After the song, “Russian Woman,” was performed by a rising star named Manizha on Russian television earlier this week, it was chosen to be that country’s official Eurovision Song Contest entry for 2021 – and you probably wouldn’t guess that it was co-written by two Israeli guys named Ori: Ori Avni and Ori Kaplan, who don’t speak Russian.
The song, an anthem to Russian women’s resilience in English and Russian, won the national contest, fittingly, on International Women’s Day. Tajik-born Manizha noted this, telling the Eurovision website: “This is a song about the transformation of a woman’s self-awareness over the past few centuries in Russia. A Russian woman has gone an amazing way from a peasant hut to the right to elect and be elected (one of the first in the world), from factory workshops to space flights. She has never been afraid to resist stereotypes and take responsibilities. This is the source of inspiration for the song. By coincidence I wrote it on March 8, 2020 while on tour, but for the first time I perform it a year later.”
So where do the Oris come into the picture? Ori Kaplan, one of the founding members of Balkan Beat Box, a musical group that fuses sounds from Jewish, Balkan, Middle Eastern, gypsy, reggae, electronic and many other musical streams, met Manizha at a music festival in Israel a couple of years ago.
“She knew Balkan Beat Box,” he said, and they were introduced by a mutual friend. Once she met him and Avni, she extended her stay. “We sat and played in the sandbox with our musical background, our ethnic background and the primitive minimalism of modern music,” he said, clarifying that what he was describing was a “metaphorical sandbox... where we are allowed to play and experiment without preconceptions and fear.”
This play led to their collaboration on the song, where Kaplan and Avni supplied some of the Yemenite samples in the sound and other elements. “We tried to create something really raw and playful. It was a lot of fun to work on it.” The two Israelis were aware of the Russian music scene and are friendly with many Russian musicians, Kaplan said.
The Eurovision part of the story came as a surprise. “We had no idea about Eurovision,” he said. They were surprised when she informed them not long before the Russian competition that “Russian Woman” would be one of three songs competing to represent the country.
Kaplan and Avni rushed to complete the playback in time – in Eurovision, singers perform live to a playback.
“It’s quite a powerful statement about women in Russia,” he said. “It’s not your typical sugary Eurovision song.” Mentioning Netta Barzilai's song, “Toy,” – with its defiant refrain, “I’m not your toy” – which won Eurovision in 2018, he said, “Netta opened the gate to do these odd, interesting kinds of songs.”
Manizha will perform the song at the 2021 Eurovision competition in Rotterdam in May, where Eden Alene will represent Israel, after the 2020 contest was canceled due to the pandemic.