The Founding Mother of Mizrahi Music Strikes Again

Ahuva Ozeri's latest CD, "Maalei Demama," in which 16 other singers perform, is both a highly professional album by an esteemed artist and a breathtaking, unique musical creation.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Ahuva Ozeri’s latest, superb CD, “Maalei Demama,” enters a cultural reality that accepts her with open arms and thunderous applause. Her role in Israeli culture as the founding mother of Mizrahi music ‏grants her the status of a heroine – from a cultural standpoint, and also social and gender perspectives.

Furthermore, Ozeri has continued to create music in recent years although she has permanently lost her voice, her central organ of expression as an artist. This fact lends to her story the additional angle of a heroic triumph over a tragic difficulty.

Like all cultures, Israeli culture loves such heroes and such stories, which explains why Ozeri’s new album is receiving such a warm reception. The question is whether those same people who are quick to praise Ozeri are also prepared to carefully listen to her new album. Sometimes, when an artist is received so warmly, there is a tendency to forget to listen – or a tendency to listen with only “half an ear” – to what he or she has produced.

There is a strong chance that those who listen carefully to “Maalei Demama” will discover a vast treasure and understand that this not just a fine, highly professional album by an esteemed artist who deservedly receives the audience’s acclaim as it moves on to other things, but rather a profound musical creation that is exciting and exquisite by an outstanding and very special musician.

The album contains 16 songs sung by 16 different artists, some of them well-known veteran entertainers such as Ehud Banai, Chava Alberstein, Berry Sakharof, Korin Alal, Rona Kenan and Maor Cohen, and some younger and less famous (such as Shai Tzabari, Shaul Besser, Shani Peleg, Maya Avraham and Sharon Carlin). Ozeri herself sings one of the songs to the best of her ability.

Albums of this type that feature a wide-ranging gallery of artists singing works by a single artist are generally speaking artistic gestures of appreciation. However, “Maalei Demama” is not an artistic gesture to honor Ozeri but rather her very own album, and this is a crucial difference. This feeling stems not only from the fact that all the songs are new creations written by Ozeri but also, and perhaps principally, because of the sounds of her musical instrument, a bulbul tarang (Indian banjo), which is frequently encountered in this album and gives Ozeri a presence in the very heart of these songs. Granted, she does not sing but she is heard, nonetheless, throughout the entire album.

Her bulbul tarang is featured at the opening of most of the songs in the album and it generally trills a phrase or a few phrases as an introduction. This format is reminiscent, even if in a telegraphic manner, of classical Arab music, and that link is preserved and even reinforced as one proceeds through this album.

“Maalei Demama” appears in a market of popular music. In the past, Ozeri had a number of hits but essentially she was light years away from the so-called “pop experience”; thus her success in the field was temporary. There are no “bottom lines” in her songs; instead, there is a very patient, very rich musical flow that sanctifies the journey, not the destination, and derives a large part of its quality from Arabic music as well as the music of India and Africa.

One of the most beautiful songs that effectively present this musical scale of values is intentionally entitled, “Eich Zorem Hanachal” (“How does the stream flow?”). Performed by Kobi Aflalo, the song creates a sense of unusual richness and variety and, after becoming aware of its structure, the listener understands why: There are four different melodic units, each with its own special spirit, and they flow into one another with the unity of contrasts. Initially, conditioned to the sounds of Western pop music, the listener tries to detect where the stanzas and the refrain are located but quickly comprehends that this is a very different musical animal that has a powerful mode of expression and is absolutely exquisite.

When one talks about Ozeri’s music, words like “ancient” or even “primeval” frequently enter the discourse. “Ahuva’s music has a primordial sound that is deeply rooted,” writes Chava Alberstein in the booklet that comes with the CD.

“Her music,” observes singer Yael Deckelbaum in the booklet, “opened up ancient channels inside me.”

Primeval roots

Although the emphasis on an antique character in Ozeri’s songs is understandable, it is important to add that this primordial music also has a very contemporary flavor and is a living, breathing creation that is very much a part of the times. “A profound, primeval root that is pure emotion,” notes Shai Tzabari in his description of Ozeri’s voice and adds: “Yemenite, Indian and African, but also an integral part of Tel Aviv and the local neighborhood. Something that is timeless.”

The organic blend of ancient and contemporary is deeply rooted in Ozeri’s songs, but in this new album that quality is given added emphasis thanks to the musicians who worked with her, especially the album’s producer, Shaul Besser, who put together a magnificent accompanying band (wow, percussionist Zohar Fresco’s fingers are so clever!) and created a proper blend (despite a few “faux pas” here and there) of Mizrahi and Western tones.

In the CD’s booklet Besser writes, “As the work on the album progressed, I discovered that her music, which I did not grow up on, was somewhere inside me and has always been located there in a subconscious place.”
It is easy to identify with such a statement.
The first half of the album is almost perfect. The songs performed by Avraham,

Banai, Alberstein (who reveals a previously unknown – and totally incredible – ability in the climax to the song, “Eich ani eida”), Aflalo, Besser and Greek chanteuse Glykeria are exquisite. There are other excellent songs further on in the album, performed by Carlin, Tzabari, Peleg and Fresco, who concludes the album with the wonderful song, “Hayam” (“The Sea"); however, a number of songs are less impressive. Alal’s voice does not hold up very well in the song “Halev po’em”; Rona Kenan takes “Rakevet” a little too close to her usual territory; and the songs rendered by Sakharof, Dana Berger and Maor Cohen do not meet the high standards established by the previous songs in the album.

Before I first listened to “Maalei Demama” and after reviewing the list of artists, I thought there was something not quite right in the fact that only a few singers identified with Mizrahi music in its various forms appear in this album. Where are Amir Benayoun, Shlomo Bar, Rami Danoch, Ishay Levi and Eyal Golan? Dudu Tassa is a great admirer of Ozeri. Why isn't he here? And where is Dikla? How could an album like this be produced without her presence?

I could offer many more names of artists who would have turned “Maalei Demama” into an even more marvelous album than what it already is; however, it is so exquisite as it is that perhaps it would be better just to maintain silence and listen to its songs.

Ahuva Ozeri – “Maalei Demama.” Produced by Avoda Ivrit.

Ahuva Ozeri, after losing her voice to cancer, plays the bulbul tarang. Credit: Ilan Bessor

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