One Yemenite Jewish Song and its Modern Reverberations
Elohim Eshala is a Yemenite Jewish piyyut included in the Diwan, a compendium of paraliturgical poems whose performance by men and children accompanies the Yemenite Jews in Sabbaths and holidays, as well as their family celebrations, most especially circumcisions and weddings. The Diwan also includes poems for use at any other social occasion when singing and dancing occur. These poems are divided according to their form in three types: Nashid, Shira, and Hallel. A performance usually includes a string of poems from the three types appearing in that order. The Nashid is an introductory poem to the performance. It is sung in flexible rhythm and has an improvisational character even though the basic pattern of the musical phrases is fixed. The Nashid is usually performed responsorially by a soloist and a choir, allowing the soloist to display his vocal abilities through highly melismatic phrases. The Shira comprises the main part of the performance. Unlike the Nashid, the Shirah songs have a fixed beat and meter and it is sung and danced to by a group. The form of most of these songs is that of the Arabic muwashshah or tawashih. A major characteristic of the musical performance of the Shirah is the gradual acceleration of tempo, leading to an ecstatic fast ending. The Hallel (Heb. “praise”) is the poem ending the performance, and is an anti-climax to the Shirah. The Hallel is performed in a plurivocal style that characterizes the performance of Psalms and other prayers in Yemenite synagogues. A blessing to God or to the individual celebrated in the event ends the performance.
Elohim Eshala is a nashid in the classical pre-Islamic Arabic genre, the qaṣīdah, consisting of verses (bayt in Hebrew and in Arabic; Heb. pl. batim) of equal length and meter, each one consisting in their turn of two equal sections (called delet and soger in Hebrew), with a single ending rhyme running throughout the poem as well as in the ending of the first hemistich of the first verse. The song is performed responsorially. The soloist opens with the first two verses and the congregation/choir answers him (with a second melody) with the third verse that becomes thereafter a refrain repeated after every two verses. Sometime the verses too are performed responsorially, the soloist sings the first hemistiche and the congregation answers with the second hemistich. The author of Elohim Eshala is Yosef Ben Yisrael, a relative of Shalom (or Shalem) Shabazi the greatest seventeenth-century Yemenite Jewish poet.
Performances of Elohim Eshala
In 1936, upon the establishment of the first radio station of Mandatory British Palestine, called in Hebrew Kol Yerushalayim, the then young Israeli singer of Yemenite origin Bracha Zefira, sang Elohim Eshala in a broadcast dedicated to Jewish-Yemenite tunes (see the program of the first week of Hebrew broadcasting below). Two aspects of this (as of now lost) historical broadcast are notable: first that an exclusively men’s song was performed by a woman and for a wide open audience (one has to be reminded that in the traditional Yemenite Jewish community the voice of a woman was technically forbidden for a man to listen to); secondly that the earliest modern Hebrew broadcasts were marked by songs from a distant diaspora, the same diaspora that political Zionism strived to escape. The question is: why?
One reason for this phenomenon is the then entrenched perception of the Yemenite Jewish melodies as surviving specimens of great antiquity, going back (in the minds of romantic Orientalist European Jews) as far as the tunes of the ancient Levites of the Temple in Jerusalem. This hypothesis was grounded on the assumed social isolation of the Jewish communities in Yemen from the surrounding Muslim majority, as well as on the early arrival of exiled Israelites from Judea to the Arabian Peninsula after the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem (586 CE). The Zionist nostalgia for idealized Biblical times when the ancient Hebrews worked their land and defended themselves fueled such perceptions. Hence, the broadcasting of Yemenite Hebrew songs such as Elohim Eshala, a text that specifically addresses the returning of the Jews to Zion in messianic times and is set to a melody far removed from contemporary European music aesthetics, was fit to the new circumstances.
An ambivalent attitude towards Yemenite Jewish song that is still pervasive in contemporary Israeli culture characterized the treatment of songs like Elohim Eshala. Yemenite songs were considered then as too “Oriental” or “strange” by non-Yemenite Israeli listeners and were looked down upon (see the memoires of the Yemenite Jewish musician Yehiel Adaqi). At the same time these songs were embraced and admired by some members of the cultural elite as a desirable component of the new Zionist culture.
A proof of this embracing is the various quotations and arrangements of the melody of Elohim Eshala by Israeli composers of Western art and popular music during the 1950’s. Such arrangements had sometimes an ideological goal: to create a new Israeli sound that will combine modern Western compositional techniques with the “authentic” melodies of the “Oriental” Jews. In the rich selection of recordings that follows this introduction diverse and contrasting readings of Elohim Eshala can be heard. This selection is only a fraction of the eighteen different recordings of this song found in the National Sound Archives of the National Library in Jerusalem. They are a cross-section of this rich and yet problematic musical encounter between the Yemenite Jewish tradition and Western musical techniques.
muwashshah in britannica.com.
About plurivocality: Simha Arom and Uri Sharvit, "Plurivocality in the Liturgical Music of the Jews of San‘a (Yemen)" in Yuval 6, Jerusalem: The Magness Press, 1994, pp. 34-67.
qaṣīdah in britannica.com