Israel's Songs of Sorrow: The Music of the Pigua
Radio stations have given national tragedies a soundtrack that Israelis recognize all too well

by Laura Fink
September 23, 2001 - Jerusalem

Whenever there is a major terrorist attack or pigua here in Israel, the pop radio stations usually switch over to a playlist of well-known songs that are appropriate to the mood of the nation. Unfortunately, over the years we've had so many of these experiences that the list has grown large. Before this past year's troubles, you'd hear a string of these songs (or even a full day's worth) whenever a bomb went off or someone was shot. Lately, however, we have incidents like that every day, so the pigua playlist is now reserved for more serious incidents (bombings where more than 4 or 5 people are killed...).

The songs are by Israel's best artists. They are definitely not political or patriotic. Flag-waving is for when you set out to battle, or for a moment of victory, not a moment of loss. America is singing "God Bless America." Here in Israel, many wonder how God is going to see us through this one, if He even exists. They want to hear those songs which help them grieve, not those which ask them to lift an ideological banner. They want the comfort of experiencing a sort of national grieving or anxiety, instead of the loneliness of their own sadness.

The pigua songs are often existential. And while they don't extoll Zionist ideals, the underlying reality expressed can be summed up in the title of Ehud Manor and Corinne Allal's song, "I Have No Other Country." Israelis love their country, but they are worried about the future. In one song, "Room for Worry," by Ehud Manor and Matti Caspi (sung by Caspi), even God is worried:

At the edge of the sky, and at the end of the desert
There's a distant place full of wildflowers
.....
And God sits and watches and thinks about all he created.
Picking the wildflowers is forbidden, and He's very worried.

Golden-voiced singer David D'Or's song "Watch Over this World, Child" speaks for a generation that has run out of solutions:

Watch over this world, child
There are things it's forbidden to see
Watch over this world, child
If you'll see them, you'll cease to be.
Hero of the world, child, with an angel's smile
Watch over this world, child
Because we can't do it any more.

Not all the pigua songs deal directly with national anxiety. Israeli rock icon Shalom Hanoch's "For a Man is a Tree in the Field" paints a bleak picture of the human condition, through the eyes of one whose identity has been uprooted (Hanoch also had a hit with "Don't Call me a People"):

For a man is like a tree in the field
Like the tree, he reaches upward
Like the tree, he's burned by fire
And I don't know where I was and where I'll be
Like a tree in the field.

Much-beloved singer Ofra Haza, who passed away last year from AIDS, recorded an aching rendition of Ayala Asherov's "Along the Sea." I think this song must be in the Top 10 of the pigua playlist:

Tell me how to stop the tears
Tell me where there's another world to live in
Tell me why there is no truth, only illusions
So why try, and just continue crying?

Along the sea, there are no waves
There's a world, dashed to splinters on the pier

Tell me how you live with death
Hiding the tears every night, tell me, till when?
The fire that called me isn't really there
And the one who disappeared,
Will he return, or is he already dead?

I remember when Yitzchak Rabin was murdered in 1995, we heard a mix of these types of songs along with patriotic and war songs ("The Friendship," "That Man"). The country was thrown into a turmoil of soul searching, and the pop playlists seemed to reflect that. Are we doomed, or is there hope? Are we pessimists, fatalists, or possibly still idealists? Today, 6 years later, one of the only sources of idealism on the airwaves is on the religious stations, whose playlists are the antithesis of the songs mentioned above. The division in the national soul has a melody and lyrics.

I was driving through Jerusalem two weeks ago, listening to an old Bruce Cockburn tape. When I ejected that tape to put in another, I inadvertantly heard a bit of radio. A sad song. Followed by another. What terrible thing happened today, I wondered? Which new grief must we now absorb, like a well-aimed blow to the solar plexus? A bomb in the center of Jerusalem? Or Tel Aviv, or Haifa? How many dead, and how many maimed for life? I didn't have time to wait for the news - I had arrived at the medical clinic, where I had an appointment. It was the security guard at the clinic's parking lot who let me know: two planes had hit the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. Grief knows no borders.

One of the best Internet sources for Israeli pop music is the About.com Israeli culture site:
http://israeliculture.about.com/cs/music/

In addition, check out Israeli label NMC's English site (follow this link and click on the "English" button):
http://www.nmc-music.co.il/nmc

If you're a Hebrew-speaker looking to download MP3's of Israeli music, try these sites:
http://www.israeliz.co.il/mp3/
http://www.members.tripod.com/mp3hebrew/
http://www.fly.to/hebrewmp3

 

Other links:

• 9-11peace.org
• Common Dreams News Center: for progressive news online.

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Laura Fink is a Jerusalem-based freelance tech/marketing writer and aspiring songwriter. She moved to Israel from the United States 10 years ago. A small collection of her poetry can be found at: http://members.truepath.com/ahallel/rhpoems/index.html

Text & English translations of lyrics © 2001 Laura Fink.


Hugh Blumenfeld, Editor
hugh@balladtree.com

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