Ben Shalev
April 22, 2011 - 12:00am

Sometimes you have to begin with the bottom line. In this case, it's that "Baghani" - Amal Murkus' new CD - is wonderful. It is the clearest, most beautiful and most profound Israeli album that I have heard lately.

It's almost unfair to say that, because there are other albums that feature exceedingly lovely melodies, and albums that have spectacular singing, and albums with wonderful playing. Rare are the cases in which a single album has all of this - although it does happen sometimes.

Murkus has been performing and making records for years, but the local Jewish public has really never listened to her with the attentiveness she deserves. They know her primarily as the woman who appeared on "Rehov Sumsum" - the Israeli version of "Sesame Street" - and sang the duet "Shalom Salaam" with Alon Olearchik. That is practically like knowing Chava Alberstein from the 1970s kids TV show "Carousel."

Murkus, who is in her forties, has released about a tenth of the albums that Alberstein has recorded, and even within the Arab-Israeli domain, she does not possess iconic status (yet ) - but she and Alberstein share a rare quality: They are great singers.

Murkus once recounted with a bitter smile that when she appeared together at a concert with Rita in Acre, the master of ceremonies introduced Rita by name only, whereas he described Murkus by saying something like "she is a singer who is popular with Israeli audiences" or "a singer who has collaborated with famous Israeli artists." "I would be happy if they would say 'Amal!' and that's it," Murkus said.

How I hope that her spectacular new album will make that wish come true. Reality check: It won't.

Murkus' previous effort, "Na'na Ya Na'na," came out in 2007 and included her own versions of Palestinian folk songs. These were not simply remakes that brought the old songs up to date with a current sound: Murkus did creative and daring things with the music. For instance, she selected songs in which women sing about their physical desire for a man, and fused others together so as to change their meaning. The lyrics of songs that have what could be called chauvinistic content were removed from the music, leaving behind only the beautiful familiar melody - an act of instrumental, yet powerfully reverberating protest.

Aficionados of Arabic music who do not speak the language could not appreciate the subtleties of this album; "Na'na Ya Na'na" did not come with translations or explanations.

Asked about that once in an inteview a few years ago, Murkus said: "First of all, even if there were a translation, the meaning can't be understood if you don't know the context. Besides, you don't always have to understand the words. I don't have to understand Haris Alexiou or Mercedes Sosa to be moved by them, and I'm sure that even if I didn't understand what Zohar Argov or Chava Alberstein or Joan Baez were singing, they would still move me.

"I have to say that people in England or Holland never told me they feel they're missing out on something because they don't understand the lyrics. That happens mainly with Israelis. 'Oy, it's in Arabic, I don't understand.' So listen more closely and perhaps you will discover that my voice expresses something universal."

Murkus is right. Like every singer par excellence, her voice truly expresses something universal. Feelings and moods such as sorrow, hope, joy, desire, despair, amazement at the beauty of the world, anger in the face of injustice - all of these receive magnificent vocal expression on the new album. Her Arabic lyrics (which are not translated ) are very beautiful, characterized by a sort of restraint that hides great emotional turbulence.

The truth is that with some of the songs, there is no need to understand the words in order to share the experience that Murkus and her fellow instrumentalists create by musical means. Without understanding what she sings on the title track, you can sense the stubborn pride that shines from it. And without knowing what a song like "Doq" is talking about, you can sense a witty dialogue between two lovers; without understanding the words of "Kul shay," you can take pleasure in its childlike optimism and spirit.

Murkus' music presents two parallel stories, which can also be grasped without understanding the lyrics: the collective Palestinian story alongside a personal one. This duality is also reflected in her newest work. It contains tracks that could be sung in town squares, along with more hushed and thoughtful pieces. Most of the songs bind both of these worlds together, in the best tradition of the artistic Arabic song, and include catchy phrases that you'll be humming the second time around despite the convoluted and complex lyrics, which you won't be able to grasp even on the 40th listen.

The two main songwriters involved in producing this album are Nassim Dakwar and Mahran Moreb, and they deserve a standing ovation for their work. The same goes for Samir Makhoul and Murkus herself, who did a terrific job of composing the anthem-like "Akhraho safka al dam." Dakwar (violin and oud ) and Moreb (kanun ) also lead Murkus' ensemble, which plays the songs with true elegance and great depth.

Murkus was unable to find a distribution company to deliver this superb CD to music stores, so in the meantime it is available only at a handful of places in northern Israel (including the art house-cafe Fattoush and Bab Alhara library in Haifa, Cafe Razaz in Acre, and the Maestro library in Nazareth ) and at Cafe Yafa in Jaffa.

Murkus launched the album last Saturday during an appearance at Kibbutz Kabri. Club owners in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa are hereby invited to book her for a performance, and the sooner the better. It is unthinkable for such a beautiful album not to have a stage life south of Kfar Yasif.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017