Israel's Pioneering Groove Band Finds That The Apples Don't Fall Far From the Beat

When they were young, the members of The Apples looked up to the groundbreaking musicians of Shabak Samech. Now the two groups are sharing the stage at the Barby for a pair of joint concerts at the end of March.

Yoni Halevy was in the 9th grade when Shabak Samech's first album came out in the mid-1990s. When Halevy, now the successful drummer of the groove music group The Apples, recalls that album, he sounds like someone remembering a missile strike.

“I remember how I felt when that thing fell," he says. "We never heard anything like it in Israel – never.” The album was a major milestone on Halevy’s musical road. “When you start to make music that comes from a similar place and is associated with groove and hip-hop, you have got to know and respect Shabak Samech. You can almost say it’s an inborn impact.”

Over the past few weeks The Apples and Shabak Samech have been rehearsing together for two joint concerts, to be held on March 28 and 29 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.

“I can talk specifically about James, Shabak’s legendary, eternal drummer," says Halevy. "His influence on me was huge. And I think that other members of The Apples feel the way I do about the other members of Shabak. I told James, ‘Do you know what you did to me the first time I heard the beat of "The Banana Bender"?' Wow! That snare drum plastered me to the wall."

Of course, the members of Shabak Samech’s can’t say the same about The Apples, since the latter group showed up about a decade later, and they didn't have someone else pave the way. Shabak guitarist Piloni says they paid a heavy price for being Israel’s first groove band.

“For the first five or six years we really took a beating and only then did we start earning," he says. "I heard people saying, ‘you can’t do rap in Hebrew,’ and ‘what are those loops?’ After that it all worked out.”

At first, Piloni says, the band didn't know what they were doing. After shelving one album before it came out, they made what became their first released album.

“Then Yossi Fein came along,” Piloni says, referring to the producer of their second album, “In a candy wrapper.”  It was Fein, Piloni says, “who showed us how to do groove in an authentic way.

“There was nothing in Israel,” he adds. “Only concerts by Yossi and Tal Bergman and Ronnie Peterson at Logos. That was the only place you could hear groove. People in Israel would clap on the wrong beat.”  

For The Apples, the moment their breakthrough moment came with the launch of their third album, “Buzzin About,” in 2008 at the Hanger at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. That was when Piloni first met Halevy and his friends.

“I head them and I really liked what they were doing,” he said. “When we thought a few months ago about doing a joint concert with another band, and Shaul (Mizrahi) from the Barby suggested The Apples, I thought it could be great. And then Yoni came to my studio and in five minutes I knew he was the perfect partner. He’s got New York diligence. I like it. I’m a workaholic myself,” Piloni said.

The Apples and Shabak Samech will share the stage for much of the concerts at Barby. That means a group of no less than 16 people. Four wind instrumentalists (all from The Apples) four rappers (all from Shabak), two DJs (The Apples), two guitarists (Shabak), two drummers and two base-players.

And by the way, the base-players are brothers – Muskatel for Shabak and his younger brother, Elad Muskatel for The Apples.

Were there elements that were difficult or impossible to combine? “Hardly any,” Halevy says. “The word ‘no’ was hardly heard at all in rehearsal. We had to fit our playing to the special situation. We’re used to playing instrumental music and in instrumental music there’s much more space. In the concerts with Shabak the music has to serve the words.”

The Apples, who put out their fifth album, “Fly on It” about a year ago, will be leaving for a European tour soon; in the near future they'll start work on new material with musicians from British labels who blur the lines between soul, electronic and hip-hop.

Shabak Samech, who put out their fifth album, Parra Parra, about a year ago, has less specific plans. “Shabak is our refuge,” says Piloni, who is mainly involved on the production end of music. “And so I think Shabak is one of the purest bands. Shabak is the place where we make records for the fun of it and not for the playlist, without anybody’s financial backing, without having to do 15 concerts a month. We have a crazy audience that’s been with us for years, and it thrills we that we’re still on stage and we’ll grow old together on stage. We have nothing to prove except to ourselves.”

Elad Berenga