The Heretic of Ether
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Friday, March 19 1999, 4:41 PM
When Israeli musicians living atop the nationalistic fault lines of the Middle East pursue East-West syntheses, their work inevitably encounters unjust critical reception. Arab reaction often suggests that they are mere copyists or alien expropriative exploiters of a rich surrounding culture. Pop artists such as Rita and Ofra Haza have faced this sort of criticism in the Egyptian daily press. Further, Israeli fusion artists face rejection from cultural xenophobes -- both Jewish and Arab -- who feel uncomfortable with and threatened by musical weaving and intermixture. The music is too often judged by political perceptions rather than on the basis of musical accomplishments.
East-West synthesis among Israeli musicians took hold with a few Poogy tracks in the early '70s, and then became increasingly popular when Shlomo Bar and Samson Khamkar established Breira Hativit in the mid-70s. Bar's crossover music was originally an alienated and radical departure from prevailing Israeli pop norms, but was soon embraced by the same elements of the Mizrachi community that fueled the Likud Party's electoral success in 1977. Arab-Jewish musical fusions, first associated with progressive and peace-oriented politics, came to indicate nothing of the sort. By the time fusion groups began appearing at presidential receptions in the '90s, they were elevated to the establishmentarian status of a political bridge towards the rest of the Middle East.
Badawi's third album, The Heretic of Ether, lies within this strain of fusion music while attempting to establish its 'heretical' voice. Badawi, ('Badawi' means 'Bedouin' in Arabic,) a/k/a Israeli emigre Raz Mesinai, plays the keyboards, zarb, riq, daf, darabuka, dumbek, drums and the Persian santur. Erich Schoen-Rene and Ralph Farris provide excellent performances on the cello and violin, respectively.
The opening themes of the album establish a dark, threatening mood. Schoen-Rene's cello and Farris' violin overlay and weave through a heavy rhythm, one that sometimes verges towards a monotonous Phillip Glass-style soundscape. By the third track, 'A Voice from Six Corners,' the mood becomes contemplative, of the sort suitable for good hot tub music. The following song, 'Santur,' has a definitely Oriental, easy-listening quality.
Bedouin drumming comes to the fore in the first of two 'Fatal Confrontation' tracks, where Badawi tries to elicit symphonic qualities via drumming that is technically adept, but unpersuasive as part of the musical narrative under construction. Badawi often features one primary instrument in such pieces, but tends to be more successful when he employs a full range of instruments.
By the middle of Heretic , in the 'Arrival' section, the atmosphere has descended towards sober, dark mystery. The listener begins to suspect that Badawi's work could use a sense of humor. As my Jordanian friend Jarir put it, at such points the album "over-intellectualizes Arabic music." The unsmiling sobriety of these compositional moments comes from retaining formal elements of Arabic music without attending to its liveliness and sense of swing.
Fortunately, matters improve. 'Welcoming' picks up the beat very attractively and creates an effective East-West stylistic synthesis. The 'Return of the Heretic' continues with a good, driving, and melodic performance, one where the music has strength of character. A final section, 'Awakening,' strikes a gentle, hopeful conclusion with the aid of lingering electronic atmospheric notes, together with a tragic-voiced violin solo from Farris. By its conclusion, the album is more successful and interesting than in its earlier passages.
The The Heretic of Ether often reaches for a pure, simple note or rhythm, a choice emphasized by the photograph in the CD jacket's interior of a Bedouin figure walking away through a desert landscape towards an open horizon. However, this image incorporates a romantic simplification, one that is quite characteristic of Israeli artists who show their back to their own culture out of contempt and anger towards the predominant politics of nationalistic oppression and military occupation. Badawi/Mesinai's 'return of the heretic,' and his ideological search for shelter in Arab music echo with the '50s 'heresy' of Cananism, an intellectually influential advocacy of a Levantine fusion culture.
From the evidence of this album, Badawi's music will not find a significant audience in its originating Israeli culture and thus appears aimed at an American audience that knows Badawi as a leading Illbient dub DJ in New York. This is not from a lack of interest in Israel, because a variety of Arab musical cultures suffuse modern Hebrew pop. Mizrachi 'bus station' music, scorned in the '70s, has achieved a huge presence in the '90s. In its frequent aesthetic austerity, Badawi's music turns away from the aural lushness of this Mizrachi-based tradition; he prefers a neo-Bedouin romantic individualism to the urban, working class Mizrachi version of Hebrew-Arabic musical integrationism.
For consequence beyond the personal, ethnic transvestism like Badawi's needs a purpose beyond the simple borrowing of an identity for studio and stage performance. By creating a faux-Bedouin identity, Mesinai recreates the search for some intrinsic meaning that created such fake Arabs as Swiss traveler Isabelle Eberhardt in turn-of-the-century Morocco; Daud al-Natur/Eliahu Nawi, an Arab impersonator and '50s radio storyteller who later became a longtime mayor of Beersheva; or George Mathias Ibrahim/Israel Eliraz, an Israeli poet who adopted a Palestinian persona in the early-to-mid '80s for creative inspiration. In this album, Mesinai's adoption of Bedouin solitariness as a personal muse remains the dominant socio-musical theme. There is always more to music than music. The Heretic of Ether leaves us wondering if Badawi/Mesinai will discover the social meanings of his artistic identity performance.
The Heretic of Ether is an Asphodel Records release.