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Dropping Knowledge

As diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey thaw, a new song compilation revisits their rich and complex musical connection

Dana Kessler
April 23, 2021
Courtesy Ladies on Records
Kornelia BinicewiczCourtesy Ladies on Records
Courtesy Ladies on Records
Kornelia BinicewiczCourtesy Ladies on Records

“Since the beginning of the two young states—the Republic of Turkey and Israel, music has been a tool to protect, create, and unite the nation,” writes Kornelia Binicewicz—the Polish record collector, DJ, and cultural anthropologist in the liner notes of A Drop of Luck, her newest curated compilation. “The authorities of the new countries, following the ideas of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Ben-Gurion in Israel, invested significant effort into producing new national music. Music was supposed to reveal the nation’s spirit and shape its character. Neither Turkey nor Israel wanted to be perceived as a part of the Middle East or Asia and were trying to diminish the role of their geographical locations. The urge to be disconnected from the Arab context (both countries for their own political and cultural reasons) was as strong as the dream to be seen exclusively as Western and modern nations.” But, in both Turkey and Israel, these Eastern sounds could not be drowned out and flourished outside of the mainstream.

A Drop of Luck is a digital compilation of Turkish and Israeli music, telling the story of a musical connection between the two countries that is still unknown to many. Half of the compilation (called “Sources”) contains Israeli and Turkish songs, some by female singers and some by male, ranging from the ’50s to the ’90s. The other half (called “Adaptations”) contains covers of the same songs, ranging from the ’60s to the 2000s, all by female vocalists. We hear Israeli female singers, like Zehava Ben and Liat Banai, interpreting Turkish songs and Turkish female singers, like Gönül Turgut and Şenay, interpreting Israeli songs.

A Drop of Luck was released on Binicewicz’s Ladies on Records—a curatorial venture whose primary motive is to represent women’s contribution to global music of the past decades. Binicewicz, who currently lives in Istanbul, finds hidden musical gems, made by women, in archives and back catalogs, and brings them to light in a new, contemporary, context. She creates compilations, DJs, writes about music, and also served as a curator of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland, which heightened her interest in Israeli music and prompted her exploration of its relationship with Turkish sounds.

In her liner notes, which you can read here, Binicewicz traces the mechanisms behind the creation of popular Turkish and Israeli music from the ’60s to the 2000s, pointing out striking similarities in the countries’ efforts to establish new identities through the inclusion and exclusion of specific cultural motifs. The compilation, and the text that accompanies it, tell the story of tensions and power struggle between centers and peripheries, West and East, and elites and the working class in both nations.

“After the 1950s, the popular hybrid music culture called Arabesk emerged among migrants who came to the country’s major cities—Istanbul and Ankara—from the rural Southeast,” Binicewicz writes. “Their music expressed resentment and fear from the rapid urbanization and westernization of the country. It was a call to hold to an ‘Eastern’ Turkish culture associated with Arab and Muslim culture. However, this demand was not to be fulfilled for quite a long time—the officials were in control of the Turkish music industry. They forcefully tried to disconnect it from the Arabic influences until the 1970s.”

Courtesy Ladies on Records

This Turkish Arabesk music struck a chord with marginalized Mizrahi populations in Israel. Mizrahi in Hebrew means Eastern, and traditionally Mizrahi music was the “music of the neighborhoods” (a polite euphemism for “slums”) inhabited by the Jews coming from Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Yemen, Morocco, and Tunisia—it was outsider music, created far from the mainstream, which in Israel’s first few decades was comprised of “Hebrew music, chanson style songs, military band music with Euro-American instrumentation, patriotic and mythological repertoire, based on the Western musical modes and style,” as Binicewicz puts it, referring to the huge success of Israeli military ensembles like The Nahal Band, and French-influenced bands from the ’60s, like Shlishiyat Gesher HaYarkon (Yarkon Bridge Trio.)

The “Turkish style,” as it is known in Israel, of Mizrahi music—heavily influenced by Arabesk and containing many covers of Arabesk hits—is considered the most hardcore of Mizrahi’s subgenres. Also known as “depression music,” the Turkish style of stars like Ofer Levi, Avi Bitter, Moshe Cohen, and Tamir Gal is a heavy, melodramatic, and emotional genre that sounds nothing like the modern pop-and-dance-oriented Mizrahi music, which is known today as Muzika Yam Tichonit (Mediterranean music).

The Turkish subgenre exploded in the late 1980s in Israel due to Ofer Levi, its biggest star. It never crossed over into mainstream radio, as the Mediterranean style did later, since its songs were deemed too long and too depressing. Yet, this Turkish style remained extremely popular in the Mizrahi music scene up until the early 2000s, considered by many to be “the real Mizrahi music,” since it is heavier, more emotional, and thus more “real” than the Western pop-influenced, lightweight Mediterranean style. Alcoholism, discrimination, loneliness, and depression were major themes in the lyrics, and as in the original Arabesk, the Israeli Turkish style was usually in a minor key, telling tales of woe, full of broken hearts, hardship, and longing.

The Israeli Turkish style also birthed many female performers who dazzled with their voices as well as their stage personas. The biggest of them all is the cover star of the compilation—Israeli icon Zehava Ben, who is illustrated on the front in a 1980s airbrushed style. The title, A Drop of Luck, is in Hebrew Tipat Mazal—the name of Zehava’s breakthrough hit. Growing up in a poor neighborhood in the Southern city of Be’er Sheva to Moroccan parents, as a teenager she became a singer in Mizrahi clubs in the ’80s. She released her debut cassette, Tipat Mazal, in 1988 and, like all Mizrahi cassettes at the time, it was distributed in the Central Bus Station of Tel Aviv. Tipat Mazal was a best seller, elevating Zehava Ben to the status of a cultural icon, much like the king of Mizrahi music, Zohar Argov, before her. At the age of 19, Zehava became a superstar overnight, and while Mizrahi music was still not mainstream at the time, everyone in the country had heard of her. Soon enough, another female singer tried (and ultimately failed) to steal Zehava’s thunder, also with renditions of Turkish songs: the bleached blond Anat ha-Mehamemet, meaning Anat the Gorgeous or Anat the Fabulous.

Zehava’s Tipat Mazal is a Hebrew rendition of the song Yil Darasi, originally sung by the mustachioed Turkish vocalist, musician, and bağlama player Orhan Gencebay. Her song choice had to do with the fact that Turkish music was perceived in the Mizrahi music scene as authentic—soul music that let you belt out your pain—which was what a voice like Zehava’s and a girl with her background was born to do. There was also a pragmatic reason: There wasn’t any kind of intellectual property agreement between Israel and Turkey at the time, so Turkish songs were considered public domain and royalty-free.

Importantly, the words of Yil Darasi weren’t translated to Hebrew; the songwriter Dani Shoshan wrote new lyrics, in Hebrew, for Zehava. This was common practice in Israeli adaptations of Turkish songs, and vice versa. The original lyrics usually weren’t translated; instead they were discarded and replaced with new lyrics, with a different meaning, written in the new language. “In the case of Mizrahi and Arabesk, the lyrics often express some kind of fatalism and misfortune,” Binicewicz told me. “They usually were not translated; the writers created their own songs. The sound had a definite cultural meaning and was used by the artists to deliver the cultural message accompanied with local and more accurate lyrics.”

In 1992, Tipat Mazal was turned into a feature film—internationally called A Bit of Luck—produced by Yoram Globus and directed by the Moroccan-born star of the Israeli bourekas film genre, Zeev Revach. Revach starred as a singer from Morocco who emigrated with his daughter (played by Zehava) to Israel in the 1950s after his wife ran away with her lover to Paris. He turns to alcohol to cope with the hardships of the new country and loses his eyesight (as you could expect in a melodrama of this sort) only to be saved by the fact that his daughter has the voice of an angel. In hindsight, the film is perceived as an allegory of the plight of the North African Jews who emigrated to Israel.

While Zehava Ben is a singer of Moroccan descent that had her breakthrough in the Turkish style, other vocalists in this style were of Turkish descent, such as Linet Menaşi. Known only as Linet, she started performing together with her mother, Layla, at the age of 5, released her debut song at the age of 16, and held a musical career both in Israel and in Turkey, while moving back and forth, and Liat Banai, another female star of the genre, who was discovered at the age of 15 when Mizrahi star Avi Bitter heard her singing Tipat Mazal. Though most female stars of the genre started very young, some were specifically branded as child stars, such as Müjde the wunderkind. The little Kawaii Turkish girl (born Müjde Hepokur), looked like a Japanese preteen idol. She was born in Istanbul and gained fame in Israel in the early 1990s, aided by the mainstream rocker Miki Gavrielov, who at the time was reconnecting musically to his Turkish roots.

And way before Müjde, there was Grazia (born Grazia Peretz), an Israeli singer. Her talent got recognized in Mizrahi clubs and weddings when she was 9 years old, and in 1978 she released her only LP, simply called Grazia, at the age of 16. Her album, an Israeli teenager singing a Turkish repertoire in a new edgy and psychedelic manner, was released on vinyl by legendary Mizrahi record label from Jaffa, Koliphone and recently rereleased by the hip Tel Aviv reissue label Fortuna Records. Her innovative music, along with other Israeli female singers who adopted Turkish sounds, is featured in A Drop of Luck as well.

While Mizrahi Jews in Israel found a cultural connection with Turkish Arabesk music, Turks in the ’70s saw Israel as a bridge to a Western and modern culture. In those days, Tel Aviv was swinging, chic, and cool, inspiring Turkish singers to record renditions of modern Israeli hits, originally sung by such divas as Yaffa Yarkoni, Rika Zarai, and Ilanit.

One of the most noteworthy covers in A Drop of Luck is the Turkish rendition of Ofra Haza’s famous Im Ninalu—which not only Turkey fell in love with, but also the entire Western world. As anyone who was into pop in the ’80s remembers, the Israeli singer of Yemenite descent Ofra Haza became an international dance-floor and chart-pop smash in 1987 with her contemporary rendition of Im Ninalu—a traditional Yemenite liturgical poem written in the 17th century by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi. A year later, Im Ninalu was covered by a pop Turkish female singer Zerrin Özer (Hani Yeminin?), bringing the song to young Turkish listeners with new anguished lyrics in Turkish.

Another interesting cover in the compilation is Erkekleri Tanıyın, by the enduringly successful Turkish blond bombshell popstar Ajda Pekkan. Erkekleri Tanıyın was originally the song Im Ata Tzair Balev by Aris San, who was a unique and fascinating phenomenon in Israeli pop culture himself. Aris San was a Greek, non-Jewish singer who arrived in Israel in the late ’50s, where he became a megastar, club owner, close friend of IDF commanders and politicians, and man about town. In 1960s Israel, everyone was singing Aris’ hits, and the gossip columns told of his love affair with singer Aliza Azikri. Even though he was Greek, his influence contributed to the rise of Turkish music in Israel. The audiences in the Mizrahi neighborhoods connected emotionally to the Greek music and embraced it, as it let them express their identity in a “politically” lighter way. Though these Greek stylings tapped into non-Western sensibilities, it was deemed politically safe since it was not “Arab.” Much of the Greek performers’ repertoire was in Turkish, not Greek, leading many Turkish songs to become popular in the Mizrahi neighborhoods of Israel.

After decades of denial, Mizrahi and Arabesk became the most popular genres in Israel and Turkey, respectively. After the 1980 coup d’état, Arabesk became mainstream in Turkey. In Israel, political and social processes starting with the Israeli Black Panthers of the 1970s and Menachem Begin and the Likud party ending 30 years of left-wing rule in 1977, eventually catalyzed the immense success of Mizrahi singer Zohar Argov—a son of Yemenite immigrants. By the late ’90s, Mizrahi music was mainstream in the country, aided by the enormous success of singers like Eyal Golan and Sarit Hadad.

Interestingly, nowadays the connection to Turkish music can be felt strongly in Israel’s alternative music scene. Since mainstream Mizrahi music is so watered down and identity politics are a hot topic, it is no surprise that Eastern sounds are suddenly hip in the underground. Plus, people in the know have unearthed vintage Turkish psychedelia; in recent years it has been deemed supertrendy by record collectors and music aficionados worldwide. These sounds have been resurrected by bands like the Israeli Middle Eastern Psych Rock band Ouzo Bazooka. There have also been many collaborations between Israeli indie bands and Turkish musicians, like between Boom Pam—the Middle Eastern surf-rock band from Tel Aviv—and the legendary Turkish artist Selda Bağcan, known for her protest-folk-psychedelic rock. Boom Pam, named after one of Aris San’s biggest hits, was always heavily influenced by the psychedelic Middle Eastern sounds of the revolutionary 1970s Turkish singer/songwriter, so they flew to Istanbul to work with their hero, resulting in spectacular live performances. Israeli musician and video artist Kutiman also collaborated with Turkish singer/songwriter Melike Şahin, and the Israeli rock star with a Mizrahi edge Dudu Tassa worked with Turkish indie-folk star Kalben.

The connection between Israeli and Turkish music is fascinating to explore at any time, but one cannot help but wonder about the timing of this project. The relations between Israel and Turkey soured in 2010 after the Gaza flotilla raid, but lately it seems that they are warming again, and I wondered if there was any connection. “The Israeli Consulate in Istanbul supported the project, I created it with the assistance of the Israeli attache of culture in Turkey, Elazar Zinvel,” Binicewicz told me. “But the project was not done because of the warming of relations between Turkey and Israel. This ‘passionate’ relationship is sometimes hot and sometimes cold. My goal is to talk about people and their music and create bridges of understanding, no matter the relationship between politicians from both sides.”

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.