Refugee on His Land: Israeli Arab Rock Singer Is the Voice of the Minority

Bassam Beroumi a true underdog in Israel: an Arab rocker.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Bassam Beroumi. There is rock here, but as a foundation, a skeleton, a referential framework.
Bassam Beroumi. There is rock here, but as a foundation, a skeleton, a referential framework.Credit: Orit Pnini
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

To be an Arab rock artist in Israel is to be a minority within a minority. A musical minority within a musical minority. Bassam Beroumi, who has just released his debut album, “Sirk” (“Circus”), writes on his website that as a boy growing up in Acre, he was “the underdog, the only one walking around school with a black T-shirt, long hair and listening to Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Most students didn’t even know who they were.” Which might explain, at least in part, why there are so few Arab rock artists in Israel. Jowan Safadi, Luna Abu Nassar and Khalas – a rock band in which Beroumi played – are the only names that leap to mind. Possibly – one hopes – other singers and bands are active below the radar.

The voice of the minority, in its political aspect, is explicitly heard on some of the songs on Beroumi’s fine album (though to see that, I had to ask for an English translation of the texts, which the album doesn’t provide). In “History Books,” the only song on the album that’s composed under the influence of American acoustic folk, he sings (in Arabic, of course): “The history books were erased, and my memories were lost / all my battles are over and I didn’t get home yet.” More trenchant is “Refugee on My Land”: “The air is not mine and not even the water,” Beroumi sings, “The sun is not mine, not even the moon.”

A text like that could be sung in an angry shout, but Beroumi composed and performs it as a dirge, whose highly expressive emotional anchor (at least for someone who doesn’t understand Arabic) is the marvelous, measured movement of the bass, which projects a sense of mourning, against a soft background of synthesizers.

The voice of the minority emerges from the music as well as from the texts. Beroumi’s identity as a member of a musical minority – rock music – is even more pronounced than his identity as a member of a national minority (though possibly they are not really different). If you work largely in an artistic vacuum, without even a small group of fellow musicians around you who can energize you and provide a collective identity of some kind, you can’t project drama and self-importance in your music. You have to be thin, agile, light of movement. That’s what Beroumi’s album – which was co-produced by the singer and Yair Rubin (who also plays most of the instruments) – sounds like, and that’s also its greatest virtue.

There is rock here, but as a foundation, a skeleton, a referential framework, without the meatiness of rock power, which would be contrary to Beroumi’s declared underdog identity. He no longer wears black, as he did in his youth and as a member of Khalas, which flirted with metal a bit. The guitars of “Circus” are the opposite of metal: very lean electric guitars, and acoustic guitars, also quite thin. Together with the synthesizers, the bass, the drums and the percussion, they produce in many of the songs a Mizrahi beat of 3/4 time, which leaves no choice but to join in the songs by clapping, albeit lightly. It’s an encounter of quasi-rock with elements of Mizrahi and Arab music, but without each side harboring exaggerated expectations for a long-term relationship with the other side. It works now, and that’s what’s important.

The music itself expresses considerable humor – an important weapon of underdogs – and that impression is confirmed by the texts. In “On the Dance Floor,” the album’s opening song (following an instrumental prelude), Beroumi sings about his inability to dance. He stands on the dance floor like a pillar, unable to communicate physically with the girl who’s dancing by his side, and dreams of being John Travolta. That too is a way to convey alienation.

The humor of this type is frequently blended with the sadness and longing of a man who is no longer all that young (Beroumi is 39). In “Do You Remember?” – one of the loveliest songs on the album – he talks to a woman he once loved, years ago. “I heard that you got married / and have three children, you gave the oldest one my name,” Beroumi sings, and goes on to say how distant they’ve grown: “you are walking and me I’m flying.”

That song, and the concluding cut, “Circus,” in which Beroumi speaks/sings against a background of sly music in an emphatically staccato atmosphere, betray the presence of what sounds like one of the singer’s major musical influences: Manu Chao, the French-born musician of Spanish origin who sings in a variety of styles. This impression creates mixed feelings. On the one hand, it seems as though in the last stretch of the album Beroumi has at last found the right sound for him. But that sound is a little too similar to the very particular music of a popular and beloved artist. Food for thought ahead of Beroumi’s next album – which doesn’t contradict the fact that there’s plenty to enjoy on this one.