Bridging Time, Distance and Distrust, With Music

3:56 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

 

RABAT, Morocco — Neta Elkayam did not really understand the depth of her dual identity until, in her late 20s, she and a friend took a trip from their home country, Israel, to that of their parents, Morocco.

“It was like drugs,” Ms. Elkayam said. “We both felt like we were walking on air. This is how our place needs to feel. I felt home. I felt filled with happiness. I felt like a complete stranger at the same time. A lot of people on the streets looked like me or like people I knew from my childhood.”

Now 41, Ms. Elkayam, a singer and visual artist, has since earned a following with recordings of the music of Morocco’s Jews, most of whom left that country decades ago. Ms. Elkayam has joined the ranks of artists from scattered people around the world whose longing for a lost homeland has helped preserve once-thriving cultures.

Her connection to her Moroccan heritage led to her latest and most emotional project, with roots in a sprawling transit camp on the outskirts of Marseille, France, that once housed displaced Jews. Many of them were from North Africa, trying to make their way to Israel. Few artifacts remain of life in the camp, called Grand Arenas, which operated from 1945 to 1966, but among them are recordings of Jewish women from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco singing.

Ms. Elkayam said she wept the first time she heard the aching, mesmerizing voices of those long-ago Amazighs — often called Berbers, a term some consider derogatory.

The Amazighs are an ethnic group largely from North and West Africa who are nowadays mostly Muslim, though there was a significant Jewish Berber minority in Morocco in the past. In present-day Morocco, there is occasional animosity between Arabs and Amazigh, who often say that they feel their culture is neglected by the Arab-majority state.

In the recordings, the Jewish women from Morocco sang of displacement and the meaning of home as they headed into a new life in a faraway country, leaving behind all that was familiar.

“This is history that you don’t find in books, and you don’t learn at school,” she said in a video interview from her music studio in Jerusalem. “I was crying while listening to the voices of these women. I felt that I needed to make something with it and make it super relevant.”

She and her husband, Amit Hai Cohen, a musician, are recording an album, incorporating those old recordings and updating them with electronic beats and elements of jazz.

In a way, it is a work she was born into.

 

Read the rest of the story on the New York Times' website.

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