Israeli bands strike an English chord

More and more local artists are writing their lyrics with international audiences in mind.

kol hacampus 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy of Orly Yaakobi)
kol hacampus 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy of Orly Yaakobi)
A new movement is taking hold of the alternative music scene, with hundreds of Israeli bands singing in English in an attempt to achieve international recognition, according to Orly Yaakobi, editor and presenter of the radio show Or Lagoyim (Light Unto the Nations) on Radio Kol Hacampus. The radio show, which began five years ago, features Israeli indie and hard rock bands that perform only in English. The show is divided into three segments: bands that are performing in Israel in the upcoming week, new releases and bands that have not yet been discovered, Yaakobi explained to The Jerusalem Post. She aims to feature new bands every week and will never play the same song twice. "I try to be as versatile as I can," she said, adding that she receives material from artists and continuously checks MySpace for new music. The trend of Israeli bands singing English lyrics began in the Nineties, but it has greatly increased over the past five years, Yaakobi noted. "Local musicians have always done music in English since the Sixties and Seventies, but this is the biggest wave as far as the number of bands, the shows they play, the CDs that are being released and the audience that is willing to take part in this scene," she said. Many artists are switching to English lyrics because the music industry in Israel, especially for alternative music, is small. "There has been an explosion of music in Israel in the past 10 years, but the ceiling of success is limited," said Jeremy Hulsh, founder and CEO of Oleh! Records, a non-profit, independent record label launched in 2007 that works to develop artists in Israel and promote their music abroad. "The music industry [in Israel] is so limited that the country is only capable of supporting mainstream artists that perform in Hebrew. The new music scene is really underground, even though it is vast and expansive," Hulsh said, adding that Israel is on the "cusp" of establishing a new wave of music. Oleh! Records is working with artists including Funk'n'stein The Band, whose music style is self-explanatory; "hard core oriental band" the Midnight Peacocks; and the genre-bending band Coolooloosh, a Jerusalemite term for joy. "I see in the next three-to-five years Israeli artists breaking into the international music scene," Hulsh said. "What's happening here in Israel is what Bjork did for Iceland and ABBA did for Sweden." EATLIZ, AN indie band that first made its appearance on the Israeli music scene in 2002, recently achieved international acclaim by being one of 100 bands competing to earn a spot in the 2008 Lollapalooza Music Festival in Chicago alongside artists such as Radiohead and Kanye West. To qualify for the Lollapalooza Last Band Standing competition, groups had until May to raise as many votes as possible from fans. The 100 bands with the most votes qualified for the next round, in which judges narrowed the field to 20 bands. Eatliz, while earning enough votes to qualify for the first round, was eliminated by the judges during round two. Despite the band's failure to hit the stages of Lollapalooza, it was recently signed by Anova Records, another label aiming to advance non-mainstream Israeli music internationally, and will release its album, Violently Delicate, in August. "Tiptoeing on salty sand / my pink glasses work so wonderfully / one more moment on / and it's gone," Eatliz sings during the introduction of the hit song "Attractive," from the new album. The chorus croons "Wherever you are, are / if you find me attractive / whoever you are / don't hesitate / everything's got to move on." "All Israeli artists will tell you that rock and roll sounds better in English," said Yair Yonah, manager of Anova Records. Yaakobi said most songwriters compose their lyrics in English rather than writing first in Hebrew and translating. "It's very hard to write good lyrics in Hebrew," she said. "When you say 'baby I love you' in Hebrew it sounds too plain. When you sing it in English, it has a sexy, cool sound to it." Yaakobi added that many Israeli songwriters felt "exposed" when writing in Hebrew because there is so much meaning to every word. "Because Hebrew is their mother language, each and every word is so loaded - it's really hard to bring out a full song. It's much less obligating to write in English," she said. Still, Yaakobi maintains that Israelis can relate to English lyrics, especially since most music on the radio is from overseas. Yonah said the Israeli music scene was not always accepting of bands that performed in English. "If you take bands from four or five years ago, you see that people treated them with complete disrespect because they thought [the bands] were not loyal to their language and were not honest," he said, adding that even today, commercial radio in Israel ignores Israeli bands that sing in English. Israelis are "too exhausted" to listen to rock and roll, Yonah said in explanation of why so many Israeli rock artists need to look elsewhere for audiences. Other up-and-coming artists featured on Yaakobi's radio show include bands Windy & Destiny and NX2. Noga Shatz, lead singer of two-woman "bass rock" band NX2, said her decision to sing in English was unrelated to her desire to break into the international music scene. "I listen to bands that are European and American, so it's just the way that comes more naturally to me," she said. Shatz said she only writes her lyrics in English, but "I don't think about how it will sound to others or that it's not my first language. It just comes out that way," she said. Shatz, along with her bass player Shahar Yahlom, plans to perform in Berlin in the next few months. Yaakobi noted, however, that the new movement of Israeli indie bands with English lyrics is struggling a little because "they don't know how to communicate with the media and no one gives a damn about them." "It's like a baby that's learning to take its first steps," she said. "They have to be more efficient and professional in how they manage themselves in the local and international scenes." Ultimately, Yaakobi said the trend toward English lyrics will not take away from Israeli culture. "Pluralism is a good thing," she said. "We're a young country and we're scared about losing our culture and language and I understand this," she said. "But it doesn't have to be that if you sing in English, you get put out of the camp. I don't see the problem with putting one [language] next to the other and living in harmony." "My hope is that one day my show will not be necessary," Yaakobi added, "and local English music won't need a specific radio show. It will be all over the radio." Hulsh said English-language Israeli music is also critical for the international market to understand the country. "It's important for other people to see Israel as a hotbed of music instead of a hotbed of conflict."