A symphonic array of musical variety

By Paul Lester, April 18, 2008

Israel is a new country, albeit one with roots tracing back thousands of years. So its music combines modern and ancient, with the influx of people from all over the world creating an astonishing array of musical influences, including Russian folk, klezmer, Arabic, Yemenite, Iraqi, Yiddish and Ladino.

It was Russian folk music that dominated Israel’s musical landscape in the early days — songs with Hebrew lyrics intended to create a common cultural identity. For many years, the proliferation of Hebrew songs and of shira b’tzibur (public singalongs) was supported by government agencies as a way of building community. This folk tradition was best represented by Naomi Shemer, who, from the 1960s, sang about the new homeland in songs like the iconic Jerusalem of Gold.

Then there were the many Chasidic and klezmer melodies which found their way into the Israeli canon. Other composers often mimicked the sounds of the local Arab music. Later, Arabic musical traditions were brought by Jewish immigrants from Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere, developing a new muzika mizrahit (Eastern music) style.

Just as rock’n’roll was breaking out all over the western world, Greek-style “bouzouki” music became popular, with Aris San, a non-Jewish Greek singer who became an Israeli citizen, the driving force. In the late 1960s, Latin rhythms became popular in songs such as Noah by Matti Caspi. Israel’s predilection for folk predated the US folk movement of the early 1960s, although many Israeli folk singers such as Chava Alberstein adopted the approach of Joni Mitchell et al. The decade also saw duos emerge à la Simon & Garfunkel, such as HaDudaim and HaParvarim.

Israeli rock’n’roll has had a chequered history. For many years, the country was impervious to the cultural changes afoot in Europe and America. In fact, rock was considered a negative influence — incredibly, the Beatles were not allowed to perform there after the Minister of Education became concerned about their corrupting effect.

The 1970s saw the growth of a new openness. Groups sprang up to perform rock, jazz and other genres, with a uniquely Israeli approach full of unusual sonorities and rhythms. The Israeli rock scene grew exponentially, soon becoming the country’s dominant music culture.

The first successful rock group in Israel was The Churchills. Then came Svika Pick, the first Israeli rocker to appear in punk and glam-style outfits, followed by Shalom Hanoch, whose album Sof Onat Hatapuzim (The End of the Orange Season) is considered a landmark.

Providing the bridge between Israeli rock and Land of Israel-style approaches were artists such as Shlomo Gronich and Gidi Gov, whose progressive rock adopted the lyrical ballad style, and mixed traditional instruments — flute, recorder, darbuka and acoustic guitar — with electric guitars and synthesisers.

But it was not until the appearance of Aviv Geffen that Israeli rock got with the modern programme. Geffen appeared onstage in makeup, bragged about evading the draft, and sang about drugs, sex and alienation.

Israel’s commercial pop has pushed the idea of the country as a global musical force, particularly the Eurovision Song Contest wins of 1978 (with A-Ba-Ni-Bi) and 1979 (with Halleluyah), not to mention 1998’s winner, Diva, by transsexual Dana International. In the 1980s, the much-sampled Ofra Haza took Israeli music on to the world stage.

Israel’s music scene remains hugely varied. So alongside Orthodox Jewish songs, you can hear every cutting-edge genre, including techno, rap, hip hop and trance — in which some Israeli artists have gained international recognition, such as Astral Projection and Infected Mushroom. There are homegrown rap acts such as Hadag Nahash (The Snake Fish) and Arab group Dam, while Offer Nissim is one of the most acclaimed contemporary house producers.Most recently, singer Yael Naim (below) became the first Israeli solo artist ever to have a top-ten hit in America. And experimentation continues: for example, with the Idan Raichel Project, a band merging Ethiopian and Western elements.

While there is no denying that many Israeli musicians feel the need to define a distinctly national identity in their music, the feeling among the young is that the Israeli condition, if such a thing exists, is something to be expunged. As Shalom Hanoch has said: “I don’t like the attempt to be ethnic. I don’t search for roots in my music. My roots are within me. I don’t have to add oriental flavour for people to know that I am from the Middle East.”

Last updated: 4:52pm, April 22 2008