The Noam Inbar Show: From Yiddish Lullabies to Mahmoud Darwish

The performance of 'Hardama' ('Sleep Inducement') at the Israel Museum on July 12 will also feature mattresses for the audience.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

"This song is called 'An Insan,' about a human being, and is sung by the East Jerusalem band Sabreen, and I should play it if we're talking about it," says Noam Inbar. He goes to his computer, finds the song on YouTube, clicks it on, and then says in disgust, "Wait a minute, there's a revolting ad here!" When the ad is removed, lovely sounds of various string instruments erupt from the computer, along with the wonderful voice of Kamilya Jubran, Sabreen's singer.

"It's such a moving song," sighs Inbar. "The text is by Mahmoud Darwish. It's not a lullaby at all, but a kind of Palestinian alternative humanist anthem. It talks about a man who is expelled from every port he arrives in, but it ends on an optimistic note. Darwish writes that Nero is dead but Rome still lives. Now there's a dark government, but it will be replaced. I think that we'll end the show with this song, or with Habiluim's song 'Let the Wind Blow.' In any case, it will end on a very political note."

"Hardama" ("Sleep Inducement" ), the show about which Inbar is talking, will take place July 12 at the Israel Museum as part of "Point of Contact," an event in which artists from many disciplines will take over the museum and stage performances that relate to the exhibitions on display there. "Hardama" will take place in the museum's youth wing, where the exhibition "Good Night" is on display, and will include renditions by Inbar and his three partners (guitarist Adam Scheflan, drummer Ariel Armoni and wind instrument player and violinist Yoni Silver ) of lullabies in Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, Polish, English and perhaps even Armenian.

Audience on mattresses

It's not surprising to hear that "Hardama," in which Inbar and his partners will play to an audience lying on mattresses ("vertical listeners will not be allowed!" says the event Web site ), will include a political Palestinian song. Inbar, a member of Habiluim, is one of the most political artists on the Israeli music scene. On the other hand, it's surprising to hear that the show will open with a performance of "Laila" (Night ) by Shalom Hanoch, who represents a consensual Israeliness that does not accord with the critical left-wing tone typical of Inbar.

"You could say that 'Laila' is a song of a dominant white male," laughs Inbar, "but that's not the issue. I don't see it as a matter of consensus. It's simply an amazing song. It's beautifully set to music. It's incredible that Shalom wrote it at the age of 16."

And how is it connected to the song by Mahmoud Darwish and Sabreen?

"You could say that I am taking the event in the museum hostage in order to create an image of a different society, in which Shalom Hanoch and Kamilya Jubran and S. Ansky (the Yiddish poet whose song "Die Nacht" will also be performed at "Hardama" ) - all sit together around a child's bed, or they're the children lying in bed. Without being a megalomaniac, that's a personal utopia of mine."

"Hardama," to be performed twice on July 12, will be presented as a musical sequence with two layers: One will be composed of what Inbar calls "a cloud of sound" or "a cloud of quiet" to be created by the four musicians, and from this cloud the second layer - 10 lullabies to be sung by Inbar - will emerge. "I don't know if the people who come to the show and listen to the songs lying down will really fall asleep, but I hope they will," says Inbar. "It's a known fact that when we dream or sleep, we're very sensitive to sound. It's an element that enters our dreams. My hope is that people will enter a kind of meditative state, and then the songs will enter their consciousness in a very non-aggressive way. The songs will float and penetrate straight into the subconscious."

Inbar could have assembled an entire performance of Yiddish lullabies, but he says: "There's something very boring about Yiddish lullabies. There are a few pretty songs, but there are also thousands of songs that are musically boring." The only song Inbar will sing in Yiddish at "Hardama," Ansky's "Die Nacht," is not a lullaby but rather an existentialist song that man sings about his loneliness in the world. "In the context of the show," says Inbar, "it becomes a kind of lullaby, because most lullabies are actually songs that the mother sings to herself and about herself."

Nationalism and war crimes

Most of the songs to be sung at the performance are gloomy songs, for the simple reason that most lullabies are like that. Inbar pulls out a sheet with the words of the old Hebrew song, "Lie down, my son, lie down peacefully," which will also be sung at "Hardama," and begins to read:

"'A cold, cold night/ a fox gnashes his teeth/ Making his rounds on guard/ Daddy is not sleeping - The silo is burning on Tel Yosef/ And smoke is rising from Beit Alfa too/ But don't you continue to cry/ Fall asleep, lie down and sleep.'

"It's really ... I rest my case," he says, almost in amazement. "Simple and crude writing, with all the nationalist cliches, but there's beauty in it too."

The proud Zionism of "Lie down, my son, lie down peacefully" will be followed by one of the most venomous songs of Habiluim - the distorted lullaby "The Wind Will Blow," in which a father tries to explain to his son what he did in 1948: "Yes, son, it's true, I held her from behind / It was for security reasons, if you don't mind / And we took her each in turn / Yes, son, it's true, we had her on the sand that burned / She was given a shovel to dig / At the time it looked like the right thing." (A description of an incident in the 1948 war when Israeli soldiers raped and murdered a Bedouin girl they encountered ).

Inbar claims vehemently that it is not a macabre song and says that the song was written "out of the thought that we have to talk about 1948 as much as possible. But this song is also talking about our generation. It's we who are singing it. Why are we singing? Because we're singing about ourselves."

"Let the Wind Blow" is the only lullaby in "Hardama" sung by a father instead of a mother. "I'm neither a father nor a mother, but there is no female voice in this show," says Inbar.

Although there's something feminine about your singing.

"Oh, thank you," says Inbar. "That's how I made my money. Everything you see around you," he smiles, pointing to the old closet in the modest apartment where he lives.

When Renana Raz, the artistic director of "Point of Contact," asked Inbar to participate in the event, the main thing that attracted him was her suggestion that he sing in several languages. "This Paul Robeson thing - in any case I've been doing it more and more," he says. The black American singer, actor and political activist from the 1920s through the 1950s is one of Inbar's heroes. "He was a communist, he went all over the world singing in Russian, Chinese and other languages. For me he represents an ideal of cultural internationalism."

At first, says Inbar, he toyed with the idea of singing in several distant languages like Chinese, but then it reminded him of the Disneyland attraction "It's a small world after all." "There are a million dolls with the flags of all the countries there, and they all sing that it's a small world, and you're stuck there for about 40 minutes. It's terrible, I don't want to do such a thing. We'll stay close by. We'll invest our energy in Hebrew, Arabic and a few Jewish languages."

With Habiluim (who issued their first album in 2003, disbanded five years later and are planning to get back together soon ) Inbar sang in Hebrew. In the Oy Division band, which has been active since the mid-2000s, he sings in Yiddish. In his new band, "Greedy Adam," he sings in English. During those years he progressed from being a good singer to being an outstanding one. Does he think that the various languages in which he sings contributed to that?

"I'm going to utter a terrible cliche: Every language has a music of its own, and every time you begin to sing in a new language you have to retune yourself. It really opens your awareness. And there is also the business of the chameleon, the Zelig. You understand slowly but surely that there is no authenticity, that it's all nonsense, that anyone who sells you authenticity is lying to you. Even the old blues singer who knows how to do only one thing, even she is not authentic. The moment you create something and you stylize what you do, you distance yourself from directness. You can convey some kind of unmediated facade, and it can create a moving aesthetic experience, but it's a lie, a good lie. It's art.

Yiddish as anti-Israeliness

"The place of imitation, of assuming an identity, that interests me," continues Inbar. "Yiddish is also a disguise. They didn't speak Yiddish in my home. My father barely knows Yiddish, and on my mother's side they spoke Ladino. I learned the language, absorbed it, listened to recordings, and tried to create something that is a vision. It began from intuition, I didn't know what I was doing, and it became political: Yiddish as anti-Israeliness. Today it's no longer like that, but when we began Oy Division six or seven years ago, that was the situation. Today there's a trendy return to Yiddish, after that culture was actually destroyed. To me Yiddish is an international, non-national language. Certainly not the language of the Land of Israel."

He speaks enthusiastically about one of his latest historical discoveries - the street language that was a mixture of Yiddish and Arabic and was spoken in pre-state Jerusalem. "It's amazing," he says. "I want to do something with it. Maybe write an opera."

Meanwhile he has started singing in English too. That happened while he was studying art in London, and it surprised him. For years he felt scorn for Israeli musicians who sang in English. "I'm still suspicious of that, because it's the language of the empire," he says. "It's like being someone in Canaan who writes in Latin during the Roman Empire period in order to curry favor. Maybe there's a chance of sending it to Rome and succeeding there.

"When we began with Habiluim, God knows how many years ago, Hebrew was very important to us," continues Inbar. "We had a feeling that Hebrew was getting lost when it came to music. There was a real drought, terrible writing. The bands of our generation didn't know how to write and to rhyme, they weren't meticulous about phonetics and meter, they didn't use the plastic qualities of the language. There was something crude about it, Aviv Geffen-like. Today that's no longer the case, and Hebrew is another option, not necessarily the only one."

The last sentence reminds Inbar of Habiluim, and it turns out that he has news: They are coming back. "We formed an ensemble (Inbar, Yami Wisler, pianist Maya Dunietz and drummer Shiko Sinai ), there are written songs, and in a few months we'll be performing once again," he says.

Is there a reason for that good news?

"No. It's contrary to everything I believe in. A bad, stupid, frustrating and financially illogical decision. We'll go back to performing in September-October. It will be great."

Musician Noam Inbar, on his 'Hardama' show at Israel Museum: 'In any case, it will end on a very political note.'Credit: David Bachar