Singer’s Story: Arab Music Roots, TA Street Life

Dikla, who has a new album coming out, is the real thing, and not just because of her background.

Ben Shalev
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Dikla: ‘I am not the Mizrahi victim.’
Dikla: ‘I am not the Mizrahi victim.’Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Ben Shalev

Ronny Brown, CEO of record label Helicon and the most successful pop producer in Israel, wants to play me what is for him the most important song around these days. When he presses the play button, the voice of Dikla fills the studio. She is singing “Mi amar” (“Who said”), one of the songs on her new album, which will soon be released. Brown says the song takes its inspiration from “ballads of the 1960s and 1970s, and also from Lebanese slow dances.” It is doubtful whether he is familiar with the world of Lebanese pop music, but Dikla knows that world well and loves it with all her soul.

When we meet, she tells me that her biggest influences, aside from those whom she describes as “the Pyramids” (Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez), are contemporary Lebanese singers such as Elissa, her favorite contemporary singer, Ragheb Alama and Fadl Shaker. Dikla’s debut album, “Ahava Musika” (2002), which was warmly received by radio stations and critics, marked her as one of the fresh and unique voices in Israeli music at the time.

“People still remember that album,” she says. “They still forgive me because of it. Some people tell me, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do — the main thing is that you did ‘Ahava Musika.’”

What is it about Lebanese music that captures her heart? “There’s a softness in it, a kind of emotional expression,” she says. “Another important thing is that the rules that apply here don’t apply there. A song has to be three minutes long? Not at all. A song has to have a structure of verse and refrain? Not at all. There’s also a real opening, not some intro that lasts just a few seconds. There’s a strongly enticing exposition. With Lebanese singers, the arrangements are much less aggressive than in our music. I listen to their songs — there isn’t a drop of effort there. The singer doesn’t get bowled over. He bowls you over. He keeps his cool.”

Despite the influence of Arab musicians and her love for them, Dikla has a deep internal contradiction when it comes to the Arab world. “It’s a conflict that I live with very strongly,” she says. “I’m wild about the Arab street, and it’s two meters away from me, but I can’t live there. I love the Arabic language, but I can’t use it. Even growing up at home, the Jewish-Arab conflict was very, very strong. People listen to Umm Kulthum and praise her to the skies. ‘There’s no one better! The one and only singer! The Pyramid! — May she burn inside.’”

This internal conflict has not stopped Dikla from contributing to Shlomi Elkabetz’s film “Edut” (“Testimony”), which included Palestinian accounts of abuse by Israeli troops. “I don’t want to talk about ‘Edut,’” she says. “I will say only that I am not a leftist. Not at all. I get scared when I hear Arab leaders opening their mouths about us. I’m afraid of the sound of those microphones.”

Strong, with no roof

Dikla grew up in Be’er Sheva. Her first memory is of walking down the street as a girl, looking for cigarette butts and imagining songs. “I’ve been writing since I was 12 or 13. I don’t remember ever thinking about what I was going to do with my life. It wasn’t a choice.” This natural quality is also there in the way she connects singing with writing, which, for her, is a single package.

Dikla heard Arab music as a girl, but did not pay much attention to it until she was 15 or 16. One Saturday her father was listening to Abdel Halim Hafez, and the song he was singing touched her deeply. “I got so emotional that I started squirming and my throat hurt. That song was it for me,” she recalls.

She went up on stage for the first time at age 17, at the Punch Line club in Be’er Sheva, where she had a signature song, “Rocker Girl” by Riki Gal. She got to Tel Aviv when she was 20. Between her jobs as a waitress and a cleaner and her acting studies, she walked down the streets wearing hose and high heels, and did not always have a home to go to or a place to lay her head.

“I slept on the streets. Literally,” she says. “Many times I would finish work and had nowhere to sleep. That went on for a year or two. I could write a book about it.”

How do you get through those nights?

“You walk around on foot. Luckily, there was always someone else with me who also had nowhere to sleep. And you look for a place to lay your head. Sometimes we would sleep near the Hilton, near Independence Park. Sometimes in some really cheap hotels. Sometimes we would meet people we knew who would let us sleep at their place. And all that was so I could fulfill my dream of making music.

“When I see all the young people today, who have “The Voice” and “X-Factor” and “Rising Star,” I say, ‘Wow, the world has moved forward. People don’t have to suffer as much,’ even though I love to listen to artists who had it tough. I hear it in their voices — this one worked as a laborer, that one didn’t. This one did the dirtiest jobs, and that one didn’t.

“But with all the difficulty, I never felt sorry for myself,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was a victim of circumstance. Not even for a second. I was very strong. I knew there was something I needed to do, and I wasn’t going backward, to Be’er Sheva. I am not the tormented artist. I don’t have that, thank God. I don’t bring that to my music or to my life. I don’t feel that.”

Still, there is a lot of pain in your music.

“There’s pain, but no victim mentality or blaming of the Ashkenazim. That’s not where I’m at. I bring in the troubles of life, the troubles of love. I am not the tormented Mizrahi victim. I don’t accept that and I don’t like to see Mizrahim, who are my own people, doing that. It does more harm than good.”

The storm is calmer

At some point in the mid-1990s, a friend of Dikla’s introduced her to Ran Shem Tov, a member of the band Izabo and one of the most brilliant artists on the Israeli music stage at the time. “I remember that Ran called and said, ‘Listen — everybody’s making music that pretends to be Arab, but for us, it’s our lives. Let’s do it. Let’s make Arab music, but in our own way.”

The success of Dikla’s first album, which was supposed to encourage her and help her move forward, almost destroyed her. “Until the age of 27, when ‘Ahava Musika’ came out, I didn’t know I could be weak,” she says. “That option simply hadn’t existed. I never imagined how complex exposure could be for a woman like myself. I didn’t realize how sensitive I was. Suddenly I needed to have my mother and father and my siblings close to me.”

Right after the album came out, Dikla left Tel Aviv and went back to Be’er Sheva for three months. “It looks like I’m strong, with black hair and tight trousers, but something happened to me when I was 27 that I couldn’t come back from. Things remained that shrink my life,” she says. “I’m improving, getting lighter and softer. I don’t know if I’m getting better. I’m fortunate that I have the music, and even if I’ve gotten weaker in other things, I’m not weak there, and I don’t compromise.”

After Helicon signed Dikla, Brown began visiting the room where she and her partner, Ido Ohayon, worked on new songs. Gradually, Brown was drawn into the production process himself.

“I had no intention of getting into that production,” he says. “I didn’t go into the studio with the intention of spending years kneading the dough. But when I sat with Dikla and Ido, I constantly said, ‘This is how it should be done.’ In the end I found myself sitting there all night long. It’s like my second marriage. It was an accident, but I found myself in love. That wasn’t supposed to happen to me at my age.”

Brown said that his goal in producing the album — he is co-producing it with Dikla — was to “take it out of the niche of just the loyal gay community and people who like drama queens, and present it as it is: a great artist who writes excellent songs and sings beautifully.” It’s impossible to know whether that desire will be realized. “I don’t know whether this album will sell 100 copies or 10,000,” Brown says.

Dikla knows even less than he does. “I don’t know a thing about sales, and I don’t know a thing about music either,” she says. What is certain is that anyone who was put off by the drama that typified her previous album, “Arlosoroff 38,” may connect more easily to her new album, in which Dikla’s presentation is less dramatic and her voice is clearer and comes out with less of an effort.

“Something softened a lot inside me,” she says, “and that affected my singing and changed it. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped being stormy. Everything is relative. The storm is calmer. I was very much influenced by the Lebanese singers we spoke of. I understood the beauty in being vocal.”

Dikla. 'Something softened a lot inside me.'Credit: Courtesy
Idol: Egyptian singing great Umm Kulthum, who died in 1975.