Izabo takes the alternative path to Eurovision

Will the veteran Tel Aviv rockers lose their indie innocence at the Eurovision glamfest in May?

Izabo 390 (photo credit: Daniel Chichick)
Izabo 390
(photo credit: Daniel Chichick)
It’s been quite a drought since Dana International brought home the Eurovision Song Contest title for Israel in 1998 with the autobiographical dance tune “Diva.”
No matter who’s picked our entry since – the public, expert panels – or what kind of music was selected – the pop of Sarit Hadad and Shiri Maimon in 2002 and 2005 respectively, the bombastic spectacle of Teapacks’ “Drop the Bomb” in 2007, the heart-tugging coexistence anthem “There Must Be Another Way” by Ahinoam Nini and Miri Awad in 2009, or even a return to Dana International and kitsch with last year’s “Ding Dong” – has left the viewing countries and their voters cold.
This year, it seems like the Israel Broadcasting Authority Committee tasked with choosing this year’s entry in the annual competition decided to follow Monty Python’s advice and look for something completely different. At least, that’s what Ran Shem-Tov, the founder and frontman of veteran quirky alternative funk rockers Izabo, thought when a member approached him to submit a song for consideration.
“I was a little surprised they approached us,” Shem- Tov told The Jerusalem Post last week. “But I was also happy that they believed that a band like Izabo could create a song that would represent Israel to the world.”
Of course, there aren’t many bands like Izabo. Formed over 20 years ago by guitarist/singer Shem-Tov, and including Shiri Hadar (keyboards and vocals), Jonathan Levy (bass) and Nir Mantzur (drums), the band has marched to its own intense Arabic-tinged psychedelic disco drum.
With twisting guitar lines, funky bass, swirling keyboards, and English vocals from Shem-Tov and Hadar that run up and down the musical registers, the band has garnered supporters across Europe due to regular touring and two well-received albums – 2003’s Fun Makers and 2008’s Super Light.
To call them mainstream, however, would be a stretch. But even though the pop frothiness and garish novelty that characterizes Eurovision seems far removed from the indie ethos embraced by Izabo, the song Shem-Tov submitted to the Israeli judges wouldn’t sound out of place on the Eurovision stage.
“Time,” sung in English and Hebrew, boasts a solid dance groove, dark bass and keyboard patterns and a rousing sing-along chorus, while still sounding like prototypical Izabo.
“The verse was taken from an old demo to a song I wrote about three years ago,” said Shem-Tov, who knows his way around a pop song, having produced records for Yehudit Ravitz, Harel Skaat and Dikla.
“When they asked me to submit a song, I changed the lyrics a little and wrote a new chorus in Hebrew. I recorded it pretty quickly, playing all the instruments myself. I was a little skeptical about the whole Eurovision thing, but then I thought ‘what the hell, nothing bad can come of it. At worst, we’ll have another song for Izabo.”
But instead, last month the IBA panel – including chairman Yaakov Naveh, IBA plenum member Yitzhak Sonnenschein, Channel 1 Television Program Division head Rina Hachmon, Channel 1 Entertainment and Culture producer Tal Argaman, and musicians Nimrod Lev, Mira Awad, Gilad Segev and Roni Yedidia – selected “Time” to represent Israel on May 22 in Baku, where this year’s Eurovision contest is taking place. Shem-Tov was a little beyond surprised.
“I was really confused at first – why do they want a rock band in the competition?” he said. “But then I realized that we’re not just an alternative rock band, we have disco, funk and usually our music is very happy, so I saw the connection.”
Shem-Tov quickly convened the band to re-record “Time” properly and make the song’s official video clip.
Both made their debut at the beginning of the month at a showcase in Tel Aviv. The video shows the band getting into the Eurovision spirit with circus performer props and colorful suits, a turnaround for a band that usually wears jeans and T-shirts in performance.
“It’s a difficult question I’m still grappling with – we know we need to glam things up for Eurovision, but we still need to look natural and authentic,” said Shem- Tov. “It was a an effort just to get me into a suit – I never wear them. I’m still thinking about how we need to look and act for the performance, it’s going to take a while to sort out. We need to be true to ourselves and find the right balance – that’s the challenge.”
With a new album being released on the British 100% label and on Israel’s Anova label the week after Eurovision, followed by plans for an extensive tour in and outside of Israel after two years of relative inactivity, Izabo isn’t likely to suffer much if it follows the same fate as Israel’s recent Eurovision entries. However, it stands to gain a great deal if, against all odds, the song beats the dozens of other songs and performers representing their countries.
“I’m not thinking about that, but if we win, and even a small percentage of what happened to Abba [whose 1974 victory catapulted them to worldwide stardom [happens to us, then I’ll be very happy,” said Shem-Tov.
Will Izabo join the ranks of Dana International, Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta (“A Ba Ni Bi” in 1978) and Milk and Honey (“Hallelujah” in 1979) in bringing home Eurovision gold for Israel? Only “Time” will tell.