'A Show for Singers With Curly Hair'

Mizrahi music meets 'American Idol' in the reality show of celebrity singer Eyal Golan.

A mob of teenagers crowded the entrance of a studio near Tel Aviv last week, vying to be part of the audience of "Eyal Golan Calls You." The reality show - in which the popular Mizrahi singer searches for an heir to his Middle Eastern-style music - is about to complete its second season on the niche music channel, 24. Its success can be measured by its rating, 5 percent (on a station that rarely gets 1 percent ), by the elusive concept of "buzz" and by the excited expressions and uncompromising devotion of the teenagers gathered at the Ramat Hahayal studio. They push into the entranceway, run toward Golan's car when it glides into the parking lot, and rush toward the stage.

Given the number of competitors in this genre - from "A Star is Born," the Israeli version of "American Idol," to "The Voice" - the success of Golan's show, broadcast outside of prime time, is no small achievement. The second season is larger and more elaborate than the first. Last season featured a contest among women singers in an intimate atmosphere, without an audience. The winner, Moran Mazor, is now recording a disk produced by Golan. This season everything is bigger and brighter, with a larger group of singers, both men and women. Each show features a few rounds of singing, with one contestant dismissed.

Golan - Bar-On - 14.3.12
Daniel Bar-On

On this sunny day in March, the semi-finals are being shot - to be broadcast at 7 P.M. the same evening. The judges sit in a room on the side, chatting like a bunch of old friends. The evening's guest, singer Boaz Sharabi, waits not very patiently in another room. Asked what he'll sing tonight, he says "what feels right when I'm on stage."

The peacock door opens like a fan, creating an impressive visual effect, dramatically revealing the contestants. The cameras follow the action in the hallways where the contestants pace; The area is decorated with a wink at the "Big Brother" program.

"What's different about his show is that it's more folksy," says Adi Leon, Golan's musical director, keyboardist and one of the judges. ("We call him the 'Israeli Simon Cowell,' says one of the workers, referring to the blunt judge of "American Idol". "He's tough." ) Leon says "the way the judges on the panel are is a lot like what it's like at Eyal's home on Fridays when we sing karioke. Eyal is the folksiest person there is and he was committed to having it this way on the screen too."

Eye level

"This is a warmer contest," concurs Yossi Gispan, a songwriter and expert on Mediterranean music, who is also a judge on the show. "In the first season we all treated it like an adventure. We went into the unknown and from the start we were surprised by the fans and their affection for the show." "We've made something at eye level," explains broadcaster Yaron Ilan, also a judge.

Golan walks around restlessly. He has already sung a new song he recorded at night, in the studio, and will move on to a Jacky Mekaiten song he's recorded for the show and the channel in homage to the Israeli singer and composer who died the day before. No one remembers the name of the chosen song. Someone Yehuda Kaiser, Mekaiten's former guitarist,who is now bent over a cup of coffee. Asked about the words of the sone, Kaiser furrows his brow and then spits out "God sits above." To which his interlocutor, Uri Sela, quips: "All your songs have God sitting above; give us some more details."

Sela, former director of the Israeli music and entertainment channels, says that in putting the show together "a feeling of authenticity was important to us. When we started the program I hung out a lot with Eyal and understood that one of the most important things in his life is work in recording studios. He collects songs every day and once or twice a week records them at night.

"Whoever wins is Eyal's choice and he will produce an album for the winner. It is real - without voting. The studio is a real recording studio, with a real soundman - and this year we added a private club where the contestants perform."

Sela says he was surprised by the extent of the show's success. "I knew it had potential. I believed in Eyal - I am familiar with his energy and talents and I knew Mizrahi music was popular, but not in these proportions. I've worked for years in television - and I know the dimensions of niche channels, so it's not something I expected. I imagine it's the combination of Eyal plus music and the contest. I can only compare the hysteria over the show to that surrounding soap operas, from the point of view of viewer involvement.

"There are several singers in Israel who have a very loyal fan following: Rita, Shlomo Artzi and Eyal Golan. They are people the audience loves. In this case, because it's television, the audience discovered other sides to Golan. They've suddenly heard him speak a lot."

There are the half-whispered claims, not for attribution, that Golan's show, is being used to gnaw at the ratings and success of "The Voice," broadcast by the Reshet franchisee, the competitor of Keshet at Channel 2. "A Star is Born" staff have also complained about competition from inside their own company (the music channel 24 belongs to Channel 2 franchisee Keshet ).

Sela dismisses the charges. "We produce a music program that went on the air before Reshet thought to buy "The Voice," and we are doing a Mizrahi music program. That's what's different about us - it's a program for singers with curly hair."

"The meaning of having television with many channels is that we compete with each other," adds Yaron Ilan. We aren't talking about competing with Reshet. We come here to enjoy ourselves and I think people see this."