There’s nothing quite as ugly as a family dispute. It might seem strange to characterize the latest outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians on the Gaza border as intramural bloodshed, but the cultural and ancestral ties linking Israeli Jews and Arabs can be so deep and intertwined that teasing them apart is impossible.
Wednesday’s Israeli triple bill at the UC Theatre celebrates music rooted in historically marginalized Jewish communities from Arab lands, with a rising Ethiopian-Israeli star rounding out the program. The headliner, Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitis, is led by one of Israeli’s most celebrated rock stars, a charismatic guitarist, composer and vocalist who kicked off Coachella last year and toured as Radiohead’s opening act with a band that brings together Israeli and Arab musicians.
His music, which has been dubbed Iraq’n roll, reflects the new direction he started pursuing about eight years ago, when he changed career course midstream to reclaim his family’s legacy as musicians who created some of classical Arabic music’s most beloved recordings. Tassa is the grandson and grand-nephew of, respectively, Daoud and Saleh Al-Kuwaiti, who were born in Kuwait to an Iraqi Jewish family in the first decade of the 20th century.
Based in Basra and then Baghdad in the 1930s and 40s, the siblings performed as the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers, representing a Mesopotamian Jewish community with roots dating back to the Babylonian exile in the 6th-century BCE. At the center of a golden age of Arab music, their recordings were embraced across the Arab world, though with particular fervor in Kuwait and Iraq. But with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 the Iraqi government issued a steady flow of anti-Jewish legislation, banning Jews from business, banking and public employment, while seizing assets from prominent families.
Along with some 60,000 other Iraqi Jews, the Al-Kuwaitis fled to Israel leaving everything behind. Condescending treatment from Israel’s founding generations of Jews from Eastern Europe bred resentment among Jews who fled from Middle Eastern countries (known as Mizrahim), an ethnic fault line that continues to shape Israeli politics. While largely unheralded in their new country, the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers performed regularly for The Voice of Israel’s Arabic shortwave radio service, broadcasts that maintained their following among Arab Israelis and audiences back in Iraq and Kuwait.
The Al-Kuwaitis were largely unknown in Israel when Tassa was getting interested in music. Growing up in a southern neighborhood of Tel Aviv, he “wasn’t aware of the fact that my grandparents were that famous,” he wrote in an email. “As any other Israeli boy in the 1980s I wanted to be Israeli, meaning listening to the Ashkenazi-Western music and cultural trends. I was even ashamed of my own roots. I only started listening to the music of the Kuwaitis in my 20s, when I felt more safe about my own identity.”
He released his first album exploring his family’s music in 2001, Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, and followed up with 2015’s Allah Shawaiti, which seamlessly melds vintage recordings by the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers and their contemporaries with an array of musicians from Israel and neighboring countries. In performance, Tassa has honed an intricate sound that combines maqam, or classical Arabic scales, with an array of Western influences, creating something that bridges cultures and eras.
“Adding bass and drums and harmonies changes the character and arrangements of the songs,” he wrote. “I think that the biggest challenge in this project is to take the songs which don’t have harmony [and build new arrangements]. As someone who’s played and heard Western music all my life, this was not easy in the beginning. Slowly the songs were embedded in me and now the songs feel as if I wrote them on my own.”
For Wednesday’s concert, Tassa is performing with a group of musicians who embody the shared culture of the Middle East. Violinist Loai Naddaf and cellist Adel Jubran are Israeli Arabs who have worked with many prominent Arab musicians. Ariel Qassus, an expert on the qanun, or Arab zither, hails from a North African family (his Moroccan father immigrated to Israel in 1960). The mother of Haifa-born drummer and percussionist Barak Kram also immigrated to Israel from Morocco in the early 1960s. New York-born vocalist Rechela has become a force in Bedouin music, an unlikely sojourn that deserves its own story.
The program also features Yemen Blues, a project led by Tel Aviv vocalist Ravid Kahalani, who was raised by two very traditional Yemenite Jewish parents in an Orthodox settlement called Elon Moreh suffused with melismatic prayers and liturgical music closely related to traditional Arabic melodies. Entering the army at 18 he rejected Yemenite culture and became obsessed with black American music, including blues and free jazz and funk. But when Kahalani traced the music back to sources in West Africa, he heard a kinship with the music of his youth, and Yemen Blues represents his ongoing attempt to bring all his seminal influences together.
Rounding out the triple bill is Tel Aviv’s Gili Yalo, who recently launched a solo project combining his Ethiopian roots with soul, funk, psychedelic rock and and jazz. Singing in English and Amharic, he has written a slew of songs describing his experience of Yalo and his family fleeing Ethiopia and Sudan in the mid 1980s and making their way through the desert to Israel. While Tassa, Kahalani and Yaho haven’t collaborated on music together, they’re all cultural activists looking to open up more space in Israel for the different cultures that have taken root there.
“All three of us think that bringing Ethiopian, Yemenite and Iraqi Jewish culture into Israeli culture is the right thing to do,” Tassa wrote. “Israel is a young country and they were busy surviving with a Western Israeli identity. Slowly we can bring the original roots from Israeli people. It indicates that we are more multicultural and open and accept each other.”