Monday, May 26, 2008

The Songs of Israel (Part 2)

Anyone who knows anything about Israeli music probably knows the name Naomi Shemer. By every measure she towered over other Israeli songwriters. For half a century her songs were, literally, the voice of a nation and a people. After her death in 2004 it was revealed that she had appropriated the melody of a Basque folksong for Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. The Jewish people held no grudge.

But there was another great female Israeli composer who lived in her shadow for decades, Nurit Hirsh. Her name is less well known in North America, even though her music was (commercially) more successful.

Having a hit song is one thing, but composing a mega-hit, a song that by definition alters the musical landscape, is quite another. By that yardstick, Nurit Hirsh’s Oseh Shalom became the equal of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, and more. Where did this seemingly “traditional” song come from? Oseh Shalom was one of two hit songs from the first Hassidic Song Festival, held in Tel Aviv during Sukkot of 1969. This is what it sounded like on the very night of its premiere. (The other was V’haeir Eineinu by Shlomo Carlebach, whose wildly popular Hasidic-pop songs had inspired the Festival. In the years following, a dozen or more Hasidic flavored worship standards would emerge from this Festival to become part of the permanent American synagogue repertoire.)

Nurit Hirsh’s new Oseh Shalom arrived on these shores like every other Israeli song in those days – via sh’lichim (emissaries) who came here from Israel in search of olim chadashim (new immigrants). During the spring of 1970 it spread through a network of Hebrew teachers and young rabbis, helped along by high school students returning from their Israeli exchange programs. For those of us strumming our guitars at Jewish camps in 1970 (I was 16) and learning it for the first time, it hit like a bolt of summer lightning.

Yes, during that summer we were gifted with one of the most recognizable Jewish songs in history. Through the summer and into the fall it was on everyone’s lips, and by the following year it felt like an old friend. In Jewish venues across the USA, from synagogues, camps and Hebrew schools to Federations, nursing homes and nightclubs, it became an anthem. Here is NFTY’s recording from 1972. 

Before long, teenagers, emboldened by the power of this new song (and others that would follow) urged their rabbis and cantors to include it in worship services, and many did. But some questioned the appropriateness of such a “simple” tune becoming part of the regular synagogue repertoire. Youth group and camp was one thing, they said, but the bima was another. In 1975 I attended an academic conference on Jewish music, at which I heard a well-known musicologist complain that the repetition of melodic sequences in Oseh Shalom’s B and C sections made it a poor choice for inclusion in synagogue services.

The following summer brought her second mega-hit, Bashanah Haba’ah, to an American Jewish audience now hungry for tuneful, inspiring and spirited new Israeli songs. Hirsh’s bouncy and playful melody, wedded to the late Ehud Manor’s elegant and simple lyrics was a huge hit at camp - we couldn’t stop singing it. By the early ‘70s El Al was using it in TV commercials, so kids would start dancing around the dining hall with arms outstretched like airplane wings whenever it was sung, and before long everyone was doing it.

Bashanah is an enduring song and I love singing it. But it has taken on more than a hint of Catskill kitsh, especially when done in swing time. This may be a legacy of the song’s English language version, “Anytime of the Year” sung by (Brooklyn cantor’s son) Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Broadway lyricist Robert Brittan’s “translation” has little to do with the Hebrew, (maybe that’s for the best) and while Steve and Eydie’s swinging 45 rpm version is rarer than rare, this excerpt, sung by Holly Lipton gives you the general idea.

Interpreting Bashanah is a risky affair. Where do you go with it – swing? samba? The song has started to show up in December school “Holiday” concerts as the token Jewish song, which, sadly, can only hasten its decent into dreidle-ization. I’ll give some credit to the San Diego Men’s Chorus for trying a different tack in this YouTube video, and then finish up with two of my personal favorites.

First, from the mid-70s, is the proto-Jewish-rock-group, Tayku, five superb musicians who met while studying Torah at JTS. Bassist David Burger is a highly respected composer and performer, while pianist Matthew (Mati) Lazar has become one of the leading conductors of Jewish choral music on the planet. It's an inventive arrangement. The Latin treatment is, trust me, (as I have said before) cutting edge for its time. I only wish I had a better sounding LP version, but sadly, a CD transfer was never released. Listen here.

Two decades later we have a very refreshing straight ahead rock treatment by the Boston based (and quite Beatlesque) Yom Hadash, one of our great contemporary Jewish bands, from their first album, When We Were Young. Listen here.

How can I end a tribute to Nurit Hirsh without taking note of her third big hit, Abanibi? Here’s the video. The cute disco hit (I actually kind of like it) gave Israel its first ever 1st Prize at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1978, paving the way for Halleluyah, video here, which also won 1st Prize for Israel the following year (and probably earned more money than anything either Shemer or Hirsh ever composed.) Eurovision songs have never been accused of heft - let’s just say the bubblier and bouncier your song is, the better your chance of taking home a prize.


Anonymous said...

The Jewish Blues recorded an absolutely smokin' version back in 1979 with one of the most drivin' guitar solos recorded in the Jewish world - I'll try to figure out how to link an audio of it (and I didn't even know the words "v'nispor sippurim nod'dot:)

shmuel simenowitz

Jim Ball said...

Hey Jeff...Tayku had a digitally remastered version of their album on CD (remastered by Rami Yadid). I'll have a copy for you--I believe I have two.

Jim Ball