‘We Are Just Like Brothers’: Israel and Turkey’s Musical Love Affair

The songs of Ibrahim Tatlises, the 70-year-old giant of Turkish music, who is scheduled to perform in Jerusalem this month, have been covered or sampled by many Israeli artists

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Ibrahim Tatlises, one of Turkey's most famous pop stars.
Ibrahim Tatlises, one of Turkey's most famous pop stars.Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

When singer Noa Kirel, producer Jordi and lyricists Ron Biton and Itay Shimoni entered Jordi’s studio three years ago to write and record the song “Pouch”, they knew two things. One: They wanted to make a trap track. Two: They needed a beautiful and powerful Arabic/Mizrahi melody, as a Mediterranean contrast to the imported Americanism of trap music.

When Jordi told the others that the best method to achieve an “eastern” sound was to sample Turkish violins, Biton recalled a conversation he had with music manager Avi Gueta. Gueta had told Biton about Ibrahim Tatlises, one of the great Turkish singers of the last 50 years and showed him a video from his last performance in Israel, in 2003, singing with Sarit Hadad.

Gueta also told Biton about the attempted assassination of Tatlises. In March 2011, the singer was shot outside an Istanbul television studio, and fell into a coma for several days after suffering serious head wounds. Rumors of his death circulated, shocking his fans in Israel, but he survived. The assailants were never captured.

“When Jordi suggested Turkish violins, this singer came to my mind,” Biton says. “His name escaped me, so I told Jordi: ‘Google ‘Turkish singer who was shot’.” Tatlises’ name came up straight away, and the first song to come up on YouTube was “Aramam,” which opens with a brilliant string introduction. “As soon as we heard that, Jordi said: ‘that’s the part,’” says Biton.

Sampling the “Turkish singer who was shot” is not much more more than a nice touch, and yet it is enough to demonstrate the continuous presence of Ibrahim Tatlises’ influence in Israeli music. An even greater testament was provided two weeks ago during Itzik Kala’s performance at the Caesarea Amphitheater. Emotions ran high at the show.

It was the first time that Kala, 69, had performed in Caesarea since recovering from cancer. In 2014, a cancerous growth was discovered in the singer’s neck, and over in following years he was prevented from singing because of his treatment. He gradually started performing in small theaters, and only recently has he started performing in front of larger audiences of thousands.

One of the highlights of the Caesarea show was the song “Looking for the Way,” probably Kala’s most all-Israeli song. Over the course of his five-decade-long career, Kala has had many hits in the large, yet underrepresented in the media, world of Mizrahi music, but it was only with 2003’s “Looking for the Way, that he found his way into the mainstream and the institutionalized radio stations.

Most of the audience at the Caesarea show have been following Kala since the ‘80s and ‘90s, and many of them sang along to his older tunes. But when he broke into “Looking for the Way” — written by Tatlises and originally called “Bebegim” — towards the end of the show, there was palpable excitement.

It not the only Tatlises tune that rocked the amphitheater. It was immediately followed by “Mami Mami” (originally “Mavi Mavi”). Throught the show, Kala told the audience of thousands that he was there for one reason only – to bring joy. He said it as only someone who had recently escaped the jaws of death could, as if possessed. “Enjoy! Enjoy! Enjoy!” he cried out repeatedly. “Mami Mami”, one of Tatlises’ most uptempo tunes, easily provided the sought-after enjoyment.

A playlist of Israel songs with Turkish origins, and vice versa.

From itzik Kala to Noa Kirel, 70-year-old Tatlises, who will perform two shows at the end of this month (June 28-29) at Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool, has profoundly influenced Israeli music. He just may be the non-Israeli singer with the most Hebrew-language covers that became hits in Israel. “Ibrahim’s tunes changed the face of Israeli music in the ‘90s,” says Erez Vanunu, who runs the online radio station “Noshmim Mizrahit.”

This is a large claim, which will sound odd to anyone who does not follow the genre, but it is not unwarranted. The ‘90s were the heyday of the genre, which was referred to as “depression music” (or as its fans like to call it, rightfully: “depression and soul music”). Hundreds of thousands of Israelis purchased recordings by Ofer Levi, Zehava Ben and others. And all these albums were based, almost exclusively, on Turkish melodies.

“Ibrahim was not the only one. Israeli artists borrowed tunes from many important Turkish singers,” Vanunu says and mentions Orhan Gencebay, whose song served as the basis for Zehava Ben’s hit “A Drop of Luck,” and the singer Ajar. “Ibrahim was the biggest influence, though. We really loved his songs, arrangements and singing. Someone less familiar with the music might initially say ‘this is depressive, whining, wrist-slashing music.’ But the people who love it really feel moved, touched and that it is as real as it gets. When Ibrahim steps up and really gets going, it is astonishing: he plays with his voice, and undulates it in such a way that you can close your eyes and totally lose yourself in the music.”

“There are strong similarities between Tel-Aviv and Istanbul. The temperament, the vibe, the mentality. I know plenty of Istanbul bars where you could easily swap the people inside for those in Tel-Aviv.”

Eli Luzon, whose biggest hits (“Girl” and “Please Lord”) are based on Tatlises’ melodies, recalls how he started listening to the Turkish singer when he was 13. “I always searched for music you couldn’t hear in Israel, and no one knew who Ibrahim was over here,” Luzon says. “I loved his voice, his delivery. He is one of the greats. His songs really suited me, and really satisfied me artistically.”

When asked about the influence of Tatlises, actor and singer Avi Bitter says: “Truth is, I connected more with a singer called Ferdi. Ferdi Tayfur. He is just as great as Ibrahim and sings more soulful, sadder songs. But Ibrahim is a massive influence, obviously. His songs can’t be sung by just anyone in Israel. You can’t sing them straight, in the normal way. You hear some local artist sing his tunes, but they do it in such a standard way, in what we call the Mediterranean style here in Israel. I don’t like that music. It isn’t real Mizrahi music.”

Both of Bitter’s parents are of Turkish origin, and since he can remember, Turkish music was played at home. “My mother would feed me and sing these songs to me,” he says. “My father would play them at his steak house and make me sing them to his friends, all of them Turks with mustaches. Later he got a job at the Zohar Cinema [in south Tel Aviv]. They would screen Turkish films there. I would go with my dad four times a week. I lived and breathed the culture, Ibrahim’s music and all the other Turkish singers. It is in my soul. So I can sing the stuff better than other singers who weren’t raised on it. But still not perfectly. As close as I am, it still isn’t quite right.”

Avi Bitter. Turkish music was played at home.Credit: Moti Kimche

Not just a curiosity

The Turkish-Israeli musical relationship didn’t begin with the flow of Turkish melodies to Israel and their becoming Mizrahi hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The original flow was in the opposite direction. At the end of the ‘60s and beginning of the ‘70s, the Turkish musical establishment, which aimed to create a local, Westernized pop scene without Arabic influence, looked at the Israeli pop scene with envy.

Israeli hits like “A Night of Roses, “Next Year” and “Together Again” were successfully covered by Turkish artists and remain hits to this day. “From a Turkish perspective, Israel was part of a Mediterranean Western civilization and lacked any hint of despised Arabic characteristics,” writes Kornelia Binicewicz, a Polish DJ and musicologist in a fascinating article titled “A Drop of Luck,” which charts the Turkish-Israeli musical relationship.

Binicewicz served as the artistic director of Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival for a decade, where she was exposed to Jewish music and culture. She relocated to Turkey a few years ago, where she DJs and researches the local music scene, and curates an online project called Ladies On Record, which represents the contribution of women to musical cultures around the world.

Binicewicz’s research shows that there is a resemblance between Turkish and Israeli musical developments in the last few decades. This resemblance, she says, lies in the growing influence of Arabic culture on both music scenes, after decades in which this Arabic influence was shunned, looked down upon and ignored by the cultural establishment in both countries as part of efforts to Westernize culturally.

Kornelia Binicewicz.Credit: Hüseyin Özdemir

“Arabic elements were always part of Turkish culture, mainly in rural areas and villages,” Binicewicz says. “But the Turkish state saw itself as part of the West, part of Europe. Arabic music did not fit into this imagined vision, so it was shunned.”

The situation began to change with the mass urbanization from the ‘50s onwards, she explains. “There people could not identify with Western music. They brought their own music and identities with them.” Over the years, socio-cultural and demographic shifts led to the rise of a new musical style called Arabesque, which incorporated more Arabic elements. Ibrahim Tatlises was one of the premier exponents of the genre.

“Arabesque became very popular, mainly amongst the working class, but despite this popularity, it was shunned by the establishment. Arabesque singers didn’t receive much airplay and were not allowed to perform on TV,” Binicewicz says. Eventually the floodgates broke, as a result of a combination of the political revolution [the military coup in1980] and the growth of a massive market for cassette tapes, which facilitated the flourishing of an Arabesque scene outside the channels of the mainstream music industry.”

This really does resemble the story of Mizrahi music in Israel.

“True. In Israel, Mizrahi music was heard mainly in social events, weddings, and the like, as well, and was hardly recorded. Then the cassettes arrived and became possible to copy and distribute the music without any reliance on the media and music industry. The resemblance is significant. Eventually, Arabic music emerged from the shadows. In Turkey, Arabesque began to be shown on TV and became the dominant popular musical genre. I am less familiar with Israeli music of recent decades, I focus mainly on the '60s-'70s-'80s, but I know that a similar process happened with you.”

The music of Ibrahim Tatlises and other performers in the Arabesque genre were the inspiration for the Israeli singers in the depression and soul genre, their mood, and melodies, but unlike Arabesque, which went mainstream, Israeli depression songs have remained very much part of an underground scene, even when they achieved dramatic commercial success.

Ofer Levi’s third album, “A ‘90s Star”, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and became one of the bestselling Israeli albums. Zehava Ben’s “A Drop of Luck” was also a huge success. The public thirst for the style came from the gap created in Mizrahi music at the end of the ‘80s. Zohar Argov died in 87. Haim Moshe went mainstream, and recorded songs like “Thanks” and “All my Vows” that lacked any trace of Mizrahi music. Margalit Tzanani made blues and soul records with Jaroslav Jakubovic. So many people yearned for heavy, rootsy, expressive Mizrahi music.

The depression songs satisfied this yearning, and the genre blossomed for a few years. Avi Bitter, Moshe Cohen, Tamir Gal, Kobi Peretz, Lior Narkis and others joined Ofer Levi and Zehava Ben, and they all sold multitudes of cassettes and CDs. Despite their commercial success, Israeli radio wouldn’t air these long and heavy songs featuring very direct, plaintive lyrics and Turkish-Arabic dialect and style.

On the rare occasions that depression artists were invited on programs on the recently launched Channel 2, they were treated like freakish curiosities. When Moshe Cohen, one of the most successful and talented singers in the genre, was invited as a talk show guest, the first thing that was shown was the large-sized pants he had worn before he had shed dozens of kilograms. Even more offensive was the way his music was treated. He was prevented from performing his big hit “I Made a vow”. Instead, he was directed to sing Shlomo Artzi’s “I Wipe Away Your Tears.”

Zehava Ben. Orhan Gencebay's song served as the basis for her hit “A Drop of Luck.”Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The phenomenal success of artists like Sarit Hadad and Eyal Golan at the end of the ‘90s gave rise to a new type of accessible, easy listening Mediterranean style. This was the end of the heavy depression style as a successful genre, along with the wide scale import of Turkish melodies. “I don’t think the depression style has disappeared,” says Erez Vanunu. “The wave has ebbed, but it is still there. Compare it, for example, to COVID-19. The virus was powerful and then receded but is still with us. It will return. Let’s hope not,” he laughs. “Same goes for the depression style. It is still here. It lives and breathes. At parties, social events and taverns, people still sing these tunes.”

Even in a completely different genre of music, we can see the formation of a unique relationship. Yossi Sassi, guitarist with Orphaned Land from 1991-2014, says that during the ‘90s a small cohort of fans in Turkey (“a junta” says Sassi) developed around the band’s music, which combines metal with Arabic and Mediterranean elements. “At the end of the ‘90s, in the early days of the internet, we received an email from a Turkish fan that had a tattoo of our logo. He wrote ‘I hope you perform here.’ It was quite a surprise for us. We didn’t know we had fans over there. In 2001 we went to Istanbul for the first time and were greeted like rock stars. A 10-year love affair started, we played stadiums, and big festivals. Orphaned Land was ‘big in Turkey.’”

In 2018, a few years after Sassi quit, the band went on tour in Turkey and the media and social media circulated a video of lead singer, Kobi Farhi, speaking about the bond between Jewish and Muslim metal fans (to the applause of the audience, which also consisted of Tunisians, Syrians, Iranians and Iraqis).

Erez Vanunu.Credit: Michael Edri

Tel Aviv meets Istanbul

Ever since depression songs returned to the underground, the intensive import of Turkish pop ceased. There’s no need for it anymore. Itzik Kala’s “Looking for the Way” is most likely the last successful cover of an Ibrahim Tatlises song. But the Turkish-Israeli musical relationship has not been severed; it has just changed in nature. Instead of Turkish music flowing in the direction of Israel, in recent years more and more Israeli musicians are performing in Turkey, and more and more musicians are collaborating with their Turkish colleagues.

In Turkey, the songs recorded during lockdown by kamancheh player Mark Eliyahu with Turkish singer Cem Adrian and the group Perdenin Ardindakiler reached the top spt on the charts and featured in Spotify’s viral global playlist. Before the pandemic, the band Boom Pam was backing Selda, one of Turkey’s greatest singers and a protest song icon. The singer Kalben recorded a Turkish version of Dudu Tassa’s song “The Exile.”

“Our generation has an open mind. We want to live. We want to have fun. We want to learn about ourselves and about others. We do not want to be strangers to each other. We reject xenophobia."

Turkish singer Kalben

The singer Echo and producer Tomer Catz (founder of the musical project D-Fine Us) recently recorded an EP in Istanbul with Turkish rapper and saxophone player Baris Demirel. And musician Adi Rotem produced some songs for Turkish pop singer Mabel Matiz, which reached the top of the Turkish charts. The list of close artistic ties between sculptors, visual artists and writers is too long to mention.

Three months ago, an album that is entirely the product of Turkish-Israeli collaboration was released. Titled “Remotely Close,” it features seven musicians from each country. Each of the seven songs was recorded by a pair of musicians from both countries.

The idea for “Remotely Close” came from Elazar Zinvel, the cultural attaché at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul (which sponsored the project in collaboration with Zack Bar, Lior Ainnes and the Turkish artist collective Hood Base), who for the last four years has been promoting the activities of Israeli artists in Turkey and on some occasions lining up collaborations with local artists.

Some of the musicians on “Remotely Close” made it due to Zinvel’s recommendation. Some chose who they would collaborate with themselves. Boom Pam, for example, recorded a tune with saz player Kemal Esen, with whom they have performed in Turkey in recent years. Yoni Levin (of the band The Uzi Navon Legacy) wanted to work with Ethnique Punch, a Turkish rapper he had been following for some time. The Turkish musician Islandman wanted asked to work with Israeli producer Alek Lee.

“There are strong similarities between Tel-Aviv and Istanbul,” Zinvel says. “The temperament, the vibe, the mentality. I know plenty of Istanbul bars where you could easily swap the people inside for those in Tel-Aviv.” Saxophonist Sefi Zisling, whose collaboration with Cagri Sertel led to one of the more memorable pieces on Remotely Close, agrees and adds, “There are places in Istanbul which feel exactly like the Teder [nightlife complex in Tel Aviv], and on the other hand there are places where the tension between secularism and religion is very pronounced. I don’t mean in a negative way. On the contrary.”

Zisling performed in Istanbul three weeks ago. Liraz Charhi and the band Lola Marsh played there the same weekend. “At the Lola Marsh show you could see Turkish hipsters and girls with headscarves who knew all the words and sang along,” says Zisling. “I was really moved by this. You see mixed audiences in Israel as well, but much less.” Describing the feeling of grandeur and power in Istanbul, uses the word “overwhelming.” “There is empire in the air. You feel the years, the power, the intensity of the size. So much color, so many sounds and flavors. It is really powerful and breathtaking.”

“Turkey is a powerful country,” agrees Uri Kinrot, guitarist, and lead singer for Boom Pam. “Things happen not only in the big cities. We played in lots of places that are allegedly holes in the wall, but they put on large festivals that draw crowds of tens of thousands.”

“I am astonished by the audience at my shows in Turkey,” Riff Cohen told me when I interviewed her two years ago. “You see women wearing the burqa, next to a bar serving alcohol, at a Jewish Israeli singer’s show. This is the sort of openness that I unfortunately don’t see in Israel. I don’t see enough religious people at my shows in Israel, and definitely no Muslims.”

The collaboration between Boom Pam and Kemal Esen on “Remotely Close” is called “Dostum.” Dostum is a word expressing intimacy, says Kinrot. “Something like ‘my brother.’” Boom Pam was referring to its relationship with the Turkish musician, but it seems that the also applies to the Turkish-Israeli musical connection as a whole. “It’s true. We are just like brothers,” says Kinrot. “Our musical culture is suffused with Turkish musical culture in the same way that it is suffused with Greek culture. It may not always be out in the open, but it is very tight. Melodies are flowing in both directions all the time. And unlike other countries surrounding us, we can go there.

“Turkey,” Kinrot adds, “is one of the only places where you see people shed a tear at a concert. All around the world, people cry at the movies. Not at concerts. In Turkey, they do. You see people full of emotion. The most moving thing at our shows with Selda was to see tens of thousands of young people looking with admiration at this singer who is a few generations older than them and understand how relevant she is. She sings protest songs, and her shows are like anti-Erdogan demonstrations. Her songs don’t speak directly about the contemporary political situation in Turkey, but the message is clear. She sings songs that glorify Ataturk and the days when he was in power. This is like saying: Erdogan, go away.”

Boom Pam. Recorded a tune with saz player Kemal Esen, with whom they have performed in Turkey in recent years.Credit: Ben Palhov

“Have you ever experienced anything like this in Israel?” I ask.
Kinrot thinks for a few seconds. “No.”

“Emotional” is a word that Kalben repeats often when the singer speaks of the awesome Dudu Tassa song “The Exile” that she recorded. Her version is called “Sanssiz Mucadeleci” (“Unlucky Battlehorse”) and was recorded last year in Israel with Tassa. “Whenever I sing this song live something incredible happens: I get so emotional, the audience gets emotional,” Kalben says.

“And why do we get so emotional? Because this song speaks to the experience of many people who feel lonely, alienated, outsiders, who have been abandoned by the system and the establishment, people who struggle. Millions are struggling as we speak. People loved ‘The Exile’ because it offers such a great perspective on our problems. Even a sexy perspective. You are in a club. You move. You dance. You feel abandoned, the world has left you by the wayside, but you are dancing with strangers so in fact you are deep inside. The song creates a vessel for people to sing about what ails them and enjoy it.”

It was Zinvel who first played “The Exile” for Kalben, who describes her as a rock poet. Her music is indeed steeped in rock, cabaret and generally in Western styles. “The Exile” moved her partly it connected her to repressed “eastern” side. “I always looked at things from a Western perspective,” Kalben says. “My father adored Turkish folk and classical music, and because of my issues with him I didn’t want to do anything with that stuff. I wanted to distance myself from those sounds. So I looked to the West and became alienated from my own country’s music. Until recently. My father was very sick. He overcame one illness and succumbed to another. Amongst all this I rediscovered my roots, and Dudu helped me with all that. He helps me love my own music more than I had already.”

Kalben. The singer recorded a Turkish version of Dudu Tassa’s song “The Exile.”Credit: Dilan Bozyel

When I ask Kalben how she explains the amount of recent Turkish-Israeli musical collaboration, she says: “We are friends. We want to make music together. We want to bring joy to people’s lives.”

But why is this happening now more than it did 10 or 20 years ago?

“Because our generation has an open mind. We want to live. We want to have fun. We want to learn about ourselves and about others. We do not want to be strangers to each other. We reject xenophobia. We reject borders. We reject prejudice. People my age, 35-40, and those a bit younger, don’t want to deal with this shit anymore. I think artists are very aware of all this. We want to show everyone that whatever doesn’t involve music and love is not worth much.”

Did you get negative reactions when you released your version of “The Exile”? Were you criticized for collaborating with an Israeli artist?

“No! No! People don’t care about all that. People love art. People love making connections. That is the only thing that matters. Music gets everyone fucking excited.”

Mark Eliyahu, arguably the most successful Israeli musician in Turkey as of late, affirms Kalben’s sentiments. Has he ever encountered criticism or hatred in Turkey? “Never. Ever. Not a word. Even not during the last war in Gaza. And everyone knows I am from Israel. It amazes me every time anew that music is love, it is a connection. There is no room for hatred anywhere near it.”

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