Not a Word of Hebrew in These New Israeli Singles

What we have instead is Arabic, Farsi and Darija.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Nasreen Qadri. Her singing is so much stronger in Arabic.
Nasreen Qadri. Her singing is so much stronger in Arabic.Credit: Sharon Revivo
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Along with the dozens of songs released every week in Hebrew and the few in English, a handful of songs are also released by Israeli singers performing in a Middle Eastern language. Last month saw an extreme illustration of this trend. Not only was the nation on holiday, so was the Hebrew language. There isn’t a word of Hebrew in this batch of newly released singles. What we have instead is Arabic, Farsi and Darija (Moroccan Arabic).

1. Nasreen Qadri – “Ahib al Hiya”

The main criticism of the fine debut album released last year by Israeli-Arab singer Nasreen Qadri was that it contained too much Hebrew and too little Arabic. Most of the songs were exclusively in Hebrew. Arabic cropped up only in a few key lines, and even then most of the text was in Hebrew. Two examples are “Hayati,” one of the most beautiful songs of the past 12 months, and the lovely ballad “Ana Bahibak.”

Obviously, Qadri – an Arab pop singer who works in a cultural situation that does not exactly encourage Arabic artistic creativity – has the right to do whatever she chooses, and no one has the right to preach to her. The thing is, though, she sings better in Arabic. Her standout vocal qualities are largely neutralized when she performs in Hebrew (as witnessed by the fact that the all-Hebrew ballads on her debut album were significantly inferior to the ballads utilizing both Hebrew and Arabic). So, Qadri’s first all-Arabic single, “Ahib al Hiya” (“I Love Life”), is good news even before one hears a note. And it turns out to have plenty of notes – enough for three, if not four, standard Israeli pop songs.

In principle, this is a great choice, illustrating the melodic and rhythmic richness of Arab pop. However, there’s a sense of overload, of exaggerated zigzag between styles (bombastic rock, emotional ballad, dance-style pop). There’s also a big difference between the song’s good parts (notably its middle section) and those that aren’t so good (the beat and verse recall a children’s song festival). It sounds less like Qadri’s first song in Arabic and more like her first, second and third songs in Arabic, all forcibly compressed into three minutes.

But at least one of these “songs” is very good. And even if the other “songs” aren’t as good, it’s still a pleasure to listen to Qadri’s voice.

2. Tara Melter – “Hitchki”

It’s a safe bet that “Hitchki,” the theme tune from Dror Shaul’s movie “Atomic Falafel,” sounds terrific in its cinematic context and perfectly matches the film’s fast pace and irreverent tone. Even outside the movie theater, the song sounds very positive, though its shortcomings are also apparent. Tara Melter, who appears in the film and performs the song, is a young Iranian actress who lives in Germany. In “Hitchki,” she assumes the character of a provocative rapper (though she’s not really angry – after all, “Atomic Falafel” is a comedy).

She does so with talent and charm, and the Farsi rolls off the tongue alongside a nifty beat. The whole song projects a fresh, young, proud scent – maybe a little too young, with a slide into a Children’s Channel-style hip-hop vibe. The production isn’t top-notch, either, as can be heard almost immediately, when a rock guitar provides the rhythm. Who needs rock guitar in a hip-hop song? “Hitchki” means “nobody” in Farsi (the song’s message – nobody, certainly not parents or the establishment, will tell me what to do – is also perilously close to the cliché zone). But because the song exists primarily in a cinematic context, it’s hard to stop imagining hearing the wife of the director of “Psycho” calling him by that name in intimate moments.

3. Yehuda Masas and Victor Wizman – “Azhini Uzhini”

Yehuda Masas is a veteran musician with five albums to his credit, including the lovely “Thoughts” with Amir Benayoun. He has also written for some of Israel’s leading artists, such as Shlomo Artzi, Shlomi Shabat and Shiri Maimon. Victor Wizman was the singer in the 1990s band Sahara – the group in which Shimon Buskila got his start. The new single by Masas and Wizman is a track from their forthcoming album “Memories: The Moroccan Project,” which will contain new versions of old Moroccan songs along with original compositions in Moroccan Arabic.

“Azhini Uzhini” (no, us neither) is one of the original songs (written by Shimon Wizman, Victor’s brother), but it’s one of those tracks that generates appreciation more than enthusiasm. The melody is catchy and the performance flows, but things get bogged down somewhere in the middle. The song lacks the rough-hewn, free momentum often heard in Moroccan music. At the same time, its musical expression doesn’t have the quiet depth of meditativeness of a liturgical piyyut, such as one might expect from a project called “Memories.”

The same compromise is evident on the instrumental side: the percussion and string instruments generate the potential for full-throttle thrust, but the bass – too structured and sometimes boring – makes everything too safe and too moderate.

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