When I was growing up in Texas, the last radio station I would ever listen to was country and western. Even though I was growing up in the heart of cowboy country, I was not interested in its music. Like many teenagers, I was looking for music that seemed cool, exotic, and a little “undiscovered”, which led me to the alternative scene of the 1980s with bands like REM and The Cure.
Music can help transport you to places far from home, which is what those indie bands did for me growing up, but music can also bring you home. Now, having lived far from San Antonio for over 25 years, I find myself drawn to country music in a way that would have horrified my 14-year-old self. Maybe it is nostalgia, but I have gotten particular enjoyment in the last few years from listening to Texas artists like Bob Wills and Asleep at the Wheel.
I have even jumped into the very particular world of Tejano, a mash-up of styles from northern Mexico, German immigrants, and cowboy music unique to Texas. San Antonio is the capital of Tejano music, and while I didn’t appreciate it when I lived there, now whenever I hear it, it reminds me of my roots.
These memories are what I thought about when I read a recent article titled “Israel’s Country Music Wizard”, in which author Matti Friedman compares Mizrahi (“Eastern”) music from the Arab world to the American western sound. The parallel has nothing to do with the way each genre sounds – they are completely different sonically. Instead, there is a similarity between the cultures that produced them.
In America, country music was the product of marginal people living in hollows and isolated mountain communities preserving traditions their ancestors brought from the British Isles. Similarly, in Israel, Mizrahi music has been developed by immigrants and their decedents from places like Morocco and Tunisia, who have been marginalized by the elites of the country who came from Europe. Mizrahi music was kept off the radio, and only spread with the proliferation of cassette tapes in the 1970s.
As the case with country and hip hop here in America, eventually marginalized music often makes the jump to the mainstream and even comes to dominate. Today, Mizrahi music is no longer a subgenre of Israeli music – it is Israeli pop, with artists mixing elements from the Arab world to produce a unique sound. This music is not just made for Mizrahi Jews; everyone listens, and dances, to it.
Music is powerful because it can easily evoke a particular time and place. For my teenage self, country music made me think of San Antonio, but I wanted to explore the world. Now as an adult, I love to listen to it to transport me back home. I am sure there are Israelis who feel the same way when they listen to their version of “country and eastern”.