Zion Golan Still Scaling New Heights in Yemenite Music

The Ashkelon-born singer who’s big in Sana’a is delighted by the resurgence of Yemenite music in Israel, but still worries about its future.

Tomer Appelbaum

Zion Golan, the hero of Yemenite music in Israel, could have rested on his laurels. After all, the traditional Yemenite music he’s sung and performed for over 35 years has made a glorious comeback recently. First came the breakthrough of sister trio A-WA, whose hit “Habib Galbi” became a playlist favorite on Army Radio. Then the music of Ravid Kahalani’s Yemen Blues started flooding the airwaves. Finally, there was Reuma Abas’ “Wa’ana Fda Leumi,” which has assumed center stage in the Israeli mainstream.

Still, it’s clear that Golan – 60 in October – refuses to leave the reins solely in the hands of these young revolutionaries. He attends every event and celebration to which he is invited, be it the Yemenite music festival in Eilat (which he helped pioneer), weddings and bar mitzvahs, or the Timna Live Festival, which is being held at Timna Park – some 25 kilometers (about 17 miles) north of Eilat – during the intermediate days of Sukkot.

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Golan is currently transcribing some of his best-known songs for a new book, with lyrics in his original Judeo-Yemeni Arabic and translated into Hebrew. He hopes doing so will bequeath the music he has been so devoted to since childhood to future generations.

Born in Ashkelon to Yemenite immigrants, Golan was charmed by the magic of the music from an early age, when he was taken to Bible study classes. He began impromptu performances, in which he accompanied himself on homemade percussion.

“I would take large olive cans and start drumming on them,” says Golan. “I would see the great singers around me singing, and I would imitate them and try to sing. Slowly, people discovered my talent. Every time there were events, they would bring me up to sing and I started to gain confidence. Then, at 16, there was Zvi Caspi’s Southern Festival in Ashkelon, and I won first place when I sang “Shesh Esre Malu Lanaar” (“The Boy Turned 16”). It was my springboard.”

In 1974, he joined the Israel Defense Forces and served in the army’s rabbinate choir. “I served there together with Moshe Giat and Dudu Fisher. I became a soloist over time and learned to sing even in Yiddish,” he says. “After my release, I founded a team that sang in Yemenite, and we performed mainly at Yemenite weddings.”

Ofra Haza’s wedding

Tomer Appelbaum

Still to be found performing at Yemenite weddings, Golan says there was one particular celebration that moved him. “Bezalel Aloni, Ofra Haza’s promoter, called me up and set up a very secretive meeting,” he recalls. When he arrived for the meeting, Golan heard that he and only he should come to entertain Haza and her guests at a pre-wedding henna ceremony. Haza herself, says Golan, “sat there and was very excited. She showed me how she took my albums in her bag every time she traveled abroad. They invited me to both the henna and the wedding. I really remember how she started to cry when I sang ‘Ayelet Chen’ to her.”

For all his modesty, Golan clearly understands his importance and status in preserving original Yemenite music in Israel. It’s also the reason there is almost no singer of Yemenite origin – from Eyal Golan to Peer Tasi and Dudu Aharon – who hasn’t invited him to perform at their wedding. He remembers with a smile the words of Aharon’s mother, who once said on television that if her son and Golan were performing at the same time, she would go to Golan’s show.

When asked who among today’s young stars is likely to continue his cultural legacy, he recognizes the talent out there, but adds a cautionary note. “Anyone who doesn’t understand the words he’s singing, this is liable to sound like a recitation. Sometimes, I sing and alert the crowd to a certain verse in the song, because it’s important they understand the words.”

Golan says he hopes someone will continue after him, but admits finding it hard to believe they will, “because someone like that needs to be born with the language. It could only happen with someone who learned it from birth,” he adds.

Even so, he sees the new wave of Yemenite music embodied by Kahalani and A-WA as a boost for Yemenite culture. “A-WA took ‘Habib Galbi’ and Yemen Blues revived ‘Aba Shimon,’ two of my songs, and I am happy that’s how it works,” Golan says. “Many singers who are starting out call me, and I happily give them guidance.”

No discrimination

In 1984, Golan recorded an album in Hebrew called “Naale Naale.” Some of Israel’s best artists – among them Nurit Hirsch, Avihu Medina and Giat – composed the music and lyrics for the songs. When asked why he hasn’t performed Hebrew songs since then, he says he didn’t love the Yemenite accent he heard in the songs.

He says he never felt discriminated against by Israel’s musical hegemony, but notes he was never part of the Mediterranean-music (or Mizrahi) style. “I always have my special place saved for me,” he smiles. “Radio embraced me. Reshet Gimel plays me every Friday at least twice,” he adds, referring to a national radio station that showcases Israeli music. “I am invited to every major event involving Yemenite culture. I don’t feel any discrimination. If I were to sing Mizrahi songs, perhaps I would feel it more. But I am kind of in a category of my own.”

Why do you feel responsible for preserving Yemenite culture in Israel?

“It’s my mission in life, and I dedicate myself entirely to it. There were many singers who did this over the years, but they didn’t survive in the end. It takes great expense and enormous perseverance. It really isn’t easy. There aren’t many songwriters, and Aharon Amram – who is really among the greatest composers and gave me a lot of big hits – no longer writes because he’s getting on. My mother-in-law, who also wrote many songs for me, is very old, so I work by myself now.”

There are still two goals Golan has yet to fulfill in his life, both involving Yemen.

“Some years ago, they wanted to send me to Yemen as part of a big festival,” he recalls. “A representative from Jordan came. She photocopied my passport, and it looked like it was going to happen. But at the last moment there was some tension in Lebanon, and regretfully it was canceled. I dream of going there. I would rather perform there than the United States.”

Golan also says his big dream is to bring the remains of Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, a renowned 17th-century poet, from Yemen to Israel. “Perhaps one day I will manage to do this under the auspices of the music,” he concludes.