Israel’s Country Music Wizard (Tablet Magazine, July 8, 2021)

Ronen Ackerman

Kobi Oz might be the most influential musician in Israel. His songs brought Mizrahi stylings into the mainstream, painting a vivid portrait of a place coming to terms with its Middle Eastern identity.

By Matti Friedman

(Read the piece in Tablet here.)

Who is the most important Israeli musician of the last generation? Not the most gifted or popular, but the most influential, one without whom the country’s sound wouldn’t be the same?

My vote goes to Kobi Oz—the mix-track trickster, the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, the Tunisian from a town of Moroccans who brought the South to Tel Aviv and changed what we mean by Israeli pop. Of course, more than one person is responsible for the rise of the once-disdained sound known by the generalization “Mizrahi,” or “Eastern,” which has become Israel’s spiritual equivalent of American country and western music, though the two genres sound absolutely nothing alike. If we must choose one musician responsible for the mainstreaming of the Israeli Eastern sound, it might be Oz.

 Listening to Oz’s work over the past 30 years, you get a portrait of a changing country—one constantly in crisis but also one with an irrepressible life, a place that has given up on being someplace else and has come to terms with itself. Because Oz and his band broke through in the ’90s, the age of the music video, it’s actually possible to witness the crucial moments in their rise on YouTube, like the release of “In Newsprint” in 1993. The odds were stacked against the song, which has prickly lyrics about Israelis—describing them as people diverted by jokes, journalism, and self-delusion—and a complicated melody that changes rhythm abruptly in the middle and moves into explicitly Moroccan territory. The song was unlike anything people had heard before. It wasn’t immediately clear if the band was earnestly channeling the North African sound or laughing at it, as was common in those days, when Mizrahi culture was still mocked by the wardens of popular taste.

The record, the band’s second, was going nowhere at the time and the record company’s enthusiasm was flagging. As a lead singer, Oz was strange—small and antic with a braid, chunky glasses, and a smile that was engaging without quite being friendly, like he had a good joke but thought you might not get it. His band’s sound, the company was saying, was “too Arab.” He and his bandmates pooled most of the money they had, $600, and filmed a video in front of a live audience at a place in Jaffa that usually featured Greek singers. The crowd immediately hated both the band and the song—you can see it in the faces in the video. Were these guys Moroccan or Ashkenazi? What was this shit? Only when a popular Greek performer came onstage afterward did the crowd start dancing, relieved that Oz and his friends were gone. Oz told the cameraman to film that, then edited the clip so it looked like people were dancing to his own song. It worked: The video got airtime, “In Newsprint” became a classic, and the band never looked back.

 “Humor is an incredible Israeli tool to win acceptance in society,” Oz said when we met in a Tel Aviv café; he ambled in with a leopard-print sunhat casting shade on his trademark glasses and goatee. He’s 51 now, nearly one of the elder statesmen of the pop scene, and everyone recognizes him on the street. “If you don’t want to be the kid who’s ignored,” he said, “it’s better to be the kid who people laugh at. If they laugh at you long enough, you’re one of the guys. You start laughing at yourself, and then you can laugh back at them.”

That observation has its roots in Sderot, the southern town where Oz was born in 1969. Sderot is now famous for being the favorite target of Palestinian rocket squads in nearby Gaza—many thousands of rockets have hit the town, and a child was killed there in the last round of fighting this spring. But when Oz was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, Sderot was just a poor backwater whose residents were mostly a North African proletariat working in factories run by the socialists on nearby kibbutzim.

A working-class town with a rich culture spurned by the majority, containing talented musicians with no connections at any radio station or record company and no hope of getting anywhere near the mainstream—all of this seems to have created the electricity that put Sderot’s underground scene on the map. Hard rock was big in Sderot years before it made its mark in Tel Aviv. The town produced some important bands, a few of which made it and most of which broke up before any outsiders heard of them.

The town was also home to a second underground scene, inhabited by entertainers who’d play parties and weddings with Arabic songs and stage names like Sheikh Muijo and Filfel el-Masri. These were artists who’d come with the great migration to Israel from the Arab world and were doing their best to keep people’s spirits up in a country that was less welcoming than expected. They sang traditional music as well as protest songs coated in a kind of acid humor, which occasionally broke through as novelty hits. A good example from the 1950s was Filfel el-Masri’s “Installments,” about people being convinced to buy now and pay later, or Jo Amar’s “Unemployment Office,” about trying to catch a break as a Moroccan guy in a bureaucracy that favored people from Poland. Sderot was a small place, but it had a lot going on.

For Oz, the town’s key musical figure was (and remains) the guitarist Haim Uliel, son of Matatya, who was a cultural impresario and member of the Black Panthers, the anti-establishment Mizrahi protest group of the ’60s and ’70s. The younger Uliel started out in tight jeans and long hair playing Black Sabbath, then did a sharp U-turn back to the music he grew up with in his father’s café on the town’s main drag, Herzl Street. The café would host Jewish performers from North Africa and also Arab musicians who came over from nearby Gaza, which at the time wasn’t a ministate run by terrorists and surrounded by fences, but just a place down the road.

The scene at the Herzl Street café was sketchy, with uncouth men and women of disrepute, Uliel recalled when I met him at the little house next door where he grew up and still lives—an intense 65-year-old in shorts and flip-flops whose living room couch is occupied by a guitar case. But it was those people in low places who ended up keeping the old sounds alive. There was a door between the house and the café, and the denizens of the demimonde would sometimes wander into Haim’s kitchen. He’d wake up and find drummers asleep on the floor.

Uliel was, and remains, a combative character. He doesn’t have Oz’s drive for broad acceptance. Uliel’s band, Sfatayim (Lips), preserved the authentic Moroccan style, playing with Western instruments but making few other efforts to draw the European ear. Uliel thought little not just of Ashkenazi music, but also of what passed for most “Mizrahi” music, which he disdained as nothing more than Greek songs played by Yemenis who were too eager to please the Man. His attitude was that if the mainstream wasn’t interested in real Moroccan music, the mainstream could take a hike.

“In those days there was this idea that the important thing was the Hebrew text, not the music,” Uliel said. “They thought music was education, but music doesn’t come to teach you—music wants to make you sad, or happy, or make you dance. If you want to educate people, do it in school.”

When Oz was 10, Uliel was in his 20s and running a local music festival. He brought Oz to perform, and then, when Oz was 15, signed him up to play keyboard for his band. The kid, Uliel recalls, was dedicated to music to the point of obsession. Oz, for his part, remembers that he was selected mainly “because I was there.” It was around this time that Kobi Oz became Kobi Oz; before adopting that stage name, he’d been Yaakov Uzan. They performed at Moroccan weddings across the country, and Oz remembers it as a kind of glorious boot camp. “As a kid, I had an amazing school of beat and groove—the thing was Africa, it was Morocco,” he said. “It was like playing with James Brown.”

At the same time, Oz was hanging out with a few teenage musicians from the kibbutzim around Sderot, which was rare—there wasn’t much contact between the two worlds. A few of them decided to form a band that would erase those borders, naming it for a brand of typewriter white-out, Tipp-Ex. (The joke, which is lost in the band’s English name, Teapacks, doesn’t make sense anyway to anyone under 40.) The kid from Sderot was going to be in charge, with the kibbutzniks backing him up.

They started playing kibbutz dining halls, the kind of gig where you had to sweep up afterward. By this time he’d bought a drum machine from one of the two stores in Israel that sold them, and a basic computer setup, and managed to convince the Sderot high school to let him matriculate in electronic music. The school didn’t have anyone who could test him on the subject, so they brought the closest thing, which was an electrician. Oz got 10 out of 10, which seemed great until his draft date came up and that perfect grade landed him a dead-end army job fixing electric systems in tanks. The band’s guitarist from Kibbutz Nir Am vanished into the Navy Commandos and they never saw him again, but when the army was done with them all, Gal Perelman from Kibbutz Nahal Oz was still there with the bass guitar, and Tamir Yemini from Kibbutz Ruhama on the drums, and Ram Yosifov signed up in Tel Aviv with a guitar and mandolin. All three are still with the band.

By now it was the late ’80s, and there were a few DJs at Army Radio who were interested in different sounds. Alon Olearchik, famous for playing guitar with the legendary comic-rock band Kaveret (Beehive), had come back from a few years playing in a Mediterranean club in Manhattan and scorched the local airwaves with a fusion hit about a new kid on the block. Oz got him to produce the band’s album, and they were off.

Their first hit was about a miracle-working charlatan, Rabbi Joe Kapara, a common type around the Israeli south. The idea was to sing specific songs about a specific place, like country music: You don’t drive a truck—you drive a flatbed Ford. You don’t sing about a woman, but about Jolene. And you’re not from just anywhere, you’re from Luckenbach, Texas, or Muskogee, or Sderot. (“When I hear country, I’m in my own country,” Oz said.)

What followed was a series of popular snapshots of a changing Israel: an ode to the grubby old bus station in Tel Aviv, which had been condemned in favor of a new station (which turned out to be worse); a song about people sitting in cafés and jeeps, tuning everything out during a wave of suicide bombings; a funny-not-funny “hora” about the crass ills of Israel’s new prosperity. The Teapacks sound is immediately recognizable, and a lot of what’s common in the pop scene today can be traced to them—not just the normalizing of North African beats, but the ironic accordion, or the employment of hip-hop verses followed by a Mizrahi chorus, which Oz can credibly claim to have pioneered with the 1993 song “Monopoly Champion.”

Since then, while many Israeli musicians have drifted off to generic Western sounds (what Oz calls “disconnected post-Londonism”), the Mizrahi side of the music scene has become more unabashedly Jewish and Israeli. This is very much the Oz style, as is illustrated in one of his most important songs—one he didn’t write or compose, and which didn’t garner much attention when it appeared, or since.

It was a night in June 2001, and the band was performing with the Mizrahi pop queen Sarit Hadad, who’d become famous for singing with Teapacks a few years before. News began to arrive of a Palestinian suicide bombing at a nightclub in Tel Aviv; 21 people were dead, mostly teenagers. It’s the kind of situation Israeli artists have to deal with. Just this May, for example, I was at an outdoor concert in Jerusalem when a Hamas rocket barrage hit central Israel—half the audience got up to answer calls from frantic babysitters and the rest of us swiveled in our white plastic chairs to watch the little red explosions of Iron Dome interceptors in the sky to the west. The musicians kept playing. What else could they do?

Oz wasn’t going to call off the concert, but the situation needed to be addressed, so he decided to open with the national anthem, “Hatikva.” Why, I asked. “I always want to sing ‘Hatikva,’” he said. He and Hadad rehearsed a version that incorporated the style that Oz heard when his Tunisian grandfather sang the anthem. It was similar to what you can hear in a remarkable recording from Tunis in 1932, which suggests not just a different kind of anthem, but a different Zionism.

Without adding a word, Oz’s version made a political point: The anthem might have been written by an East European but the song, and the country, belonged to people from Tunis as much as to anyone else.

The education minister, Limor Livnat of Likud, turned out to be in the crowd that night, and after the show, she asked them to record the song to be promoted in the country’s schools. Oz and Hadad duly rented a studio and sent her the recording, but never heard back; a committee of experts was apparently convened at the Education Ministry and was not amused. Oz’s “Hatikva” is my favorite version of the song, the one Israel needs now, as our society frays along ethnic and political lines and cries out for new ideas and sounds. When the officials turned up their nose, Oz released it anyway, including it as a bonus track on a greatest hits compilation in 2003. It will find the right ears.