Not just any kids

This is the first year Israel is sending an entry to the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in Amsterdam, and these talented singers plan to win.

kids eurovision 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
kids eurovision 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
They look and act normal enough for a group of precocious kids gathered together for an after-school activity; there is some name-yelling, a little roughhousing and running around, and lots of giggling.
But when Adi Meselot, 14, Adele Korsov, 11, Daniel Frojinski, 13, Adi Beatty, 11, Libi Penker, 14, and Tali Sorokin, 11, get down to business, there are not too many kids like them.
Their business is singing, and it becomes quickly apparent why they were selected last month from among dozens of applicants around the country to represent Israel in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, which will take place on Saturday night in Amsterdam.
The vocal group – dubbed KIDS.IL – will sing “Let the Music Win,” a rousing singalong that’s tailor-made for lovers of typical syrupy, sentimental Eurovision fare.
Written especially for the Israeli delegation by singer/songwriter Ohad Hitman (appropriately enough the nephew of the late children’s entertainer Uzi Hitman), the song – sung in Hebrew, but with phrases in English, French and Russian – loses some of its innate kitschiness at the hands of the young masters, whose enthusiasm and wholesomeness would make even the most jaded listener break into a grin.
“We don’t really feel any pressure, do we guys?” asks Korsov, going rigid with her eyes bulging in mock horror as the performers gather in a rehearsal room in the Petah Tikva Cultural Center two weeks prior to flying to Amsterdam.
“We really aren’t nervous, but I’m sure that will change once we get to Amsterdam and meet all the other contestants,” adds the resident of Oranit, near Ariel.
Coming from different backgrounds and cities, all in the center of the country, the youngsters have been spending practically every afternoon together for the last month, rehearsing the song with Hitman, learning choreography for their performance and recording an ultra-professional video clip of the song, which is turning them into budding YouTube stars.
“It’s so illogical that kids like us are going to be flown to Europe and appear on TV around the world – it’s huge,” exclaims an animated Sorokin, who hails from Rehovot.
Especially since Israel has never previously participated in the competition.
Israel is an old pro in the venerable Eurovision Song Contest, having begun to participate in 1973 and winning the songfest in 1978, 1979 and 1998. But even though the Junior Eurovision Song Contest – open to contestants between the ages of 10 and 15 – was inaugurated in 2003, this is the first year Israel is sending an entry, under the sponsorship of the Israel Broadcasting Authority in collaboration with the Department of Children and Youth of Channel 1.
According to the department’s director, Danielle Gardos Santo, who will be leading the Israeli delegation to Amsterdam, it’s been chiefly a matter of budget.
“It wasn’t the first time I tried to get Israel to participate, but it’s not cheap.
However, the current management decided that this was a priority,” she says, adding that the benefit will be to enhance Israel’s image.
“Israel’s known in the world as a location for terror, and this is going to show people the beautiful side of the country, its youth and their talent.”
Even the kids feel the responsibility of representing their country abroad and are intent on putting its best face forward.
“It’s really an honor to represent Israel to the world, and we want to make a good impression,” says Meselot, who, along with Penker, is considerably older than the rest of her mates.
They were chosen for the task after a two-month search process led by producer Tali Eshcol, in which the Education, Youth and Sports Ministry, as well as cultural departments of local authorities throughout the country and voice development classes were asked to help identify potential candidates who were part of youth bands, had participated in singing competitions sponsored by the ministry called “Lihiyot Kochav” (To Be a Star) and who had singing and stage experience.
Some of the talent – like Korsov and Penker – came to Eshcol’s attention via their participation last year in the Channel 2 reality competition show, Beit Sefer L’ musica (School of Rock). Over 60 hopefuls were invited to audition before a committee consisting of representatives of the Education Ministry, the IBA, artists including Hitman, Dafna Dekel and Benny Nadler, and teen representatives from the National Council of Students and Youth.
“We judged them on their confidence in the performances, their singing voices, who would be able to work together best,” says Gardos Santo. “Unlike reality shows, where you come back every week and have a chance to improve while getting pointers, this is all one shot – two minutes and 45 seconds. You have to find kids who are ready for that.”
“I could tell within two or three lines whether someone had it or not,” says Hitman, who was enlisted to write the group’s song and to work with them in the capacity of mentor. “But even if the answer is ‘no,’ you have to remember that these are very sensitive souls and you can’t forget that they’re just children.”
From a list of 12 finalists, the candidates were whittled down to six, with Sorokin, the group’s tiniest and perhaps cutest performer, suffering a particularly harrowing experience.
“It was so strange. I went to the audition after being recommended by my voice teacher. At the end, the producer read out the names of the 12 who would be going on, and I wasn’t one of them,” she says.
“I went home, really sad, and then my mother got a call, saying there had been confusion with my name and that I had made it through. When she asked ‘through to what, the top 12?’ they answered, ‘No, she’s in the final six – she’s going to Amsterdam.’ I started to run around the house screaming.”
The others had similar reactions, but returned to earth with determination and ambition, not only dedicating themselves to after-school rehearsals but also working with Hitman to write the song that would eventually represent Israel in the contest. No stranger to training youth, as a director of youth choirs and writer of children’s songs, Hitman recruited his new charges in creating the musical vehicle that became “Let The Music Win.”
THE THEME of this year’s contest in Amsterdam is “Breaking the Ice” – which can refer to the frosty winter in the European city as well as to thawing cool relations between peoples of different countries.
Hitman sat with the group and tossed around lyrical ideas.
“I gave them some pages and asked each child to write down how they thought the song’s lyrics should go, and my job was to take it and edit it into a whole,” he says. “And I can tell you that 80 percent of the final lyrics of the song are based entirely on what they wrote. If an adult writes something like ‘music will win it all,” it might sound naïve or even stupid. But if a child says it, it becomes exciting.”
“They also came up with the idea of saying that phrase in different languages, and running to look up online how to translate it. When we were writing the lyrics, you could see the fire in their eyes. It really brought me back to how it felt to be a child.”
Hitman took the verses the next day and wrote a melody.
When he brought it back to the kids, they had a plethora of suggestions, many of which were adopted in the final version. When they went to record a studio version of the song, Hitman was pleasantly surprised at their professionalism at such a tender age.
“We were there every day for eight or nine hours straight, and I never heard an ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I don’t want to.’ These are kids who have experience and discipline and you can see it in the way they dedicate themselves to this project. I can also see how they’ve become very good friends, helping each other if they’re flagging.”
According to Gardos Santo, that was the reason it was decided to send a group to Amsterdam instead of just one performer – the support system.
“From an education and psychological viewpoint, we didn’t want all the burden to fall on one child. Here, the tension, anxiety and sense of responsibility is shared among six,” she says.
The organizers and the parents are all aware of the pressures facing the children, despite their seemingly carefree attitude toward performing in front of millions of people. According to Korsov’s father, Pavel, who regularly carpools the children who live near him to rehearsals, there’s no extra sense of urgency placed upon his daughter.
“We don’t push her, but we provide her with the tools,” he says. “We know she has the talent – we’ve known it since she was four and sang at her brother’s brit mila, but it was her decision to take voice development lessons and to perform on Beit Sefer L’musica.”
“She’s got a strong personality and she copes very well with combining her studies with these obligations. If she wasn’t so focused, we might be worried about the pressure, but she seems to be doing fine.”
Fourteen-year-old Meselot admits that she’s feeling more strain due to the heavy work load of being in her first year of high school. The Kfar Saba resident had just arrived at the rehearsal after a long bus ride from Jerusalem, where she had been on a field trip.
“I have lots of work and tests, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says, adding that she hopes it would lead to other musical opportunities, like appearing on one of the popular musical competition programs like The Voice. “I hope it’s still around by the time I’m 16.”
Korsov’s father is ambivalent about whether he’d like his daughter to follow down the reality-show path.
“I don’t know if The Voice or A Star is Born is a career track, or even if Eurovision is. But it is a chance to perform, and to learn. And if Adele can learn from this experience, then sababa [that’s great].”
Hitman adds that it was important for the children to retain an even keel throughout the process, and that the role of the parents and the staff was paramount.
“We all understand that these are children and they can’t be pushed liked adults,” he says. “I’ve seen all the parents get very involved with their kids and make sure this isn’t going to their heads.
And we all spend extra time, maybe an hour a day, just talking to the kids outside of the instruction and preparations for the performance.”
And the extra attention seems to be doing the trick. If there’s any way to describe the members of KIDS.IL two weeks before the competition, it’s loose.
If they’re not well-adjusted, fun-loving 11- to 14-year-olds, then they’re hiding it very well. Outgoing, intelligent and eager to practice their English on a visitor to the rehearsal, they sit around discussing their chances in Amsterdam after watching YouTube clips of the 11 other entries, including Albania, Armenia, Sweden and the Netherlands.
“Most of them are really good," says Frojinski, the member with the most experience onstage and a rich background in opera. “But we have a good chance to win, I think.”
Like Sorokin said earlier, it maybe illogical, but it would be huge.
The Junior Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast on Channel 1 on Saturday night.