Telling it like it was

The December 29 Kutner Digs into the Library session will feature the long-serving iconic singer-pianist Shlomo Gronich.

Yoav Kutner (photo credit: YACHATZ)
Yoav Kutner
(photo credit: YACHATZ)
If you want to know anything about anything these days, it seems all you need to do is pop a question to Rabbi Google. Some swear by Wikipedia, while others are more wont to swear at Wikipedia and mine other more in-depth virtual seams of information. But it is safe to say that if you want to know anything about Israeli pop or rock music, you’d be hard pressed to get Yoav Kutner to default.
Long-time acknowledged commercial music doyen of the airwaves, 61-year-old Kutner was born in Rehavia. While he has been based in Tel Aviv for many years, he is always happy to head eastward along Route 1.
Last week, he kicked off the five-part speaking and music Kutner Digs into the Library series (in Hebrew) at the National Library on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University. The cavernous firstfloor hall was packed to the rafters as Kutner took the stage to illuminate his captivated audience – many of whom came through the 1960s in one piece – about the early days of the local pop and rock community.
The props he brought along helped to evoke the ambience of a somewhat antiquated radio studio, with posters of yesteryear sporting names such as Shlomo Artzi and Arik Einstein that helped to convey a happy sense of nostalgia.
As Kutner eloquently informed the audience, the nascent Westernized commercial music scene went through some pretty challenging birth pangs. The Establishment was not at all thrilled with the idea of young men growing their hair way beyond their shirt collars or young girls wearing skirts that hovered way above the knee.
Israel of the mid-1960s, pre-Six Day War, was a predominantly conservative backwater of the West, where horas and accordion- accompanied bonfire sing-alongs were considered an eminently “kosher” form of leisure time activity.
But when the Churchills – the country’s first bona fide rock band that actually had the temerity to sing in English – came along, there was a gradual seismic social-cultural shift among the members of the younger crowd. As such envelope-pushing acts as the Churchills, Uzi and the Styles, Arik Einstein and later Shalom Hanoch emerged, the die was cast. Gone were the days when the Beatles were banned from performing in little Israel because they were considered a threat to the integrity and the very moral fiber of our ever so vulnerable youth. And the rest is history, and a story that Kutner will relate in his trademark professional and occasionally comic manner.
Between now and January 26, Kutner will deliver talks – supported by video clips and recorded and live music – that will take us through the major stops along the route of the evolution of commercial music in this country.
As in any area of the arts, socioeconomic and sociopolitical elements also come to bear on the way music takes shape across the years, and Israel is certainly no exception.
The next slot in the fortnightly Kutner Digs into the Library Tuesday evening sessions takes place on December 15 and will look at how bands from abroad colored the Israeli scene.
These days, of course, new releases are generally available for listening – and for accompanying video-clip viewing – more or less simultaneously across the globe. But back in the 1960s and the early 1970s, it took a long time for new LPs to make their way across the Pond and Europe before young Israelis could get their eager hands on records of the market sector leaders of the day.
A few years back, seasoned rock drummer Meir Yisrael, who was in at the very start of the Israel rock scene, keeping time for Uzi and the Styles and later with local super group Tammuz, told me about a privileged aspect of his youth. Yisrael had an uncle who lived in the States, and he’d send his pop-music-mad nephew records of chart toppers like the Beatles, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones by mail. “I was the envy of everyone at school and in the neighborhood,” Yisrael said at the time.
“Everyone would come round to my place to listen to the new records.”
On December 15, veteran pop-rock artist Danny Robas will join Kutner to add his street-level insight on the subject and perform some well-known hits of the 1960s and ’70s. As Robas is also known for his fine renditions of Beatles numbers, it is a fair bet that there will be some Fab Four fare as well.
Unfortunately, the military and military altercations have a bearing on practically every area of life here. Former IDF generals often find their way into the upper echelons of the political hierarchy, and members of various IDF bands generally find their way into the upper reaches of the rock and pop Billboard charts. Army troupes began fueling the commercial music scene as far back as the 1940s with the Chizbatron, while Arik Einstein emerged on the commercial theater and music scene in the late 1950s with the Green Onion outfit, after honing his singing and performing skills as a member of the Nahal army band.
The December 29 Kutner Digs into the Library session will feature the long-serving iconic singer-pianist Shlomo Gronich.
Together they will examine the way wars, bereavement and security tension have left their imprint on the output of Israeli rock and pop artists over the decades.
The military breeding ground of Israeli musicians will be front and center at the December 29 installment, when Danny Sanderson joins Kutner on the National Library stage. The guitarist-vocalist- songwriter spent his teenage years in New York and brought his first-hand American rock and pop influences with him when he returned to Israel and served in the Nahal band. While he was in the army, his path crossed that of drummer Meir Fenigstein (a.k.a. Poogy), bass guitarist Alon Olearchick and singer Gidi Gov. In 1972, the latter threesome, plus keyboardist Yoni Rechter, guitarist- singer Ephraim Shamir and guitarist Yitzhak Klepter (a.k.a. Churchill), together with founder Sanderson, made up the seminal pop band Kaveret. Sanderson and Kutner will look at how members of military troupes negotiated the transition into the commercial scene and how Israeli pop musicians finally found a way to break away from traditional local fare and began to express their own ideas and feelings in their writing.
In the final session of the series, Kutner will host singers Ahuva Ozeri and Shai Tzabari. He will delve into the winds of social change and unrest that emanated from the Sephardic side of Israeli society, which began in the early 1970s with the Black Panther protest movement. The sociopolitical shift eventually found its way into the pop and rock scene, and the so-called Mediterranean genre developed, initially through “cassette singers” like Zohar Argov and Shimi Tavori, and gradually took its place in Israeli mainstream music.
It would have been impossible to imagine that when the Churchills began blasting out barely comprehensible songs about love and all kinds of “reprehensible” behavior in basement dives of Ramle and the seedier side of Tel Aviv, half a century later their legacy would still be alive and kicking and presented to a jampacked sumptuously appointed hall of the National Library.