Monday, October 15, 2007

the mennu method celebrates Israel at 60...musically, of course (Part II)

Zohar Argov

Zohar Argov, also known as "Hamelech" or "The King," is considered to be one of the greatest Middle Eastern or Mizrahi singers in Israeli history. He exemplified, more than any other singer, the struggle of Mizrahi music for legitimacy in Israeli media. When he began his career, Israeli media, whether on radio or television would only play Mizrahi music during designated hours. By the end of Zohar's brief ten year career, his musical style had broken through to the general population. He paved the way for Mizrahi music to become an integral part of Israeli music, both as a genre and as an influence on pop music.

Upon rereading my opening paragraph, I must defer to a journalist friend of mine from Israel who summarized Zohar's career as such:

"Zohar Argov, “Hamelech”, brought Kavod to the oppressed Sephardim and provided the soundtrack to the revolution against whitey. He is Israel ’s answer to Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. Became a junky and hung himself in his jail cell but changed Israeli music and Ashkenazi/Sephardi relations forever..."

That's a rave review from a dedicated fan, who is a blond haired son of British olim. I suppose it only proves the point that Zohar's music served as force that would narrow the difference between the races in Israel.

As for Zohar's life story, the 1993 film "Zohar" does a fine job of being honest to his story without sugar coating it. Zohar Orkavy was born the eldest son of a family of ten who lived in a two room apartment with his alcoholic father. By 13 he dropped out of school to work, and he began to get involved with drugs and crime. In his 20s he was locked up in jail for a year which allowed him a chance to think of attempting a career as a singer. He got a job as the driver of a Mizrahi singer named Jackie Mekeitan who used to perform in clubs and at catering halls for family events. Zohar would sing at some of these gigs, and at one in particular he caught the attention of guitarist Yehuda Keisar who decided to produce his album with the Reuveni brothers. In 1981, they recorded his album "Elinor" whose title track, a song written my Mekeitan, was a hit for the recently renamed Zohar Argov. The rest of the album had Yemenite standards and Greek songs, and even though the album was recorded in a makeshift recording studio using a four channel mixer, Zohar would become a highly demanded singer in halls across the country.

Zohar's third album, Nachon L'Hayom or "As Of Today," is considered to be the his greatest album which featured his biggest hits, "Alone," and "Flower In My Garden," which put Zohar on the top of the charts. The album went platinum, which in Israel is 250,000 copies, and the radio put him into heavy rotation with his songs playing up to 2-3 times an hour. It was during this period that he was crowned the King of Mizrahi music. He took the top award of the Mizrahi song festival in 1983 which just raised his star higher. It even earned him a concert tour of the United States. Unfortunately, that trip also introduced him to crack, beginning a drug addiction that would cost him his fortune, his career and his talent.

The rest of his life story is a downhill rock and roll cliche: rehab, return, record, tour the US again, get back on drugs, realized his managers the reuveni brothers were stealing from him, cut the awesome album "Sea of Tears" (Yam Shel Dmaot), near overdose, back to rehab, crawled his way to the Mizrahi song festival where he came in a telltale fifteenth place, while his chief rival (heir?) Haim Moshe took first place. All through this difficult period, his albums continued to sell very well. In January of 1987, Zohar appeared on the prime time variety show, "MiMenny" where he told the host, Menny Pe'er about his struggles with drug addiction, and unconvincingly claimed that he was clean. A few months later he ended up back in jail after trying to steal a policeman's gun. While given furlough from prison, he was accused of attempted rape. He hung himself in prison in November of 1987.

Zohar left a mixed legacy. On the one hand he is a symbol for the ascendancy of Mizrahi music and advancement of Mizrahi culture as part of the Israeli mainstream. On the other hand he was a drug addict, criminal and convicted rapist. The controversy over his legacy continues to be debated as his native Rishon Le'Tzion considers naming a street after him. I will not make any excuses for his criminality, however his musical work has stood the test of time, and there have been three more of his albums released posthumously, and he is still cited as an inspiration for many Mizrahi singers.

Suggested listening:
"Flower in my Garden"
"Sea of Tears"