Musical pioneer Shlomo Bar made aliyah when he was just six, so when he returned many years later to Morocco, where he was born, he was surprised to discover that he had a following there.
“I found that not only did they know my songs,” he says, “they were singing my Todra song in Arabic.”
Hearing his Hebrew lyrics in unofficial Arabic translation was a fitting tribute for a man who, more than virtually anyone in Israeli music, thrust the sounds of Jews from Arab countries into the popular music scene.
In 1977, when his first disc came out with his group Habrera Hativeet (translated as “Natural Gathering”), it was obvious that Bar had found a new direction for Israeli music, which was still Ashkenazi-dominated — and one that was not afraid of showing off his Moroccan origins. His style was also rooted in Middle Eastern tropes, whether they be from India, Persia, Spain, Morocco or Israel. Along with his unique blend of musical influences, he’s always had a social, spiritual and political message.
The experience of most Moroccans in Israel was not exactly a bed of roses. Yet despite the hardships, Bar developed his musical talents, especially on the drums, even as he struggled to make a living, which he did for many years as a plasterer. When he eventually made it as a musician, he had already become independent in his particular blend of music, a forerunner of what came to be called world music.
He says: “I remember that among the most vociferous critics of our music were Moroccan audiences. They thought we had stolen ‘their tradition’ and were misusing it. I explained to them that we were just embellishing it, putting it in the wider context in which it emerged.”
He remembers, too, that the Ashkenazi establishment was against his music and the words he used. Oddly enough some of his earliest songs, such as Children Are a Joy and In The Village of Todra, were written by Yehoshua Sobol, a secular, Ashkenazi writer who was also outspoken about the disparities in Israel’s society, and especially the biases against so-called Oriental Jews.
Bar presented a new phenomenon, showing how music could bring people and cultures together, but his determination to be truthful to himself had its costs. His group changed its line-up many times. The original Habrera Hativeet included an Israeli-born bass player, Yisrael Borochov; a Spanish guitarist from the US; and two musicians from India, Miguel Harstein and Samson Kamikher, who played sitar and violin. Some of them left Bar to create their own music. Kamhiker stayed with the group until he died, sharing Bar’s vision to the end. In the latest disc, just released, the group appears with a santoor, saz, bass guitar, violin and drums.
Children Are a Joy was a bitingly satirical piece against the Israeli establishment for encouraging the poorest section of society to have large families. “They never told the rich to have large families,” says Bar. “This way they ensure that the poor remain poor, while the rich pursue their materialist life. Ironically, the song has now become a standard at weddings.”
In the Village of Todra is a paean to the life Bar remembers as a child in Morocco, when Jews and Arabs lived harmoniously together and celebrated each other’s family events.
He has also integrated well-known Israeli standards into his repertoire, such as A Walk to Caesarea, My Land, and Shehahoret, connecting to the Israeli mainstream, but in a style that is uniquely his own.
“This music is authentic. It comes from the people. True music is in the genes,” he says.