Two recent Jewish musical experiences have demonstrated their artists' attempts to affect Middle Eastern discourse.
The wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest has been staged in European and Middle Eastern cities for 50 years, and it is always a leading international television extravaganza. Israeli entries "A-Ba-Ni-Bi" and "Hallelujah" won in 1978 and 1979.
This year, the Israel Broadcasting Authority selected Achinoam Nini and Mira Awad, together with composer/arranger Gil Dor, a group reflecting a "left" political orientation, to write and perform the song that would become the Israeli entry. The two singers first earned Israeli notoriety when they recorded a cover version of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out."
Nini, known better as Noa, has earned a major international reputation. Her performance of "Child of Man" at Philadelphia's Israel 50 celebration 11 years ago brought the house to its feet. For the past eight years, she has collaborated with Awad, a Christian-Arab born in the Galilee to a Palestinian father and Bulgarian mother.
Their new Eurovision entry, written and sung in Hebrew, English and Arabic, had distinct political overtones: "There must be another way/Your eyes, sister, say all that my heart desires/So far, we've gone a long way, a very difficult path/hand in hand … we wait only for the next day to come."
While the melody was not particularly memorable, their song, with its implicit plea for the resumption of the Israeli/ Palestinian peace process, received the enthusiastic endorsement of no less a celebrity than Sir Paul McCartney.
But the number, "There Must Be Another Way," earned a disappointing 16th place at the festival, held this year in Moscow. It was a crushing defeat for Israelis after the song had achieved a relatively high standing after the semi-final round.
Meanwhile, in our community, "Intercultural Journeys," an organization founded by Israeli cellist Odi Bar David, a 21-year veteran member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, attempts to "break barriers" via musical performance; the group mounted a recent concert in the Mandell Theater of Drexel University.
I was profoundly moved by the virtuosity, radiant joy and highly unusual music-making of the four performers involved. On stage with Bar David were Adam del Monte, world-class flamenco guitarist trained in Israel and Spain; Hanna Khoury, expert in both classical and Arab violin; and Rolando Morales-Matos, virtuoso percussionist specializing in hand-drumming. The four performed in duets, trios and full quartet.
Similar Musical Modes
They successfully demonstrated similarities in musical modes found in native Jewish, Arabic and Spanish music. Several songs revealed similar modal patterns: The Ahavah Rabbah mode in Jewish music and the Maqam Hijaz in Arabic both stress the instantly recognizable augmented second interval.
Before the frenetic finale, violinist Khoury taught the audience a complicated polyrhythmic handclap, and many valiantly tried to keep up with the music.
I do not know if either the new Israeli Eurovision song or the more substantial and more serious work of "Intercultural Journeys" has significantly affected the current Middle East political impasse, but the audiences of both ventures have clearly been sensitized to consider truly new aspects of the political realities in this troubled region.