Now trending: Orientalism for babies

Most of the world is not familiar with post-colonial theory, and this album’s success is due to the audience’s naiveté. But forget politics; let me hug a baby and sing songs of nostalgia, anew.

By Ilana Shazur

Whoever chose the name “Baby Oriental 2” likely never heard of the term Orientalism. Had they heard of it, they would never have dared choose that name. Perhaps the opposite would be true, since they would be well versed in the discourse on Orientalism in academia and among the radical left. In any case, one of the most successful albums in Israel today is full of “world music” renditions of classic children’s songs. It might just be the format for international success.

Upon first listening to the album, I couldn’t help but shudder. On the one hand, the renditions are lovely and refreshing. On the other, it is a mixture that does not differentiate between cultures and nations. Let’s start with “Pizmon L’Yakinton” (“A Chorus for the Hyacinth”) by Liora Yitzhak, the most Indian singer in Israel today. The combination of Hindi with Hebrew sounds exotic and acceptable ever since she accompanied Israeli singers like Idan Raichel, Yoav Itzhak, Ahuva Ozeri, HaDag Nachash and Sholomo Bar with the protest song “Ritalin.” Pizmon L’Yakinton is the first song Liora Yitzhak recorded in Israel, and became a hit within a month. Is it because Israel’s Army Radio included it in its playlist? (And is it not absurd that that power is held by a few people in the army?) Is it because these well-known songs have been worn and played out, and here comes this international style to revive them? The small ensemble that is responsible for the music is moving and sweeps you away. The tune “Etze Li Hashuka” (“To the Market I Go”) is danceable and will certainly suit intimate moments between parents and children. Morin Nehedar’s lovely waltz makes me move, and the gentle simplicity of “Danny Gibor” (“Danny the Hero”) reawakened my compassion for the sad child of my youth. Touching.

Pizmon L’Yakinton – Liora Yitzhak

The album is a record-breaker in terms of sales. Parents who bought it did not feel reservations about the musical mixtures, since the Israeli ear is accustomed to such combinations. In fact, Israeli music is one big mix of styles and influences. I once met an Indian musician from Lod who used to be Ahuva Ozeri’s teacher. He claimed that there is no such thing as Israeli music, since the creation of a combined sound lasts for thousands of years. The Indian sound was created in the Far East, and there is no mistaking it, much like the Arabic sound. If you listen to Israeli music, there is no sound that automatically connects to Israel. Thus, there is no such thing as Israeli music, he insists. Since we don’t have an “Israeli sound,” there is no such thing as Israeli music. However, Israel does promote integration and intercultural encounters, alongside its social cleavages.

When composer Rivka Gavili met poet Leah Goldberg upon her arrival to Palestine in the 1930s, the latter didn’t know a word of Hebrew. Leah Goldberg handed her the words to A Chorus for the Hyacinth, and searched for a sound in a language that wasn’t hers. The musicality of the word “Hyacinth” in Hebrew pushed her to the Far East, leading her to imbue the song with a Japanese/Chinese sound.

The combination brings together musical styles that force us to become accustomed to a style of listening that we didn’t have 100 years ago when we used the monophone. The musical-emotional experience is different. Music on the album tends to reference popular world music, and not necessarily Oriental music. In this respect, Irish music or American folk are also part of a journey of world music. Fans claim that Liora’s octave jump in the last verse corresponds to a Mary Poppins song. The well-known song from Mary Poppins is perceived in the East as being clearly Western, although the same sound is used in Bollywood when the colonial Englishwoman starts singing about her love for a local Indian beast (Amir Khan).

The world fondly remembers Peter Gabriel’s Real World series, which at the time established terms like “world music” and “ethnic music.” In Israel these genres were expressed in Mediterranean pop or in the “Mozart in Egypt” albums, which collected different styles popular in Egypt, which until then were separated according to audience. The French artists journeyed to Egypt and collected music from villages, concert halls, clubs, churches and mosques, adding their own desert-inspired touch. Thus, various strands of Egyptian music were represented. In the case of “Mozart,” the different styles were weaved together wonderfully with the composers’ pieces.

In Israel, Mizrahi music was born in an era of advanced technology. There was Shlomo Bar and Zohar Argov, who was the first to sing in different styles – Yemenite, Spanish, Indian, Persian Moroccan – doing so with ease and grace. The world is full of musical meetings, only usually they are so primary and unripe; too technical and lacking emotional processes that are built from listening to a full, harmonial composition, rather than eclectic jumps that block any emotional buildup. Every piece of world music is primary and experimental. Perhaps in another 100 years things will be different. For now, it remains an unprecedented, rough mix in its attempts to bridge the gaps.

Liora Yitzhak has yet to release her own Israeli album. She left Lod for India, only to return 10 years later with extensive professional experience and top-notch musical knowledge similar to Western opera singers. Today she is running her own Headstart campaign to, finally, produce her own album. Will she finally be able to sing her own song?

The success of “Baby Oriental 2” comes as a result of a mix of nostalgia for classic songs and the enthusiasm over their new versions. Most of the world is not familiar with post-colonial theory, and this album’s success is due to the audience’s naiveté. Parents today are more open and tolerant than previous generations. This album is meant for children: that’s the secret to its orientalist success.

Etze Li Hashuka:

In my eyes, the great discovery of this album is its singular sound of the oud, accordion and dolkey. Should the orientalist sound be able to create the harmony of a hafla, it will be party for people of all ages, similar to the haflot and concerts in India. On Indian television one can still see mothers and fathers at concerts with sleeping babies slung over their shoulders. My parents did the same thing when we were young when they would take us to shows meant for adults. But I quickly got over my embarrassment and judgments the moment I saw the children dancing to Mizrahi sounds.

Forget politics, let me hug a baby or a partner and sing songs of nostalgia, anew.

Click here to read this article in Hebrew on Café Gibraltar.