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Shlomit Levi - Rock n' Soul

Thanks to songs her grandmother used to sing to her as a child, singer Shlomit Levi, from Givat Hayim Ehud returned to her roots.  Today, she combines ancient Yemenite music with world music and metal.
She already collaborated with "Orphaned Land" and now she is launching a new show with American producer RebbeSoul. 
Levi: "Reconnecting to my Yemenite roots was the answer to my search for my 'self.' "

Tomer Haruv, 11/11/12 Yediot Hashron, Israel

"One of my early memories is sitting at my grandmother's porch, watching her weave straw baskets and sing softly to herself," SL, singer from GH remembers.  "I loved sitting beside her, listening and painting. My mom tells me I used to swing and sing to myself since I was 3 years old and dream of being a famous singer.  Later, when I grew up, I enjoyed Western music so my ancestral, Yemenite music stayed more in the realm of family events."

But, apparently there are stronger things in life than what we expect, like a grandmother singing to her little granddaughter, and Yemenite music returned into SL's life.  She did not even plan on being a singer and certainly not a Yemenite one, but while studying for her MA in psychology at Ben Gurion University, she connected with student musicians and decided to study voice with a teacher from the Black Hebrew community in Dimona.  Around that time, an American friend played her Ofra Haza's Yemenite album and encouraged her to return to her roots. After graduating I realized I will not be continuing my academic path, but try to carry out my long-forgotten dream" SL says.
Today, SL works and performs with the Israeli, heavy metal band, Orphaned Land, known for their broad fan base outside Israel, especially in Arab countries.  She sang on their last two albums and with them, released the successful single, "Sapari", a Yemenite song which gained significant attention around the world.  Shlomit also performs with known artistes in Israel like Boaz Sharabi, Efrat Gosh, Etti Ankri, Yair Dalal, Alma Zohar and others.

Born in Kiryat Ekron and raised in Rehovot, Shlomit Levi is beginning a solo career, collaborating with American producer, RebbeSoul, known for his work with world music and Jewish music. Together, they create a new sound combining ancient Yemenite text with the modern world.  Their break out show is called the Seal of Solomon and they precently  performed at the Piyut Festival in Jerusalem.  Now they are planning their tour to launch the show in the USA and have contacts with the famous WOMAD festival, founded by Peter Gabriel.

"He does magic and we have an amazing musical connection," comments Shlomit about RebbeSoul.  "I'm really happy that I found such a person.  It's like finding your romantic partner, only it's a musical one.  I'm really lucky. RebbeSoul says 'I've been looking for you all my life.'  We are creating a combination of Yemenite, rock, world music, with sounds and harmonies that I really, really love."

How come Yemenite music wasn't present in your life for so many years?

I remember myself as a child embarrassed to amplify Yemenite music on my tape machine, because I was afraid other kids might hear it and think I'm listening to Arabic music. Now when I listen to Yemenite rhythms, they go straight to my stomach. But in earlier years, this music was locked in a long forgotten time capsule.  When I was little girl, I actually spoke some Yemenite but I would only speak it to my grandmothers. I would switch to Hebrew whenever somebody went by.   I grew up listening and singing western music and a little bit of Israeli songs.


How did it feel to return to your grandmother's music?

"While listening to the Yemenite grooves from Ofra Haza's album, something powerful happened.  I discovered that this long-forgotten time capsule of my Yemenite experience opened within me.
It brought back the memory of my grandmother singing to me.
In order for me to sing it, I needed to relearn this music and put in a lot of effort since it is a very challenging music to perform vocally.

Under the radar

The effort paid off when a mutual friend, connected her with "Orphaned Land" when they were looking for a singer. "I've arrived to the studio, sang two mawals (vocal improvisations) and within seconds, there was crazy enthusiasm and dancing in the studio. I had my photos taken with the band and within a month I saw myself in magazines in Turkey.  Even then, the band already had fans all over the Arab world.  Each musician in the band brings sounds from his own world and his own roots. So did I and although I am not an official band member, I brought my Yemenite roots to their music.

Today, there is a trend of musicians revisiting their forgotten roots, but it is under the radar of the mainstream or one needs to be a very famous musician in order to get recognition for this type of music.

"Right. It's not easy to release these things in Israel.  Recently, I was approached by an organizer for musical events and concerts here.  I sent him a few clips and he said something like, 'it's very nice but not mainstream enough.  I need something the audience can connect to easily.'   If he was an independent producer, that would be okay but he is funded by Israel's Ministry of Culture and instead of bringing pluralism to music, he ran away from it. It's a shame that there is this conservative ignorance and avoidance of our diversity in this country."
It seems that the third generation of Mizrachi immigrants understands that today, but we still have certain barriers about that culture.

"That is very familiar to me.  As a young girl at the age of 13, I realized my culture is not the dominant one and that I need to adjust myself to society. Even today, people take notice of my Yemenite accent. They barely hear what I am saying because they are distracted by my accent.  As far as I know, I'm the only one from my class who kept the original Yemenite accent and not adopted a common one as all the others did".   

We see a different approach among the immigrants from the Russian Federation. They are very pedantic about preserving their language and to bequeath it to their children.

"It is a matter of population size and distribution. In sociology, I learned that if you take a group of immigrants and scatter them, their ability to succeed is compromised.  The immigrants from the Russian Federation are continuing their lives as a community here in Israel and that makes them strong.  We, on the other hand, are a generation that was raised with a very different "thinking" of our parents who came here from the Mizrach and/or were born here under cultural repression.  It will take us some time to abandon this state of mind, but on the other hand there is a movement and energy towards a new future".

What are your relationships with the Israeli cardinal culture?

My older sisters used to listen to western music and my parents to Yemenite music and I followed them I never knew the "good old Israeli songs" In fact; I do not consider them part of "the culture I grew up in".  In the early years of Israel, there were nice combinations of east and west.  Lyricists, especially from Eastern Europe, combined Hebrew lyrics and Yemenite melodies and made beautiful combinations.  As time passed though, Yemenite music stayed in its niche and was played only in Yemenite events. It started to come back thanks to ensembles like Ravid Khalani's "Yemen Blues, but notice that their success first happened outside of Israel and only later here. Today, there is a kind of blossoming of Yemenite music that reflects our identity. It’s a kind of return to our roots and an effort to create something new."

Misrachi Brotherhood

The interesting thing is that In spite of the cultural differences in Israel, there is an evident cultural brotherhood among the Mizrachi communities. It seems that Ravid Khalani returning to his Yemenite roots and Dudu Tasa returning to his Iraqi roots are both of the same trend.

"At shows, people say to me, 'I'm Moroccan not Yemenite but you connect me back to my own culture. It is interesting for me to go and check out what I've been missing'.  It lights up something inside you".
Growing up, I was not interested in where my family came from or what they did in Yemen. Only later, I started to learn my culture, language, pronunciations, and traditions.  This is a part of me.  More than I thought it was.  I used to think that I am sort of an island, with a separate consciousness, unattached to the place where I grew up and the people who raised me, but my connection to Yemenite music gave me my real sense of identity, who I really am, and what parts of me are inherited from my culture.  All the Yemenite women I grew up with exhibited power and strength. I feel one with them, part of my community, part of something bigger than just myself and that empowers me.

Today's mainstream Mizrachi music abandons its own, genuine roots.  In fact, it's hard to find any Arabic in it.  That's pretty sad, isn't it?
"I think it relates to the demonization of your enemy.  If our enemy is Arabic, then we cannot be Arabic and have dark skin and feel good about it. It's a shame that happens at the expense of our own music and culture."
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