Hear an Echo? Four Cases of 'Borrowed' Israeli Songs

Usually it’s the Israeli musicians who are accused of borrowing from bands abroad, but sometimes the influence seems to go in the opposite direction.

Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev

As Israeli stations played hit after hit by legendary Israeli musician Arik Einstein the day after his death in November, the deejays also snuck in a few songs that don’t usually get much air time. One of them was “Hayo Haya” (“Once Upon a Time”) from the album Puzi.

This song, with lyrics by Einstein and music by Misha Segal, was written in memory of pianist Ziggy Skarbnik, a friend of Einstein’s who died of cancer at 24 and may be one of the most extraordinary songs in his entire repertoire. The structure comes across as unraveled and the song is filled with a  deep psychedelic spirit that fills it, but mostly, this song is different because of the rare  exposed cries of pain by a singer who was always the essence of cool.

So as the radio played “Hayo Haya,” at first I thought about the sudden death of its singer at 74. But two minutes into the song, when the bass enters at the end of the first stanza against the background of a misty-sounding organ, the heavy thoughts gave way to a surprising association: Hey, this is really, really similar to “Glory Box,” a later song by the British band Portishead.

That really shouldn’t have been so surprising. Both songs have the same basic harmonic movement of a fixed minor chord with a bass that lowers at half tones, something you can find in thousands of other songs. It has become a huge pop cliché, though some of the songs that use it are timeless classics, like the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By,” which I would guess is the main inspiration for “Glory Box.”

Surprising or not, the similarity between “Hayo Haya” and “Glory Box” is rare in that a song by a Western band bears a clear resemblance to a previously recorded Israeli song. There are plenty of Israelis songs that are similar to songs of more international reach that came first. Sometimes those songs influence the Israeli musicians in a general way, and other times the music is just copied outright.

Below are some more pairs of similar songs in which the Israeli version was recorded first. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Donald Fagen of Steely Dan is familiar with Kaveret or that Cardiacs ever heard Berry Sakharof, but the similarities cannot be ignored. Good musical ideas, it seems, have no mother or father and can show up at different times in different parts of the world:

Kaveret, “Shir Hamakolet” (“The Grocery Store Song”), 1973 / Steely Dan, “Charlie Freak,” 1974
This is the best example of all of them, a real item for collectors. Steely Dan had a great influence on the Israeli pop music of the mid- to late-1970s, and the musician who seems to have been influenced most deeply was Danny Sanderson of Kaveret. You can hear it in quite a few of his songs, with and without Kaveret. But “Shir Hamakolet” came out before “Charlie Freak.”
Since it’s highly unlikely that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker studied Kaveret’s album Poogy Tales while they were recording Pretzel Logic, there is no choice but to state that divine intervention, whose purpose was to equalize the debts between Sanderson and Steely Dan, caused the similarity between the clear and thunderous opening of the two songs. Both open with quick repetitive movements of the keyboards, followed by the entry of the bass and drums in a single thrust.

Hedva and David, “Ani Holem al Naomi” (“I Dream of Naomi”), 1970 / Freak Power, “Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out,” 1993
The only resemblance is in the movement of the bass, but the bass movement is what makes this Freak Power song so infectious. “Turn On” came out in 1993 but didn’t become a hit for another two years, when it appeared in a Levi’s. Anyone who saw MTV during that period remembers it well. The person behind Freak Power was Norman Cook, also known as Fatboy Slim, and since he was a DJ and an obsessive record collector, we can’t rule out the possibility that he heard the Japanese version of “Ani Holem al Naomi.”

Berry Sakharof, “Kama Yossi” (“So Much Yossi”), 1993 / Cardiacs, “Fiery Gun Hand,” 1996
“Kama Yossi” gallops along with a repetitive and aggressive bass movement of two similar tones. Exactly the same thing happens in “Fiery Gun Hand” by Cardiacs, the wonderful British band that created a dizzying combination of punk and progressive rock. The song is taken from Cardiacs’ incredible album Sing to God.

Tamouz, “Kakha At Ratzit Oti” (“You Wanted Me That Way”), 1975 / Ben Harper, “Put It on Me,” 2007
The similarity between these two songs is apparent only in their synoptic rhythm, and “Put It on Me” takes an African turn that differentiates it from the Ariel Zilber tune. But a few months ago, when radio show host Ronny Wertheimer played “Put It on Me” on 88 FM, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the opening, which immediately put me in mind of Tamouz. By the way, Tamouz’s songs go the other way too, with the opening of “Ani Lo Yode’a Eikh Lomar Lakh” (“I Don’t Know How to Tell You”) almost exactly identical (presumably subconsciously so) to the opening of the French-British rock band Gong’s 1971 song “And You Tried So Hard.”

Illustration by Hadar Segal

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