The Genders – one of many Israeli bands making the decision to sing in English.Are they Israeli? Or British? Or American?
Anyone listening to the radio in Israel lately may have noticed nestled in between international pop hits and Hebrew-language rockers, ballads, and Mediterranean music, an increasing number of Israeli rock and pop songs sung in English.
In hopes of reaching larger audiences and getting noticed on the international scene, Israeli musicians are increasingly turning to English for musical expression. In addition to infiltrating the airwaves, clubs and music video channels in Israel, they’re also making inroads in the US and Europe by launching tours and finding loyal audiences who find it perfectly natural to hear Israelis with a natural grasp of rock & roll singing in English.
One of Israeli biggest rock stars, Aviv Gefen, recently collaborated with Stephen Wilson of Porcupine Tree, one of progressive rocks most innovative musicians. Their band, Blackfield, had several hits here in Israel and topped the charts in both Poland and Greece. Power-popper Shy Nobleman’s humorous tune ‘Girlfriend’ topped the Israeli pop charts this year, and his first critically acclaimed album was mentioned in Rolling Stone magazine as one of 2001’s best albums. Tel Aviv-based Brit poppers Electra recently concluded a short but successful club tour of England
And probably the biggest success story in the ‘Israeli group singing in English’ genre is Rockfour, a psychedelic rock band heavily influenced by The Byrds that has been prominent on the US indie music scene. The Tel Aviv-based band have concluded several successful tours and performances at the prestigious South by Southwest conference, an appearance at California’s International Pop Overthrow, a supporting slot for the Dave Matthews Band, a week-long residency at the Knitting Factory club in New York, and a CMJ (College Music Journal) conference appearance.
Spearheading the burgeoning local ‘English’ scene is Gili Rosenberg, bassist for the Tel Aviv based band The Johnsons, who, along with several other Israeli musicians, formed MISC, a non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to promoting local Israel bands performing in English.
“The idea to create MISC came after one of The Johnsons’ shows, in early 2004, after we received many requests from bands who wanted to perform with us,” Rosenberg told ISRAEL21c. “I took advantage of the momentum and invited them to meet with us and raised the idea of how we can do something bigger than the usual nightly shows. The concept of MISC was born and included nightly concerts in English, PR and joint promotions by all bands involved, a shared internet site, musical collaborations in concerts and recordings, and productions of collections for sales in stores and radio broadcasts. The idea was to establish an organization that could reach more people and make more noise in the media about Israeli music in English.”
MISC strives to break into the local Israeli scene – be it radio, music television, and music stores – and have Israelis treat local English music the same way they would respond to international English music.
“The idea of MISC is to show Israelis the many homegrown bands who sing in English and to ask the media to treat us just as they would bands who sing in Hebrew. MISC is an organization of musicians who perform in English and help expose each other to new audiences. MISC is a type of collective kibbutz for Israeli bands who perform in English,” said Rosenberg.
Asked whether he believes Israeli music in English is a trend, Rosenberg explained that he thinks it’s a development that reflects changing practices in the music industry.
“The situation was once that a band needed a record company to finance its album production and the record companies sought commercial success that would return its investment and make a profit. Because Israel is a small country, the market potential is limited so the record companies generally go for the familiar and commercial sounds,” said Rosenberg.
Today, however, with the advent of inexpensive home computer studios and less expensive studio fees allows more artists to record, produce and mix unique music either in their own homes or in affordable studios; both of which result in opportunities for independent labels and lesser known artists to produce and distribute new music.
The decision for Nitzan Choresh of Electra to sing in English was a natural one.
“The music we love and grew up with was sung in English. English is the language of rock and roll. Hebrew, for phonetic and cultural reasons, sounds lousy for the most part when it is sung with a rock and roll background. Therefore the decision was necessary and understood from the start,” he told ISRAEL21c.
Electra’s single “Come Inside” spent three months on Tel Aviv Radio’s playlist (102FM), the band were guests on numerous radio programs, and their video was favorably received on Music24 (Israel’s MTV).
They don’t really feel that they are being ignored by the Israeli music mainstream, and they have faith that a trend is indeed taking place.
“We have good reason to believe that this will only get better. We do not feel rejected… we’re happy that we are receiving positive feedback, we want to reach the biggest audience possible,” said Choresh.
Another local band with reason for optimism is The Genders, an English-singing punk rock outfit from the Tel Aviv area influenced by The Stooges, Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. They’re about to embark on a coast-to-coast sixty-date tour of the United States in support of their new CD ironically titled Rockin’ in Ramallah.
The band’s frontman, Amir Neubach, started his musical career at the age of sixteen as guitarist for Salem, one of Israel’s most popular metal bands. Performing in English is something that comes natural to Neubach, who learned the language growing up in London where his parents were emissaries for the Jewish Agency.
“When Rockfour made the switch from Hebrew to English I applauded them. When you decide to sing in English in Israel, you put out there that you have international aspirations, and I think a lot people respect that these days,” Neubach told ISRAEL21c.
Neubach believes that Nobleman’s success with his hit ‘Girlfriend’ proves that there isn’t discrimination against Israeli bands who sing in English.
“‘Girlfriend’ may be in English, but it’s a very Israeli song, a kind of international song that would be a hit in Israel, but probably wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
Over the last few years, more and more Israeli bands singing in English have hit the road to get the word out. More recently and most notably are metal band Betzefer and punk popsters Useless ID and Man Alive. These bands have toured the US and Europe extensively, a rarity for Israeli bands. Betzefer is signed to metal label Road Runner records and recently finished a festival tour of Europe.
Useless ID, who also spent the summer touring Europe, sold over 30,000 copies of their new album within two weeks in Japan. Seek Irony, a metal band recently signed a deal with United States based multi-platinum producer Sylvia Massy Shivy and are receiving promotional and medial assistance from the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
“Success is relative,” said Neubach. “The Churchills and Minimal Compact (two bands from the 1960s and 1980s respectively who released albums abroad in English) both achieved a cult following in their time and that can be defined as success.”
“I don’t think that if The Genders sang in Hebrew we’d have more success. We’re not a huge Israeli band for other reasons. We are too much of a rock and roll band and nobody likes that in Israel. A lot of Israeli bands who sing in English look to emulate London as their focus point and that’s what make us different. We are too American for most Israelis. We are more of a happy-go-lucky stupid Motley Crue-type band and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
While Neubach appreciates The Genders’ following in Israel, his eyes are targeted abroad and believes success is possible due to the Internet. Over the past year, he’s been building a following on the internet through networking at the community site, Myspace. The Genders have booked gigs, organized opening acts, arranged joint performances, and secured promotional events across the US with the help of over eight hundred people they met through Myspace.
On their first tour of the US last year, The Genders attracted a mixed audience. Neubach explained that were generally two types of people who came to their shows.
“There were Jewish kids who came to see us because they knew we were from Israel. They knew a bit about Israel but were amazed at how in touch with music we were and how similar we were to them. We seemed like an American band to them. We definitely weren’t what they were expecting. And there were non-Jews, who were expecting a more Mediterranean type of music and were very confused about the ethnicity of Israel. They just associated us with the Middle East.”
As an Israeli band in the US, Neubach often found himself serving as an informal ambassador for Israel.
“We represent Israel to them and sometimes the more politically-minded people will give us a piece of their mind about the occupation. It’s funny because I’m politically on the Left but when I am engaged in that sort of conversation I try to play devil’s advocate and present them with a different angle. Most of the time, I see real ignorance in what they are saying and find that their knowledge is mostly based on propaganda. Most of the people don’t know anything and de-legitimize Israel, not just the occupation. It’s antisemitism in a political disguise and I aim to educate.”
With Israeli music finally breaking across geographical borders, it’s only a matter of time before Israeli bands are judged by the quality of their music instead of pre-conceived stereotypes and regional politics.
“The most important thing is the music, and many bands in Israel create good, quality music in English just like the music that comes to Israel from the US and Europe. And many of the bands record quality CDs that do not fall short of international standards,” said Rosenberg. “The added value is in the bands that combine elements that already exist in a place like Israel – geographical crossroads of the West and the East.”