Israeli Music: Like Nothing Else on Earth

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Utilizing melodies and beats from all over the world, and often adding a Jewish twist, Israeli music is a microcosm for the country as a whole. Taking data from MediaForest, the Billboard of Israel, The Tower presents a guide to today’s biggest musical stars.

Israeli music has always been as vital and diverse as the country’s multicultural society. It began with “Land of Israel music” in the pre-state period, which drew on traditional Jewish music combined with Eastern European and Ashkenazi melodies. As the young state developed, so did its music, with its newly arrived Mizrahi community bringing their Middle Eastern and Mediterranean styles with them. And Israel was hardly deaf to the rest of the world; as the years went on, foreign styles like rock and roll, pop, techno, heavy metal, and recently hip-hop combined with earlier forms to create a unique hybrid sound that typifies Israeli popular songs today.

The top Israeli acts encompass all of these strains of Israeli musical history. First up is Subliminal, the stage name of Kobi Shimoni, who has risen to the top of the pop charts with his intense, aggressive rap music that addresses themes of patriotism, Zionism, and ferocious defiance of Israel’s enemies. Often controversial for his Right-wing views, Subliminal views himself as an in-your-face truth-teller, once saying, “The international media makes us look like blood-eating, Arab kid-killing monsters. You want to know what’s real? Listen to my lyrics, and you can find out.”

Subliminal had a hand in another of Israel’s top acts—the Ultras. Playing a unique hybrid of hip-hop and techno dance music, the group is managed by Subliminal and broke through in 2016 with a song that garnered more than 21 million views on YouTube (this in a country with a population of eight million). They have even found success overseas, with a song played on MTV.

Another huge act is Hanan Ben-Ari. From a religious background, Ben-Ari came to prominence in 2014 through a dance music competition and funded his first record through Headstart, the Israeli version of Kickstarter.

A group that brings the Mizrahi influence into Israeli pop is the duo of Ben-El Tavori and the rapper Static, whose combination of dance music and hip-hop with Mizrahi-style singing has shot to the top of the charts.

One of the surest roads to fame in Israeli music is the television competition Kochav Nolad (A Star Is Born), the local version of American Idol. One contestant who found success on his own is Idan Amedi, who featured on the eighth season of the show. A former combat engineer in the IDF, Amedi plays an edgy style of pop-rock.

Another star born on Kochav Nolad is Omer Adam, who competed in season seven only to be disqualified for being underage. It didn’t slow him down, as he quickly released a hit single and subsequent album. His style combines heavy rock with an unabashedly Mizrahi singing style.

Mizrahi music has also influenced Eliad Nahum, a pop singer who embraces Middle Eastern styles. He has had a strange road to fame, beginning as a TV actor in the late 1990s and finding musical success in 2011 when he won singer of the year at the Children’s Choice Awards.

A new artist from a unique background is Avior Malasa, who broke through in 2016. Born to an Ethiopian family in Beersheva, he plays a combination of pop, techno, and hip-hop while still serving in the IDF (he is only 20). Like the Ultras, he found fame via clips he uploaded to YouTube.

One of Israel’s more unusual acts is Hatikvah 6. Named for the street where two of its members grew up in Ramat HaShalom, the group released its first album in 2007 and has been at the top of the country’s reggae scene ever since. While they might play the music, however, they don’t live the lifestyle. As the Hebrew-language website Mako once commented, “They may be the only reggae band in Israel, and perhaps the entire universe, that released five complete albums without mentioning the word ‘marijuana.’”

Once instantly recognizable due to his massive dreadlocks, Idan Raichel goes short-haired now, but the gifted pianist remains perhaps Israel’s most well-known act overseas. He has collaborated with American pop stars India.Arie, Dave Matthews, and Alicia Keys; played at such famous venues as the Apollo Theater and the Royal Albert Hall; and even given a concert for former President Barack Obama. His unusual style, which combines pop with traditional Jewish, Ethiopian, and Yemenite music, is considered Israel’s best chance for breaking through to the world market.

Raichel may be famous overseas, but in Israel no one is bigger than the legendary Shlomo Artzi. A kind of Israeli Bruce Springsteen, Artzi has been one of Israel’s most beloved performers for decades. A supremely gifted songwriter and performer, he often gives four-hour concerts and his songs have embedded themselves into the Israeli consciousness. Now well into his 60s, he continues to tour and has sold over a million albums in Israel alone.

She may not be quite the equal of Shlomo Artzi, but Mizrahi singer Sarit Hadad is still one of Israel’s most successful acts. Born to a Jewish family from the Caucasus Mountains, the youngest of eight children, she is considered the queen of Mizrahi pop, pioneering the combination of traditional Sephardic styles with popular music forms. A former child prodigy, she still refuses to sing on Jewish holidays, but has found surprising success in the Arab world, which manages somehow to convince itself that she is not what she is—a quintessentially Israeli artist.

Taken together, these top Israeli musicians are a mosaic of the country’s people and cultures, proving the young country’s intense cultural vitality and uncanny ability to combine the traditional with the cutting edge and create something entirely new and unique.

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Banner Photo: Subliminal / Facebook