doesn't "operate the cash registers," as they say in the business.

"I haven't got a head for it," he said. "But when cities put on shows for the Yemenite community, there's no chance I won't be there."

You played in Caesarea two years ago. What brought you there? Did you try to ride the wave of Mediterranean pop?

"It wasn't my idea," he said. "Eyal Golan approached me and said 'Everyone is performing in Caesarea. It's time a Yemenite was there too.' His office managed everything, and it was a wonderful experience. It was the first time I appeared with an orchestra of 17 musicians."

In Caesarea, before he sang the amazing, "Lekha Eli" Golan faced the audience and said, "I'm, asking, if possible, that you treat this song with honor. You may dance, but not men and women together." The crowd applauded and respected his wishes.

But why did he make the request? "It is a sacred song that opens the Yom Kippur prayers, and when I see a man and woman slow-dancing [to it], it makes me uncomfortable," he said. "I'm not a fanatic and not ultra-Orthodox, but I always want people to dance separately. I delayed making this request [until recently] because I was afraid. Perhaps I wouldn't get any more work if there were no mixed dancing at my shows. But I saw that most of the audience was asking for it, so I said, 'Let's sanctify God's name all the way.'"

Three years ago, therefore, he announced that he would not allow mixed dancing at his shows any more. "I sing before mixed audiences," he emphasized, "but dancing is separate. People sit together; I'm not that pious. When they get up to dance, they do it in separate areas."

And people respect this?

"Very much so. I appeared at the Yemenite Festival in Eilat. Many young people run wild there. I didn't believe they would do it. But they did. Thousands danced separately. It touched me."

At the wedding in Yehud last week, men and women danced separately, but there was no great enthusiasm. The dances were very restrained.

"The bride is Ashkenazi," Golan explained, "and the groom's family is from Sanaa [in Yemen]. People from Sanaa have the reputation of being staid, and this was a respected family from Bnei Brak. You should come to other weddings, where people dance madly."

While the guests were busy eating, Golan went up to Rabbi Shlomo Mahfoud, one of the most well-known rabbis in Bnei Brak. He returned smiling. "He told me that he listens to my disk in his car," Golan said proudly.

But there's one rabbi who does not listen to Golan's singing: Amnon Yitzhak, whose business is encouraging people to become religiously observant. When Golan announced that he would no longer allow mixed dancing at his shows, he informed all the Yemenite rabbis. "They all gave me their blessings," Golan said. "Only Amnon Yitzhak began to speak against me."

Yitzhak criticized Golan in public, saying that his performances encouraged loose behavior.

Why did he do this precisely when you announced you would no longer allow mixed dancing?

"Would you believe that I don't know what he wants from me? He is very extreme, and I'm not attracted to extremists. I believe he wants to look bigger at my expense. He is lucky that most of my fans are quite reasonable, and they understood he was making unfair remarks. I try to ignore it: 'Happy is the man who hears an insult and doesn't respond.' But it's too bad there are people like that."



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