The Godfather of Mizrahi Music in Israel

Yishai Levy has overcome his own demons to become one the most successful singers in Israel, both within and beyond the Mizrahi community.

In last week's raging winter storm, I had to give up on my motorbike and use my mother’s car to get around. From its CD player came familiar sounds but nevertheless something didn’t seem quite right. I know the songs but the performer’s voice sounded a bit different. I pressed a button and both the mystery and the solution popped out of the system: “Yishai Levy – The Songs I loved 2012,” the veteran singer’s new-old medley.

At 50 years old, 30 of which he has spent as a professional musician, Levy manages to stay relevant and popular today too, and not just in my mother's car. His performances are sold out and his colleagues respect him, as do the critics, which wasn't always the case.

In the early 1980s, Levy cut an album with guitarist Moshe Ben Mosh, featuring remakes of numbers like "Lisa Lisa." It was this recording that paved his way to Israel's performance clubs, and then to a general audience. In 1987, when he dropped his solo album "Here Comes the Day," with its unforgettable, unmissable hit "Raiya," he seemed to have it made.

But then came the public tussles with Mizrahi musician Zohar Argov (who committed suicide in his prison cell at the end of that year) and his own severe and long-lasting addiction to drugs. It seemed that Levy, just like Argov, was destined for his own unhappy ending.

Yet somehow a new hit always came along. In 1992, his “Dance” became one of the most-played songs both within the Mizrahi musical community and outside of it. Sales were unprecedented. Five years later, after two not very successful albums and a backsliding into drugs, Levy seemed to rehabilitate himself once again with “Black Girls.”

By now, however, he had been linked to too many unsavory affairs. He spent a chunk of the 1990s behind bars.

In 2008, after more unsuccessful albums, it finally happened thanks to “Romantic Dance,” with music by Raviv Ben Menachem (the Ravivo Project). The eponymous album engendered a number of other hits and brought him back to the public eyes, ears and hearts. This time, riding the wave of Mediterranean music's charge toward popularity, he managed to once again conquer mainstream listeners.

Levy concentrated on what he does best. About two years later he was invited the Two Sides of the Coin project, in which he performed covers of the Natasha’s Friends’ song “Melancholy” and Yossi Banai’s “20-Year-Old Love.” He then surprised everyone by releasing a truly fine album that featured one of the best numbers of the year: "My One and Only."

His latest solo album, "You," features Levy's own versions of Mizrahi classics. It shows once again that he knows how to play it straight, constituting a direct continuation of recent success. It seems that Levy at last has reasons to relish his own personal jubilee, although it isn't clear to what extent the ghosts of his self-destruction path may continue to haunt him.

What is clear, however, is that Levy is not some passing comet in the skies of Mizrahi music. He has been around since the genre was born, yet manages to remain both popular and fresh, perhaps now more than ever. He is an authority for newbies, a role model for aspiring singers in the field.

Unlike other stars of his generation Levy has hung on to his own unique style (including the precise Yemenite stress and pronunciation he learned with his prayers in his childhood), while adapting it to changing market conditions and speaking to those who were not raised on his cassettes at home. He was there from the start and seen the genre succeed. Levy has rightfully earned his place as the godfather of Mediterranean music.

Tomer Appelbaum
Nir Keidar