Sunday, October 21, 2007

the mennu method celebrates Israel at 60...musically, of course (Part III)

Trends in Israeli Music

Israel: A Tough Market

Israel is a small country where even when the population is at it's largest, there are only about 5 million Jews living there. That's a rather small market for Israeli musicians. Out of those 5 million, there's a good amount of people who are Haredi or Ultra-Othodox, who don't listen to any kind of Israeli pop music. Most Israeli musicians, like their peers in other countries, earn most of their income by touring, rather than from record sales, but there is a limit to how much touring a band can do within Israel. Given that the country is so small the population tends to get very close to the local artists, so it creates a feeling of family; for better and for worse.

The Israeli public is often starved for new talent, and will embrace new artists with open arms. For the first forty years of Israel's existence, the broadcast media options were limited to those run by the state. Until the 1980s, Israel had only one television station, and a few radio stations. For an artist to get any kind of recognition, they would need to get some airtime somewhere. One of the advantages of having few media outlets, was that the whole country would watch the same TV shows. Today, there are cable and satellite networks in Israel, there viewers have their choice of what to listen to, but in the 70s and 80s anything that was on television could be the subject of conversation the following day. An artists first appearance on a variety show would indelibly color the way that artist would be perceived throughout their career.

A major difference between the way Israelis and Americans listen to music, is the Israelis like to sing along. Think about your own personal experiences: have you ever asked an Israeli if they know a particular song, and their response has been to sing a few bars of it? While Americans may do their share of foot stomping, snapping and clapping, Israelis prefer to sing along. Israelis will not be deterred by a lack of vocal talent, tone deafness, and certainly not by a lack of familiarity with lyrics. In fact, I've heard Israelis sing along with English songs where the original lyrics have been replaced by totally plausible English words which don't exactly bind together into coherent sentences. Israelis will even mangle the Hebrew lyrics to songs, but like any creative endeavor, who's to say that's a negative thing?

While I will try to focus on genuinely good Israeli music, the pop charts have, like in the US and UK, often been dominated by flash in the pan artists, whose hype was never accompanied by actual talent or quality. The most clear example of undeserved popularity in Israeli music is the band Noar Shulayim (Juvenile Delinquents) whose title track "Draw Yourself A Mustache" was the number one song in Israel in 1990. The track has an annoying high pitched chorus, which may have been fun to listen to at the time, but can really grate on the ears today. I guess you had to be there at the time. Thankfully the band broke up in 1991 after three albums; I don't think anyone is going to line up for a reunion concert.

1950s through the late 1960s

In the 1950s, Israeli music was still dominated by folk traditions of Eastern Europe. Many of the songs were patriotic, or idealistic, and designed for sing-alongs or Army bands. Israeli bands were slow to develop, primarily because Israelis are drafted into the army during their prime rock and roll years. Many aspiring musicians would forget their musical ambitions when in the army unless their pre-army talent merited them a spot in one of the army bands. Those selected into army bands would be able to get a start on their career while still in military service. In fact, many alumni from the army bands went on to have long illustrious careers in Israeli music such as Yoram Gaon, Chaim Topol, Uri Zohar, Yossi Banai, Arik Einstein, Chava Alberstein, Shalom Hanoch, Gidi Gov, Danny Sanderson, and more recently Dana Berger and Tomer Sharon. The military bands in Israel, unlike those in the US, were not marching bands and didn't glorify combat or war, rather they entertained exhausted troops with music that would appeal to the average soldier during his service and raise his spirits, at least for a night.

During the early years of the state, the government controlled radio regulated the music that was broadcast, and in some cases, tried to keep out what they felt was a bad influence. At the same time that American Vice President Spiro Agnew was trying to keep the Beatles out of the US because they were a "bad influence" the Israeli Ministry of Culture also banned The Beatles from Israel. It is a credit to Israel as a democracy that this regulation would not last. By the late 60's Israel was caught up in the global rock and roll revolution. Many Israeli artists were influenced by The Beatles and some covered Beatles songs in English, or modified them into Hebrew versions. Israeli music started going through a transformation in the 60s; bands started playing with electric guitars, and the language of the music became more colloquial, rather than the literary form of Hebrew used in the early years of independence.

As someone who grew up on rock and roll, it's difficult for me to relate to some of the early music in Israel. A lot of the music features the accordion as a prominent instrument, a holdover from the pre-state pioneer days, and the early settlement of the land by olim from Eastern Europe. Shir the Hebrew word for poem is also the Hebrew word for song, and during the 50s and early 60s, the lyrics of Israeli songs sounded more like poetry than rock songs. Some of the songs also had stringy and percussive orchestral productions which sounded a lot like the soundtracks to Broadway shows. But by the late 60s this would all change, and Israelis would embrace the rock and roll revolution going on throughout the western world at the time. The accordion was abandoned for the electric guitar, bass and keyboard, and the language of the songs became more colloquial.

(...article will be continued...stay tuned...)

Lehakot Tzahal: The Military Ensembles

The Israel Defense Forces has a number of bands that entertain soldiers during their military service. The IDF bands are not like the military bands of other countries, like the US and Russia, in that they don't play marching band music. Instead, these bands perform original music and comedy sketches, and are incubators of Israeli musical talent. When rock and rollers in the rest of the world are dreaming of greatness, their Israeli peers are being drafted into their compulsory military service. Promising young artist do their best to get into the highly competitive army bands. Serving in an army band can often help young artists begin their careers in music. Some of Israel's most popular entertainers got their start in the military, like Yoram Gaon, Chaim Topol, Uri Zohar, Yossi Banai, Arik Einstein, Chava Alberstein, Shalom Hanoch, Gidi Gov, Danny Sanderson, and more recently Dana Berger, Achinoam Nini and Tomer Sharon.

In the 1950s the IDF began setting up bands in the various combat units. The most popular and successful band was Lehakat HaNachal. The other bands were from Central, Northern and Southern Command, The Air Force and The Navy. In the early years of the army bands, the music was primarily folk music with a preponderance of accordion music. The state and the army understood the propaganda value of having such bands, and some of the themes that they sang about were related to army operations, like "Givat Hatachmoshet" (Ammunition Hill) by Lehakat Pikud HaMerkaz which tells the story about the difficult battle in 1967 to conquer Ammunition Hill on the northern side of Jerusalem. Some songs were anthems for the various fighting units, like "Carnival BaNachal" by the Nachal Band, and "Shiro Shel Tzanchan" (The Paratroopers Song) by Lehakat Pikud HaMerkaz. The sound of the army bands changed with the times. In 1969, Danny Sanderson and Alon Oleartchik joined the Nachal Band, and replaced the outdated accordion with an electric guitar and bass. The themes of the songs also changed, which can be typified by "Shir Hashalom" (The Song of Peace) which was written by Yankale Rotblitt in 1969. The song was about a yearning for peace and it started a controversy in the army bands: commanders feared that it would lower the morale of soldiers, and Rechavam Zeevi, the commander of the Central Command forbade the performance of the song, and insisted that the Nachal change the name of their music and comedy revue from "Go In Peace" to "In Support of the Nachal in the Sinai."

The golden age of these bands was the period of time between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. The army bands didn't just entertain soldiers on the bases, but they also performed for the civilian public, and produced and recorded albums, some of which produced hit songs on the radio. In 1978, a film called "haLehaka" (The Band) hit Israeli theaters. It was loosely based on the Nachal Band and depicted the difficulties faced by the new recruits particularly in their relationships to the veteran soldiers. That movie is currently enjoying a revival as an Israeli musical stage show currently running in Tel Aviv. Also in 1978, Rafael Eitan, the IDF Chief of Staff, dissolved the army bands, because he claimed they didn't serve the purpose for which they were created, namely, to entertain the troops wherever they may be. In it's place, Eitan created an army orchestra, which would play at official army functions, and was more similar to Red Army Orchestra. In 1985, the army bands were reinstated, but by then the musical style in Israel changed. The Israeli public was no longer interested in the nostalgic "songs of the Land of Israel" or light pop ditties, so the army bands started playing cover songs from well known artists. Although the army bands still exist, they are no longer the cultural force they were in the past.


Kaveret was the most popular Israeli rock band of the 1970s, and its members continued to influence the sound of Israeli music throughout the 80s and 90s. They are considered the first commercially successful Israeli rock band. Their melodic style and sense of humor helped their debut album, "Poogy Stories" sell an unprecedented 70,000 copies. Although they only recorded three albums, "Poogy Stories," "Poogy in a Pita," and "Crowded in the Ear," many of their songs, such as "Yo-Ya" and "The Makolet Song" remain popular among Israelis and are even familiar to Jews throughout the Diaspora.

The core of the band, Danny Sanderson, Gidi Gov and Alon Oleartchik served and played together in the Nachal Band. Upon their release they formed a band with the intention of writing rock operas. Soon after the band was formed, their sound would be rounded out by the addition of former Churchills guitarist Yitzchak Klapter and composer/keyboardist Yoni Rechter. In 1973, the band started working on "Poogy Stories," a collection of songs and comedy skits that would eventually become their first album. Their skits and songs began to appear on the radio, and in September 1973, Kaveret was named band of the year by Galei Tzahal radio. While in the middle of a successful tour, the Yom Kippur war broke out and the band members were called into reserve duty to perform for the troops. During their Yom Kippur War concerts the band wrote "Yo-Ya," an upbeat song comprised of a few short stories that would be one of the band's biggest hits.

In 1976, after releasing their third album, Kaveret decided to try their luck out on the American market. They translated their songs into English, but from their first American concert, they were met by an overwhelmingly Jewish audience who insisted that the band perform their songs in Hebrew. Difficulties on the road, and mounting creative and interpersonal conflicts among the band members led to their breakup after their American tour. The band members went their separate ways, except for Gidi Gov and Danny Sanderson who, in 1978 formed another band, called Gazoz. The original members reunited for a few live concert tours. In 1984 their tour included a free live outdoor concert in Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv. In 1998 they performed to celebrate Israel's 50th anniversary, and the 25th anniversary since the release of Poogy stories. In 2000 they quickly set up a concert, but this time it was to raise money for urgent surgery which was needed by Klapter. The operation was a success.

We Are The World

Remember the 80s? Remember when USA for Africa recorded "Do They Know It's Christmas?" How about "We Are The World?" Well, Israel did something similar. In 1985 they had a song called "One Nation With One Song." Lame and cheesy. Here's the video:

But at the same time, a comedian named Tuvia Tzafir did a spoof of the song where he played the entire Israeli government. In the mid-80s, Labor and Likud formed a coalition government, but the condition was that they would rotate the prime minister position, so Shimon Peres and Yitzchak Shamir served as prime minister for two years each. The Hebrew term for it was "rotatzia." Anyways, here's the spoof video "One Nation With One Minister," where Tzafir plays, in order of appearance: Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Shamir, Abba Eban, Ariel Sharon, David Levy, Yitzchak Rabin, Yosef Burg, Plato-Sharon, Rabbi Shapira and Menachem Begin.

Ahh funny.

So now, all I have left to write about is:
-shlomo artzi
-mizrahi music (past and present)
-progressive rock of the 70s
-hip hop
-independent music


Meeg said...

Draw yourself a moustache! I want to hear this song just based on the title.

Anonymous said...

Awsome. Do you have the entire "Shir Harotatzia" for download?
There was another great song by Tuvia - "I'm singing in the rain" (I think, as Peres and Shamir) do you have it?