'Years have passed’: Revisiting the legendary Zohar Argov

The late Mizrahi superstar's first three albums, originally released in the early 1980s, will be reissued with improved sound.

Cover of Zohar Argov’s album (photo credit: YITZHAK ELHARAR)
Cover of Zohar Argov’s album
(photo credit: YITZHAK ELHARAR)
It was the evening of April 10, 1982, the third day of Passover. I had received leave from the army for a few days to visit my grandmother. I got off the No. 17 bus and stopped off at Tamar’s corner market to buy a pita and some Bulgarian cheese.
I crossed the park and looked at the colorful bomb shelter we used to climb on when we were kids. When I reached my grandmother’s flat, we talked a little and she complained how tired she was. Then my cousins came over and we sat down to watch the Mizrahi music festival together. As we sat glued to the TV, we watched as Zohar Argov, tall and thin, stood up and belted out sounds and melodies with such force and emotion that they remain etched in my memory until today.
The next day I returned to the army, and it was clear something momentous had occurred. Nobody remembers that Haim Moshe had won second place and Nissim Grama third in the music festival. Two months later, the First Lebanon War broke out and nothing was ever the same again. Especially Israeli music.
Zohar Argov would have turned 60 last month. He was born Zohar Orkabi on July 16, 1955, and died in November 1987 following a short but impressive singing career. Today, Argov is considered one of the greatest and most important Israeli singers and the person who opened the gate to main - stream Israeli music for countless other Mizrahi singers who followed in his footsteps.
Later this month, a festival celebrating Argov’s 60th birthday will take place and his first three albums, which were recorded between 1980 and 1983, will be rereleased. Anyone who yearns to understand the development of Israeli society over the last 30 years should start with this trilogy. No one knew at the time, of course, but Argov’s first three albums were largely responsible for Mizrahi music becoming part of Israel’s mainstream music world and for bringing it recognition as a legitimate part of Israeli culture. Argov played a major (if unconscious) role in this transition.
Yehuda Keisar, the guitarist for the band Tzlilei Ha’oud, got very excited by the voice of the young Orkabi, who worked at the time as the band’s driver. Keisar was the one who initiated Argov’s debut album, Eleanor , which was recorded in a primitive recording studio in Jaffa on an old tape recorder, and yet its success was immediate.
Following the success of this first album in 1980, Argov’s fame increased and he became a star performer at clubs. He performed endlessly in front of audiences throughout the country, and yet he still was not referred to as a professional artist in the mainstream media. With the landslide Likud victory in 1977, a new spirit descended on the Israeli people, but only songs by Tislam, Izolirband, Shalom Hanoch, Yehudit Ravitz, Shlomo Artzi, Arik Sinai, and Matti Caspi were heard on the radio. For some reason, Army Radio would play Brazilian songs translated into Hebrew, but translated Mizrahi music was off limits.
In 1981, Argov produced his second album, There Was a Time , in which he sang songs written by other singers. For example, there was Jo Amar’s “Barcelona” and Boaz Sharabi’s “You’re My Night.” Whereas the sound on the recording of his first album had been so problematic, the professionally done and quality recording of the second album sounded absolutely amazing in comparison. His second album also quickly became a huge commercial success.
In 1982, Meir Reuveni, the producer of the Mizrahi music festival, succeeded in inserting Argov’s “The Flower in my Garden” in the roster; and at the festival, which took place at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, Argov won first place.
The performance was broadcast live on Channel 1 and it catapulted Argov’s career exponentially. That same year, Argov’s third album Up To Date came out, which, in addition to “The Flower in my Garden,” included famous songs such as “Alone,” “As of Today,” and “Years Have Passed.” The album was incredibly popular, even among people who didn’t usually listen to Mizrahi music, and Argov became known by the nickname “King of Mizrahi Music.” The album As of Today reached platinum levels after selling more than 350,000 copies.
Efraim Shamir, a member of the band Kaveret, says that “the Israel Broadcasting Authority would only show black- and-white movies by [Ingmar] Bergman and [Federico] Fellini or classic orchestra concerts and Eretz Yisrael music festivals, even though most people living in Israel weren’t interested in such programs. People would watch, but they wouldn’t really see.
“The elites believed they had a duty to educate the everyday folk in Israel, and of course, in their minds, Mizrahi music was not educational. They were so pretentious in their actions, as if to say, ‘We know what’s good for you.’ But this abusive attitude did exactly the opposite, and for many years people were very angry.
“Argov’s live TV performance broke through the barrier, and then all hell broke loose.”
Shamir continues, “I don’t like Eyal Golan or Zohar Argov,” although he admits that both of them are mainstream and that this is what people like. “It’s as if Mizrahi music was created the day ‘The Flower in my Garden’ came out and all the Mizrahi songs that came out before it ceased to exist.
“This phenomenon also occurred when Kaveret and Arik Einstein wiped out the previous generation. There were the Dudaim, the IDF troupes, and Naomi Shemer, and then one day Kaveret came along and brought with it a new spirit. Suddenly, the Gashash Hahiver and the Parvarim were considered out of date. And that’s exactly what happened with Zohar Argov. He changed Mizrahi music so drastically without even knowing what kind of effect he was having.”
Amir Ben-David, a member of the successful Israeli rock band Avtipus and the author (with Moshe Zonder) of the screenplay for the movie Zohar, a self-described “Ashkenazi boy from Haifa,” got caught up in Argov’s spell totally by accident.
“We were really into the Pixies and artists like Nick Cave. We had no interest in singers like Zohar Argov,” Ben-David recalls. “But in 1990 I was sent to cover an event at the Caesar Club in Bat Yam, where a successor to Argov was to be chosen. There was no cable TV or Internet in those days – just Channel 1.
“I returned home from the event in shock. I had no preparation for what I had seen. The hall was packed to the gills and more buses kept coming with more people. People’s excitement was palpable. I was impressed that so many people wanted to hear Argov sing, since he was completely off my radar. Argov had never been covered in the media, even though Ashkenazi singers who weren’t nearly as popular had been covered many times.”
Ben-David continues, “Moshe Zonder and I spent six months researching Zohar’s life. We interviewed dozens of people – from people who’d been in class with him in the first grade to anybody who’d ever played music with him. We gathered a huge amount of material. In essence, we created the first biography of Zohar, which was published in 1990.
“When the movie version came out in 1993, it was well received, but we were attacked for being Ashkenazi. People asked, ‘How dare you stick your noses into this story?’ On the other hand, there were also people who wrote, ‘Why are you bothering to deal with such garbage?’ Even my own parents didn’t understand why anyone would want to make a movie about this guy.
“People’s awareness of Argov in - creased exponentially following his suicide at the age of 32. And he had this unique voice – no one could deny his talents. Tzlilei Ha’oud was a popular band and Rami Danoch was a well-liked singer and Ahuva Ozeri had given him voice lessons. Mizrahi singers who fol - lowed in Argov’s footsteps knew how to manage their careers and to make financially viable decisions.”
Ben-David notes that the Reuveni brothers developed the concept of “central bus station music.” His songs might not have been aired on the radio, but they certainly managed to reach every - one passing through the old central bus station in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s, where they were being played at full volume on speakers. And a lot of people bought his cassettes at stores across the street from the station.
“It was a brilliant marketing move,” Ben-David says. “Zohar’s tremendous success enabled him to move in and conquer many hearts of mainstream Israelis. Argov was an underground resistance fighter, a pioneer, and we didn’t even realize it. Now we know.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner