Israeli Rock Is on a Roll

Israel produces its own reality show ‘idols,’ but just like elsewhere, the legendary names still dominate the charts.

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To talk about what’s new in Israeli music, you still have to talk about what’s old in Israeli music. Or rather, who’s old in Israeli music. Like Israeli politics, the top slots on the music charts share more than a few names with the charts of a decade or two ago. Names like Arik Einstein, Yehuda Poliker and Rita have been nationwide favorites for a while now, but they still produce music that Israelis devour.

Innovative new artists, however, are also finding ways to make their voices heard. Thanks to a slew of reality music TV shows, the country is churning out new pop stars every year, with plenty of flavors of the month to choose from. But like the participants of similar programs in the United States, few of them stick around for long.

If there’s one trend that defines the Israeli music scene these days, it’s the emergence in the last few years − make that explosion − of Mizrahi music ‏(which translates as “eastern” music and refers to the music of Jews from Arab countries‏).

The current Mizrahi king is Eyal Golan, perhaps the biggest music star in the country these days, and one of the first Mizrahi singers to cross over to the mainstream.

Speaking of those reality shows, Golan has one too and it’s called, appropriately, “Eyal Golan is Calling You.” The program, a search for the next big Mizrahi star, is now in its second season. While it doesn’t pull quite the same audience share as the mega-popular “Kohav Nolad” ‏(the Israeli equivalent of “American Idol”‏) and “The Voice” ‏(the Israeli version of, well, “The Voice”‏), the show has tapped into a niche audience that has become hugely influential.

A musical heritage sees the light

Gal Uchovsky knows a thing or two about Israeli music. The writer/producer/TV personality was one of the country’s sharpest music critics in the 1980s and ‘90s. He was also one of the founding judges on “Kohav Nolad” and spent five years with the show. Now he’s sitting at the judges’ table of Golan’s show, playing the role of the token, skeptical Ashkenazi. He says he’s come away with a new appreciation for the genre.

“When you go deep into [Mizrahi music], you understand how deep the discrimination was,” he says of the Mizrahi Jewish community, which for decades has been pushed to the side in Israeli culture in favor of more-European tastes. “Their heritage was not taken into consideration.”

He points out that half the people in the country grew up on this music but that until the last few years, it wasn’t heard on the radio. But Golan is changing that, along with a bunch of other Mizrahi stars like Dudu Aharon and Moshe Peretz.

Of course, if Golan is the king, then he must have a queen. Her name is Sarit Hadad and she, with Golan, broke the glass ceiling for Mizrahi singers. Naturally, she’s on TV too as a judge of “The Voice,” along with rocker Aviv Geffen and legendary crooner Shlomi Shabat.

When “The Voice” premiered last year, it stole a lot of fire from “Kohav Nolad,” which has cycled through 10 seasons but has introduced only a handful of true stars into Israeli music culture. Among them is the season-one winner, Ninette Tayeb who, like “Idol’s” Kelly Clarkson, managed to transcend the reality TV label and develop her own identity as a singer. Shiri Maimon and Harel Skaat, both runners-up in their seasons, also have built sustainable careers from the experience.

Uchovsky calls the wave of TV shows “unavoidable” but points out that while they may deliver great singers, they don’t necessarily produce great artists.

“They bring out people who do covers, and it’s hard to transition from covers to original music,” he says. Still, he credits them for bringing “glam and glitter back to Israel.” Music was in a bad shape in 2000 when TV shifted away from airing live performances. Though prepackaged, the reality shows have given music a needed energy boost.

Seeking success abroad

Though Golan doesn’t write his own music, Uchovsky says he’s “the voice that defines the new Israel.” Golan’s Ashkenazi equivalent, according to Uchovsky, is Shlomo Artzi, another one who has been around for decades, who writes his own songs and whom Uchovsky calls “more of a poet.”

Another big singer-songwriter still at the top of his game after more than a decade is rocker Ivri Lider, who recently made the leap to English-language success with a project called The Young Professionals ‏(TYP‏) with Johnny Goldstein, an electro-rock sound with a retro vibe.

But making it abroad is a daunting task for Israelis, given the language barrier. “For Israelis to succeed abroad,” says Uchovsky, “they have to move there and they don’t want to.”

Mike Brant managed to do it in the 1970s in France ‏(until he killed himself at 28‏), and Yael Naim got lucky when her song “New Soul” was used by Apple to promote the MacBook Air in 2008.

In the world of club music, Israeli DJs have been in demand around the globe, particularly Offer Nissim, who is huge in Brazil and in gay circles in New York and Paris. There’s also the Infected Mushrooms, an electronica duo well known among trance fans. One of the biggest international successes recently is Asaf Avidan, who sings exclusively in English and who scored a major hit this year when his “Reckoning Song ‏(One day‏)” got the remix treatment with inspired results.

Musician Idan Raichal created a category all his own with a brand of world music that ranges from exuberant to contemplative and always breathtaking in its beauty. Raichal and his collaborators pull from many Israeli ethnic traditions, from Ethiopian to Russian and Arab, splicing international sounds with text from the Bible and offering energetic shows that are in demand around the world.

A musical melting pot

Back home in Tel Aviv, the buzzing indie scene boasts a plethora of talented acts, but it’s a tough scene to break out of. “The rockers in little clubs in Tel Aviv don’t make money,” says Uchovsky. “It’s hard.” The road to success in Israel is still largely paved by radio airwaves, where Galgalatz, the army radio station, is a dominating trendsetter in introducing new artists.

All told, though, this adds up to a solid and diverse music scene with something fresh to be found in every corner and for every taste: from the monstrous, sweaty dance halls and the cozy underground stages to the dramatic outdoor amphitheater in Caesarea to, yes, your living-room TV.

The sounds of Israel, as they should, reflect the country itself: innovative and international but with strong roots in the past and reverence for the pioneers who paved the way. Tune in and take note.

After decades as one of Israel's top rockers, Shlomo Artzi still tops the charts.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Eyal GolanCredit: David Bachar
Idan RaichalCredit: Tomer Neuberg
RitaCredit: Dror Verber

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