Arts & Culture

American Mizrahi

Considering the religious allusion in the title of Inbar Bakal’s debut album and the fact that this child of Yemenite and Iraqi parents was raised in a traditional househould that had little in common with the faux Southern Californian cultural … Read More

By / June 5, 2009

Considering the religious allusion in the title of Inbar Bakal’s debut album and the fact that this child of Yemenite and Iraqi parents was raised in a traditional househould that had little in common with the faux Southern Californian cultural scene of beachfront Tel Aviv, it makes perfect sense that her music sounds a little behind the times. But the era to which she transports us is not the pre-modern world so much as the 1980s.

Although the tablas, oud and bouzouki on the record impart the flavor of true folk music, they struggle to avoid being reduced to the least common denominator of the synthesizers that ground each track. Surprisingly, however, Song of Songs works in spite or, perhaps, because of this antagonism. The fact that Bakal’s supple, multi-lingual singing has to thread its way through chords straight out of Peter Gabriel’s back catalogue gives it an impact that a more traditional musical setting would not.

More specfically, in reminding listeners of her Yemenite forebearer Ofra Haza, who managed to achieve international crossover success while proudly embracing her non-European heritage, Bakal helps to conjure nostalgia for the heady days when the rise of World Beat suggested that a new world order might be shaped with music instead of war.

Since this is Bakal’s first collection, it’s hard to determine how much of its time-out-of-joint feel was deliberate. There was a time when the work of musicians aspiring to professionalism came drenched in the difference-leveling tones of synthesizers like the Yamaha DX7, which brought the digital age to keyboards. While artists with punk roots tolerated the sonic muddiness that came from recording with limited time and money, those who wanted to mimic the sheen of major-label releases, from Bruce Springsteen to Sade, could make up for their lack of financial resources by studding their music with electronic beats and chords of superhuman smoothness.

So prevalent was this approach that most recordings from that era, no matter how big or small, sound distressingly similar to contemporary listeners. As the decline of the compact disc as a commercially viable medium has picked up its pace, vast numbers of remaindered records, the ones with the notch cut out of their plastic case, have surfaced at discount stores, making apparent the extent to which even self-produced albums of dubious merit share the DNA of platinum sellers from the 1980s.

Needless to say, the possibilities for new artists to express themselves musically have expanded vastly in the era of low-cost computer production. A teenager alone in her bedroom can capture the artificially enhanced brightness of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” if she wants, without ever having to invest in a real synthesizer. Or she can inexpensively record the burblings of her backyard sprinkler system and then slow them down into delightfully organic hip-hop beats in a matter of hours. Everything is permitted, provide you have access to a decent computer set-up and field recorder.

It is telling, then, that Song of Songs, has the sonic texture of recordings from a time when such permission was much harder to come by. Bakal’s attempt to integrate traditional Yemenite music with anonymously professional Western sounds doesn’t always succeed. But the awkwardness that results is sometimes fortuitous. On “The Bride,” for example, a song about a young woman who pleads to avoid a forced marriage to an older man, the content of the music mirrors the form of the music to a startling degree.

Her desire for a modern bed, signaled by the synthesized timpany and drone that both sets the track in motion and undergirds it throughout, is insistently undermined by propulsive reminders of her heritage that insinuate themselves into the aural foreground. Listening to “The Bride,” listeners can viscerally comprehend the reason why Bakal felt it necessary to leave her homeland, where she served as the first female officer in the Anti-Aircraft Combat Division, and relocate in Los Angeles. It’s a powerful song, one that elegantly showcases Bakal’s artistic promise. The album’s opener, “The Battle of Jerusalem,” is similarly effective, achieving a dance-friendly momentum that recalls the great 4AD band Dead Can Dance.

Other tracks, like “Song of Songs,” are somewhat less successful in this regard, not because they lack good ideas, but because the sonic balance tips too far in the direction of the digital age. Instead of sustaining the tension between old and new, traditional and modern, they imply that technology has managed to transcend it, imbuing the album with too many moments of mirror-shaded confidence. For someone who was relieved when the culture of the 1980s gave way to grittier, more sonically diverse work, the album’s slickness can be hard to swallow.

From another perspective, though, that failure might also be perceived as a kind of success. For in recalling the rise of World Beat and its incarnation in Ofra Haza, the first Israeli popular musician to achieve major international success, Bakal’s debut inspires nostalgia for an era that seems increasingly hopeful in retrospect, at a time when political and economic pressures have done major damage to the American Dream and its Israeli counterpart.

By invoking this musical heritage, Song of Songs suggests that the traditions that hold us in bondage are not only the ones that hearken back to tribal ways, but also those of more recent provenance. After all, World Beat was fueled by the optimistic conviction that cultural and political progress go hand in hand. These days, by contrast, we live at a time when the expansion of musical possibilities only serves to underscore the contraction of political options. Significantly, Bakal describes her relocation to Los Angeles as a learning experience she would have been hard pressed to achieve back home. “I’ve spoken with more Palestinians here than I ever had the opportunity to talk to back in Israel.” In the Diaspora, she continues, “I found a whole new way of listening.”