Why do Israelis love Stelios Kazantzidis’ music?

By: | Post date: 2017-08-18 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Modern Greek, Music

I’ll give Stelios Kazantzidis – Wikipedia’s take, but I’m very interested in hearing from Israelis why Greek Levantine-flavoured music, and his in particular, appear to have had such resonance in Israel.

In Israel, he was a musical icon. Many of his songs were translated into Hebrew and performed by the country’s leading singers. Yaron Enosh, an Israel Radio broadcaster who often plays Greek music on his programs, described the singer’s ability to combine joy with sorrow: “This is the task of music: to touch the entire range of feelings… Kazantzidis could do this; he played on all the strings.” To the Greek Jews who immigrated to Israel, Kazantzidis was “the voice of the world they left behind, for good or for bad.” According to the operator of Radio Agapi, a station that plays Greek music 24 hours a day, “Kazantzidis was the voice of the people, of the weary, the exploited, the betrayed. And the voice of the refugee and the emigre, too.”

I don’t know that Hebrew Wikipedia (סטליוס קזנג’ידיס – ויקיפדיה) has much of an answer…

One Comment

  • ראָזעלע says:

    well, i’m not israeli, so i’m not exactly who you said you were looking to for an answer – but here’s a starting point, perhaps, if the thoughts of a u.s. jewish singer / theater artist are helpful.

    most israeli jews, and the overwhelming majority of working-class israeli jews, are from families with deep roots (500-2000 years) in north africa, the mashreq, and the former ottoman territories of southeastern europe. until the 1950s (and to a great extent after), they primarily spoke arabic, farsi, turkish, ladino/judezmo, gree, and amazigh languages, and were deeply integrated into the musical cultures of the turkish-arabic-persian world (yes, i know that covers many different territories and musical traditions – i’m speaking of it as a large-scale bloc in contrast to the similarly diverse musical culture blocs of christian europe, south asia, west africa, etc.).

    when those communities were relocated to israel (see ella shohat’s classic essay “Sephardim in Israel” for that history), their cultures were denigrated and attacked, and their languages banned from public use. this was partly the same attack on diasporic jewish cultures that led to the firebombings of yiddish theaters in israel, but hugely amplified by anti-arab racism (again, see shohat’s essay for details).

    music was a major way that these communities could assert their continued attachment to their homes, to their cultures, to their identities as arabs (and persians, turks, etc.). this mostly happened through semi-illicit cassette-tape distribution systems that made the music of artists like umm kalsoum available, and eventually served to distribute recordings of arab-jewish israeli musicians, who could not get recording contracts or radio airplay.

    greek music fits into that landscape in a very specific way. it is, musically, part of the turkish-arabic-persian musical world, but it is definitively european, and not made by arabs or muslims (except, of course, for the various muslim and/or arab musicians on pre-1923 recordings, who shaped the early development of many genres). it could be allowed onto israeli radio with a minimum of racist fears of cultural contamination, while also appealing to the tastes of the majority of israeli jews. its circulation could strengthen the israeli government’s relationship with a nearby country with a similarly militarist outlook and hostility towards most of their neighbors. and, of course, it was genuinely popular among israeli jews wanting to maintain a sonic connection to their homes and cultures in the eastern and southern mediterranean.

    so: greek music became the tolerated, public, radio-playable version of the arabic (and turkish, and persian) music that was in fact the popular music of a majority of israeli jews. if umm kalsoum’s recordings could have been sold openly or played on the radio, no greek artist would have topped the charts. but the imperative for arab-rein airwaves prevailed.

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