Local Artist Gives Radiohead a Middle Eastern Touch

A Middle Eastern cover of a Radiohead hit has taken YouTube by storm. Singer Rotem Shefy hopes it will herald a big break for her and her music.

About a month ago, when the singer Rotem Shefy was at her cousin’s house, a friend of the cousin called. “You won’t believe what’s going on with your cousin,” the caller said. “She’s gone viral.” Shefy didn’t understand. “I said, ‘What does viral mean?’” she recalls now, with a laugh. “I said, ‘No, really, will somebody please explain to me what viral is.’”

“Viral” describes a situation where an unknown singer uploads a clip on YouTube and within a few hours it garners thousands of views. “Viral” is when, about a month after a clip goes up on YouTube, it has over 250,000 views. “Viral” is when people are talking about your song, telling friends about it, writing about it, praising it, slamming it, arguing about it.

This is what has been happening to Rotem Shefy in the past few weeks, ever since she and cellist-arranger Leat Sabbah posted the video clip on YouTube of their Middle Eastern cover version of Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” What they jokingly call “Karma Bolis.”

“It started at Rimon,” Shefy says, referring to the school of jazz and contemporary music in Ramat Hasharon, which she attended for two years. In her second year, she was part of an ensemble that arranged and performed Radiohead’s songs, under the musical direction of Shmulik Neufeld. Sabbah, who resided in New York for a time, returned to Israel, studied at Rimon and was in the same ensemble. Shefy did not sing “Karma Police” at the time − another performer did − but sometimes, before class began, she delighted in trilling the opening line of the song with an Arabic inflection.

“Just for fun,” she recalls. “I like doing stuff like that − impressions, accents. Leat would burst out laughing when I sang [“Karma Police”]. She said it was ‘hilarious’ and that was it. That’s where it ended.”

Still, the version of the song was not forgotten. “Somehow my joking about ‘Karma Police’ remained in our minds,” Shefy says, “and at some point, we said: ‘Why not make it into a whole performance? Why don’t we make a cool ethnic-Arabic version of it?’”

Shefy and Sabbah enlisted oud player Yaniv Teichman and percussionist Ori Dekel, and the four recorded the Oriental version in a single night in the studio. Thereafter, Shefy and Sabbah marked out their next target: a video clip. The problem was that the two musicians had no money. They decided to go with the suggestion of a producer they consulted, and to raise the money through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. They raised $1,800, enough to pay for two things: a horse-drawn junk-dealer’s cart and the clothes the two women wore. All the people who made the clip worked for free.

The investment in wardrobe and styling, Shefy explains, was done “both for our own sake − for fun − and to draw people in to see what we did.” In the clip she plays a role − a sort of Arab diva she calls Shefita. “I like to take on characters, and when I do, it’s all the way.”

Did she have any misgivings about impersonating an Arab singer? “None. It came out of me and I went with it,” Shefy says. “There are people who will say, ‘How dare you.’ Or say it’s an act of impudence and disrespect, but that was not the intention. To the contrary, it was done with a lot of respect. Besides, we live in a place where this voice is present. I grew up in Carmiel [in the Galilee]. Every morning I would hear the muezzin of Majdal Krum. Also, I think one of the reasons this song has been successful is that I really got into character. This singer believes what she sings. We did it for fun, but we are perfectionists. There is thought behind every trill.”

Shefy and Sabbah were, naturally, surprised when their cover went viral. “The whole thing got a little bit out of proportion,” Shefy admits. “We assumed that because the clip looks good, there would be a few extra views. But in my rosiest dreams I never would have expected that it would exceed 20,000 views. I never in my life would have guessed that something I took part in − forgive me for being self-denigrating − would reach such numbers.”

Charming but unoriginal?

The transformation of “Karma Police” into a YouTube sensation also drew criticism, which largely stemmed from the fact that some people thought the cover and the clip seemed very calculated, self-aware.

The Middle Eastern twist on a canonical rock song, the setting of the clip on a busy urban, southern street − maybe this was just a charming but unoriginal attempt to jump on a Zeitgeist bandwagon?

“There was nothing calculated about what we did,” Shefy says. “It just happened that way. We spoke with Albert the alte-zachen [junk] dealer − and yalla, we [got his cart] and did it. But if it looks calculated to people and they get pissed off about it, I understand them, and I won’t try to persuade them otherwise. I too hate songs that are written for a particular purpose. Wedding songs for example. Hate them.”

Shefy, 28, served in the Israel Air Force entertainment troupe, studied at Rimon, and for the past two years has performed her own songs fairly regularly at Cafe Bialik in Tel Aviv ‏(as well as a few mischievous covers, for example of “Pump Up the Jam,” Technotronic’s big dance hit from the late 1980s‏).

People whose curiosity has been piqued by “Karma Police” and who may have gone looking for other work by Shefy on YouTube would find quite a few clips from the Cafe Bialik shows. What they would not find, however, are recordings or clips of any original song of hers in a studio.

“There is nothing I want more than that,” she says. “I can’t watch my clips on YouTube. Their sound really bothers me. It’s always a matter of money, though: Recording at a studio does not come cheap. But it will happen soon.”

“I have been doing this for a few years already, and it’s an endless struggle. Now, when some attention has been focused on me, my biggest wish is for people to get to know my songs,” adds Shefy, who will be performing at Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv on June 1. “There are a lot of people who could like my songs, but they have no idea I exist. Some say Rotem Shefy is performing at Cafe Bialik. C’mon, who’s going to be interested in that, just another singer. But now, people who never thought to give me a chance might give me one. Possibly they’ll come to the show and be disappointed that they aren’t getting ‘Karma Police’ constantly at full force, but maybe they’ll also like the other material. The character from ‘Karma Police’ will be there, that’s for sure. Her time isn’t up yet. I don’t feel like leaving her. She’s still new, she’s still fun for me.”

Have you received any interesting offers in the weeks since the clip was uploaded to YouTube?

“Nobody called up and said, ‘Come on over, I’ll make you a star.’ But, yes, there have been a few offers. People who had seen me before and paid no attention, suddenly noticed. People who might have heard my name and now realize that I’m a good singer, even though it’s a joke and all. Let’s see what happens with all these offers. Meanwhile, what has bothered me the most, recently, is that I haven’t touched the guitar and haven’t written anything. I have ideas in my head, but I don’t have peace of mind in which to write, and I’m dying to. We must write and perform, otherwise we turn into unhappy people.”

Dudi Hasson