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Becoming Mediterranean: Greek Popular Music and Ethno-Class Politics in Israel, 1952-1982


This dissertation provides a history of the practice of Greek popular music in Israel from the early 1950s to the 1980s, demonstrating how it played a significant role in processes of ethnization. I argue that it was the ambiguous play between Greek music’s discursive value (its “image”) and the semiotic potential of its sound and music-adjacent practices, that allowed for its double-reception by Euro-Israeli elites and Working-class immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries (Mizrahim). This ambiguity positioned Greek music as a site for bypassing, negotiating, and subverting the dichotomy between Jew and Arab.

As embodied in the 1960s by the biggest local star of Greek music––Aris San (1940-1992) ––and by Greek international films such as Zorba the Greek, Greece and “Greekness” were often perceived as an unthreatening (i.e. neither Arab nor Muslim) Mediterranean culture. At the same time, much of the popular music practiced under the Greek sign betrayed the lingering influence of earlier Ottoman caf� music, which it shared with other forms of popular and traditional music from across the Middle East. As such, it successfully furnished sonic spaces catering to immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries and even to Palestinian-Arab audiences, and provided a model for the hybridization and modernization of Oriental musical practices and tastes.

In the 1970s, Aris San’s departure opened the field for a vibrant industry of Greek music by and for working-class Mizrahim or Oriental Jews. At this point, Greek music exerted direct and indirect influence on the crystallization of a new local genre––musikah Mizrahit (Mizrahi music)––which both articulated and contributed to the consolidation of the category of the ethno-class category of “Mizrahim.” As opposed to previous scholarship on musikah Mizrahit, my focus on the appropriation of Greek music in in the formative deacade of its emergance allows us to see the emergance of musikah Mizrahit not as a bid for reshaping national culture, but as a form of vernacular cosmopolitanism.

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