An Israeli Singer Taps Into Her Moroccan Roots – in Show of Defiance Against Hebrew

Singer Tamar Bloch, known both in Israel and in Morocco, is bringing music from her personal and cultural home to the fore in the rare language of Haketia

Tamar Bloch, aka Lala Tamar.
Rafael Levy; styling: Sveta Knokh

I met singer Tamar Bloch – aka Lala Tamar – on a major street in Jaffa. Barefoot and wearing a colorful galabia, she brought me via various backyards to her “lair,” as she calls her studio apartment. Immediately upon entering, I got a homey feeling. Beautiful wooden furniture and a piano, paintings and Moroccan fabrics hanging on the walls, a computer open on a small table.

I sat down on the sofa, she made coffee for me and then began to sing. I was fascinated. Her first single, “Bellida,” was released for radio airplay last Friday, and is sung in a language called Haketia, the Ladino of Spanish Morocco. Like many young Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin) these days, Bloch, 29, is among those of the second and third generation who are returning their parents’ language.

However, she explains, “I’m not involved in a preservation project and the social narrative isn’t what’s important to me. In my music I have found, after much searching, a real place for intimate expression – a language that’s a home.”

Being a singer “was not among my chosen professions,” says Bloch, adding that the decision followed a long process. She began by studying with singer Ziva Attar, “one of the women who influenced me most,” and then in 2014 musician Roee Fadida invited her to join an ensemble that plays contemporary arrangements of Moroccan music. “I had a physical reaction to that music,” she recalls. “It’s like you smell a roll outside a bakery and you have to take a bite.”

This marked the beginning of Zaaluk, a band that’s active to this day and performs songs in Moroccan and Haketia in Israel and abroad. Bloch also collaborates with an ensemble called Andalucious, created four years ago by a group of musicians studying with violinist and arranger Elad Levi. Last year she performed with the group at the Andalusian Atlantic Music Festival in Essaouira, Morocco, and they are also performing there as part of this year’s festival.

Many young Moroccans are familiar with Bloch’s songs, attend her concerts and even recognize her on the streets of Morocco. Her stage name is Lala Tamar, “Lala” being an endearing and respectful Moroccan term for matriarchs, she says. In her case, the name is also a tribute to Lala, a 14-century Kashmiri-Indian poet.

Bloch is busy these days. She performed at the recent InDNegev Music Festival, is staging a show called “Eretz Rehoka” (“A Distant Land”) with Orly Portal, a dancer and folklorist, and she is also working on her first album – which is entirely in Haketia – with arranger Levi and producer/sound engineer Ori Vinocur.

“It’s definitely a pop album,” she reveals. “It’s not world music from a distant and inaccessible culture, which is being preserved. I bring the songs in modern arrangements in the understanding of how relevant this music is.”

The singer’s passion for Haketia comes from home, she says. Her mother was born in Morocco and her father, in Brazil. She inherited her last name from her great-grandmother, who immigrated to Brazil from Romania.

Bloch: “My grandparents’ home was like a little Brazil. I heard mainly Brazilian music, and the Latin languages are the world from which I draw my inspiration. For me it makes no difference that it’s in Haketia; it stands on its own as a modern song for all intents and purposes. Politics doesn’t interest me and sometimes it even exhausts me.”

Tamar Bloch performs at the InDNegev music festival, October 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

When she wants to write a song today, she explains, “I have my own language. Many Israeli Jewish artists play Western chords and sing in English. That’s their language. And it’s not mine.” Still, the decision to sing in a language like Haketia is not trivial: It is a broken language, a language of immigrants that is a mixture of Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic – a language spoken by few people today, which is mostly mentioned within the context of academic research, and even that is limited.

“I know that this personal choice of mine is of significance for people, and it’s socially significant as well,” Bloch continues. “On the one hand, it engenders a commitment to tradition and a lot of respect. On the other hand, I’m not studying this music only to preserve tradition. This is my work now, it’s my tool; from within it I write my songs, which are Tamar. This activity likely involves a lot of preservation, but the idea is that at the same time it’s also a personal expression.”

Bloch is part of a wave of young male and female artists with origins in Arab and Islamic countries who are choosing to sing in their mother tongues. Among these are Neta Elkayam, who sings in Moroccan; Mor Karbasi, who sings in Spanish and Haketia; more seasoned vocalists like Maureen Nehedar, who sings in Persian, and Yasmin Levy who sings in Ladino; and so on.

None of them choose music solely in order to preserve culture or pure folklore. They create contemporary music in those languages, and in so doing are reviving a culture but at the same time creating a new and unique culture, which is garnering recognition and attention worldwide.

But beyond giving these languages a presence on the Israeli and international scene, there is a certain defiance here against using the Hebrew language, which does not fully represent the identity of the above-mentioned artists, and others as well.

Why not sing in Hebrew, for example?

Bloch: “I sometimes sing Moroccan piyyutim [Jewish liturgical poems] in Hebrew, and then the Hebrew is expressed through the musical tradition of Morocco and acquires its resonance. But today’s Hebrew is a language that is cut off from roots, cut off from folklore. It’s an amazing language. But its daily use is divorced from tradition. Language is one of the more powerful layers of folklore and it should be interwoven into every aspect of daily life. But I have to reach a higher level of writing in contemporary and everyday Hebrew in order to be able to connect my folklore to the Hebrew language.”

“Bellida,” which Roee Fadida helped arrange, is a women’s song – it represents a tradition of women’s singing that is part of everyday life, according to tradition. It describes a conversation between the Jewish girl Bellida and her girlfriends after she marries Pepe, a Christian boy. “’You can marry Pepe and eat his dry cakes, but on Shabbat we’ll send you hamin [a traditional Jewish Shabbat dish]’ – that’s what they say in the song,” explains Bloch.

This song, she adds, “embodies great mutual, feminine responsibility. Something that I really yearn for. For Jews assimilation is a very serious prohibition. But they don’t ostracize her [Bellida]: They retain responsibility for her by means of tradition, through food. This song is an example of feminine folklore that is not religious. They are describing the simple elements of everyday life.”

For Bloch, artistic creativity is also part of everyday life.

“If I sing to my girlfriend, I imagine these women dancing together. They describe the dance, sitting together. It comes from the African concept that music is part of everyone’s daily life; everyone works and sings and dances. Music brings people together. In Morocco, too, you see everyone sitting and singing, and being familiar with the words,” she says. “In Israel music reflects the various cultural homes from which we came. The real challenge is to try to create a new sound from within every such home.”

At issue, then, is not an element that connects things; it separates, differentiates. Just as the Hebrew language can be seen to constitute a rift, if only because it represents the loss of history, the past, the culture and the language of all the diasporas.