The History of Israeli Folk Song

It was lovely to welcome Chani Smith back to Wimbledon. She gave us a real taste of ‘Shirei Ha’am’, ‘Songs of the People’ and their history. Chani illustrated the talk with historic shots of Ha’Aretz and accompanied herself on the piano while singing a selection of classic folk songs.

The origins of the Folk Songs are actually not lost in a distant age. They were consciously crafted as nation-building, a means of inspiring the national spirit of ‘Eretz Yisrael’.  A distinct musical flavour was developed, incorporating elements from early and later waves of immigration from Europe, from the Middle East and also modes from Arabic music.

The earliest elements were often the Nigunim or wordless melodies that Chasidim and other Ashkenazi Jews brought from Eastern Europe from the 19th century onwards. The popular Hava Nagila is based on a Chasidic nigun brought to Jerusalem in the early 20th century from the Ukraine. The melody of Hatikva, ‘The Hope’ is actually an East European folk melody and I was surprised to learn that its status as the Israeli National Anthem was not officially recognised until 2004!

It was fascinating to hear how, whilst the focus of the songs were strongly secular, they were closely linked with pre-exilic times and the Biblical landscape. The pioneers were resolved to bond with the land so, for example, Shavuot was a celebration of the harvest of the First Fruits, rather than the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai. Klezmer and Yiddish, associated with persecution and suffering were rejected and a strong secular element developed.

In 1904, the Sephardi pronunciation of Hebrew was formally adopted as the national language and folksongs were seen as a way of  reinforcing its regular and  correct usage. New songs about everything were being written; camels, cucumbers, you name it, there was sure to be a song about it.

Chani shared her experiences of growing up in Israel and of joining an army band for her military service. The talk ended with a youtube clip of our pop star, Chani and her band performing their number 1 chart hit whilst standing on Mt Hermon.

We thoroughly enjoyed Chani’s talk and I, for one, learnt a lot.