Berlin becomes a musical playground for Israeli artists

Despite enduring memories of the Holocaust, the ‘city of cool’ continues to be a magnet for young Israeli musicians.

Israeli singer/pianist Moran Magal. (photo credit: ORIT ARFA)
Israeli singer/pianist Moran Magal.
(photo credit: ORIT ARFA)
BERLIN – At a rehearsal room in a rundown building in the industrial Lichtenstein neighborhood of eastern Berlin, Israeli singer Moran Magal was preparing for her anticipated show at Berlin’s TheARTer Galerie. From her keyboard, she directed her band members (consisting of an Israeli violinist and bassist and Brazilian drummer) for a soulful rendition of “Always Something” in her melodic rock-metal style.
Only 10 months in Berlin, singer/ pianist Magal is proud at having organized her own band, making its way across the city’s live music circuit. She’s building upon a foundation she built in Israel, but which encountered a limited Israeli ceiling.
Magal is one of several Israelis artists who have left their country of origin for the greater possibilities that a base in a thriving European city like Berlin offers.
“I feel in Israel, the people that make the decisions, their tastes are very strict and they don’t give chances,” Magal says from the sofa of the cluttered rehearsal room, her pink-tinted curly hair giving her that goth aura. “In Europe, I feel the opposite is happening.”
In 2013, Israeli rocker Aviv Geffen took her on as a mentor on Israel’s The Voice, but her stint in reality television and growing popularity in her genre couldn’t get her radio play on Galgalatz, Israeli’s popular radio station, which she calls a close-minded gatekeeper.
She toured Berlin last year until a German label signed her third album, Shades of Metal. She redeemed Hungarian citizenship from her father’s side for European Union privileges; most of his family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Today, Berlin is giving her the musical chance she always wanted.
“You can live in honor and pay your rent and make music and meet great musicians and travel in Europe,” says Magal. “Berlin is kind of the center of Europe and more special things could happen; the place is really open to different accents, styles and things that sound less generic.”
At the 2015 Exporting Israeli Music conference held in Tel Aviv, Roie Avidan, former manager of crossover artist Asaf Avidan, recommended Berlin as an entry-level city for its affordable cost of living, music scene – and, yes German “guilt,” which he said enhances Berliners’ openness to Israeli artists.
“You could move to Berlin tomorrow,” he advised the aspiring Israeli artists.
In 2014, Berlin made headlines during what became known as the “Milky controversy” when an Israeli Berliner bragged about Berlin’s cheap cost of living by comparing grocery receipts on Facebook; Israel’s “Milky” chocolate pudding cost triple what the German brand did (although he failed to mention that the German brand is made with beef gelatin).
Descendants of Holocaust-era German Jews, like Dan Billu, can literally “move tomorrow.” The Rishon Lezion native took advantage of the “sal klita” (benefits package) Germany offers returning German citizens, and moved in 2013.
“I sought a place that was creative, that embraces artists,” the bearded singer told The Jerusalem Post at a Berlin café.
In Tel Aviv, he’d work day and night at music-related jobs to get by. Here, a few gigs give him the time and means to work on his second album. Enterprising artists, he said, could manage in Berlin for a minimum 800 euros monthly (the monthly rent of a decent shared flat in Tel Aviv).
“You can live as an artist with little money, which is very important for artists,” Billu said. With sights on commercial success, for now he’s satisfied just “to be able to keep doing what I’m doing.”
According to David Hason, an Israeli producer/composer who settled in Berlin in 2008, Berlin is an ideal musical playground for indie artists like Magal and Billu. Today, some 20,000 Israelis are reported to live in Berlin, although exact numbers of musicians are hard to come by.
“Berlin embraces the ‘weird’ – whatever’s not Rihanna and Beyoncé and all that, whatever could be considered more artistic,” Hason says from his apartment/music studio in Charlottenberg to Lana Del Rey playing in the background. “And Berlin is a place where you could basically come and do stuff. You could have a small showcase and set up, you could find yourself playing in some bars, you can have a show at the park and people will hand you money.”
But he believes artists, composers and session players seeking a professional career in mainstream pop should either stay in Israel or look elsewhere, particularly Los Angeles, the epicenter of pop and film scoring.
To further professionalize his career, Israeli-born Mati Gavriel moved to Los Angeles after 10 years working as a producer, composer and artist in Berlin. In Berlin, the freedom to create runs the risk of losing commercial ambition.
“I think Berlin is a very creative city for artists,” he said from Los Angeles, days before the release of his duo project, Moon and Star. “It’s easy to walk around and meet people and everybody is open and there are many opportunities for musicians to express their art and focus less the business aspect.”
Billu, Hason and Gavriel all agreed that Berlin’s strongest genre is electronic music, the draw for Israeli techno DJ and producer Asaf Herrmann, the grandson of a German Jew.
“The techno industry in Berlin is huge,” says the tattooed Herrmann over coffee. “There are many clubs, many techno producers with whom you could do collaborations, so it was quite obvious that Berlin was going to be the main option if you want to gear up with techno production and start DJ ing.”
In Tel Aviv, clubs often expect aspiring DJs to spin for free. Herrmann counts The Block as Tel Aviv’s only serious mega-club, while Berlin abounds with nightclubs and festivals that pay DJ s fairly. Over a year in Berlin, he supplements DJ ing gigs rolling burritos at a Mexican eatery; his main goal is music production.
This past Purim, Herrmann snagged a coveted gig at the popular club Ritter Butzke, thanks to Israeli connections. It was for the club’s public “Purim Carnival” celebrating the Jewish holiday that, unbeknown to many German partiers, recounts the unraveling of the ancient Persian “Hitler” – an apt symbol that Germany has come a long way since the Holocaust.
“I don’t ignore it,” Herrmann said. “You could never ignore it. I think it was the biggest crime in human history, but I do know that people here are very tolerant of Israelis.”