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Michael Figueroa
Associate Professor Michael Figueroa

In this installment of Book Notes, we dive into Associate Professor Michael Figueroa’s latest book, City of Song: Music and the Making of Modern Jerusalem, published on January 31, 2022.

Prof. Figueroa specializes in music and politics in the SWANA region (South West Asia and North Africa) and its diasporas. His latest research on post-9/11 Arab American life and music has been featured on the Institute for the Arts and Humanities’ podcast and by the Center for Urban and Regional Studies’ Viewpoints podcast. He is also co-editor with Professor Annegret Fauser, of Performing Commemoration: Musical Reenactment and the Politics of Trauma (University of Michigan Press, “Music and Social Justice” series, 2020).

We recently interviewed Prof. Figeroa about City of Song, how this book intersects with his current research, and the lessons he learned while writing it.

UNC Music: Give us a short synopsis of your City of Song?
Associate Professor Michael Figeroa: In the book, I present a genealogical approach to the study of musical discourse, arguing that popular song has been an essential discursive site for the production of spatial knowledge about Jerusalem, the main contested territory within the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Through my sustained focus on Zionist and Israeli cultural production, I offer a new kind of analysis to seemingly timeworn questions about the city’s troubled modernity and its status as the epicenter of one of the world’s most protracted human-rights crises. In political terms, my study demonstrates how the present political and humanitarian crisis in Jerusalem is not—as often claimed—a timeless problem of cultural and religious incompatibility but, rather, one that was produced in modernity, as musicians and associated figures grappled with the question of the city’s meanings.

Thus, I produce a musical genealogy of Jerusalem through listening to Zionism’s musical apparatus—represented by songwriters, poets, performers, media institutions, and other kinds of historical agents—from the origins of Zionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the late 1960s and early ’70s, which coincided with rampant social and political changes, developing conceptions of national identity and culture, and transformations of the very cultural geography of Jerusalem as a lived city. The music that I discuss, largely consisting of canonical popular songs and poems as well as lesser-known examples that present musical images of the contested city, has never before been treated as a thematic repertory in the scholarly literature.

UNC Music: How does City of Song fit into your overall research interests?
Figueroa: My research is driven by an interest in the entanglements of music, politics, discourse, and identities in the Middle East and its diasporic contexts. To date, my work has examined a number of intersecting issues within this framework: nationalism, territorialism, the politics of commemoration, the production of space, religiosity, aesthetics, music-text relations, and historiography. In order to do justice to the nuances and complexities of these issues, I embrace whole-heartedly interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research. A notable facet of my research outputs is the championing of mixed musicological methodologies that combine historical, ethnographic, and analytical modes of inquiry, with a particular attention to how music is embedded in non-musical aesthetic practice—chiefly poetry, film, and theater.

These issues and methodological approaches are showcased throughout the book, much of which focuses on uncovering lost or forgotten histories, memories, and compositional details about well-known songs, such as Avigdor Hameiri’s “From the Summit of Mt. Scopus” (1929), Yaffa Yarkoni’s “Bab El Wad” (1949), and Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” (1967). In those extended analyses, I trace the songs’ genealogies from biblical and medieval intertexts to borrowed operatic and folk melodies that came with their own cultural baggage. I contextualize the repertory in the political and aesthetic circumstances of composition and performance, and I chart their reception at significant historical moments until the ethnographic present. A key focus of my research is on recorded and live cover versions and parodies. Throughout the book, I illuminate issues related to Jerusalem’s urban development, the place of religion vis-à-vis constructions of nationalism, memorial practices, and especially national political discourse.

city of song cover imageUNC Music: What inspired you to write this book in particular?
Figueroa: I was inspired to pursue this topic in a graduate seminar at the University of Chicago way back in 2008; the book is actually an evolution of my Ph.D. dissertation. Since joining the Carolina faculty in 2014, I transformed the manuscript from a dissertation focused on Israeli music after the 1967 War into an extensive history of Zionist musical discourse about the contested city of Jerusalem across the long twentieth century. I was initially drawn to Jerusalem because of the passions the city arises in both residents and onlookers and the utter messiness of the ideological entanglements involved. I had a sense that musicians played an important role in the city’s modern history, in terms of shaping public opinion and especially the discursive parameters around the city’s politics. This sense was substantiated by over a decade of archival and ethnographic research in the city, where I have spent most of my time outside of North Carolina in the past eight years!

UNC Music: Were there any surprises along the journey of writing this book?
Figueroa: Of course, the book’s narrative is filled with archival curiosities and unexpected encounters in the field. One thing I might point out is a discussion around graffiti in the beginning of the second chapter. I was walking from my hotel room to Shuk Mahane Yehuda (an open-air market in West Jerusalem), when I saw a strange reworking of a line from Psalm 137 spray-painted on a wall. Psalm 137, verse 5, translates to “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” The graffitist had written (in Hebrew), “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, it’s because of Tel Aviv!” This simple play on words is actually revealing of a larger phenomenon of articulating Israeli identity as a play between two cultural “poles” represented by Jerusalem (religious, provincial) and Tel Aviv (secular, cosmopolitan). Of course, the situation is more complex—as many musicians have articulated through direct lyrical comparisons between the cities, to say nothing of their many settings of Psalm 137. It wasn’t at all surprising to see a citation of Psalm 137 in an everyday context, as its referentiality is immense. What was surprising was when I returned to the city one year later and saw that the phrase had been crossed out in black paint and left as a trace of the projection of imagined geographies onto the Jerusalem cityspace. Naturally, in the book I use this example to show the layering of such projections that happen within musical practice.

UNC Music: If readers could take away one thing from this book, what do you hope it would be?
Figueroa: I would hope that readers take away a sense of the everyday stakes of political conflict—that it is not merely some battle of competing symbols but rather a lived experience that can be difficult to navigate or even survive. I also would like readers to grasp the cultural authority accorded musicians in the context of Israel/Palestine (and beyond) and accept the fact that music is not always used to bring people together; sometimes, it is, but often music is used to divide people, to incite violence, or to erase the presence of others. Only when we approach music history with eyes wide open can we appreciate the power of musicians to shape our social world.

City of Song: Music and the Making of Modern Jerusalem can be checked out from the UNC Music Library or purchased from Oxford University Press, Amazon, or your local bookseller.