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Music and hedonism in Tel Aviv

Israeli singer Netta Barzilai, the winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, performs during a dress rehearsal for the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final. Picture: Vyacheslav ProkofyevTASS via Getty Images - Credit: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS

The city renowned as Israel’s 24-hour capital has produced music fit for its reputation, says SOPHIA DEBOICK

In few places has music been so important in defining a nation as in Israel. As early as the late 19th century, well before the state’s foundation in 1948, music was seen as a way to promote unity and teach Hebrew to immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe and Yemen, and music has been a means of Israeli identity-making ever since.

Tel Aviv was the place that summed up the dream of Israel, envisioned from the start as a thoroughly modern, thoroughly Jewish city – the polar opposite of Jerusalem, just an hour’s drive away.

Tel Aviv is the modernist ‘White City’ to Jerusalem’s ancient burnished golds and warm limestones, eschewing the capital’s antiquity, conservatism and meditative spirit for skyscrapers, a strong liberal ethos and a frenetic pace of life.

While Tel Aviv’s beaches bake in a heat from which there is no reprieve, Jerusalem, with its cooler mountain climate, is an oasis. While Jerusalem shuts down entirely for Shabbat, Tel Aviv is a 24-hour city.

As Israelis say, ‘Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays’, and music is a large part of Tel Aviv’s playtime, from its history as the heart of Israel’s music industry, and place of origin of many of its Eurovision stars, to its superclubs.

Tel Aviv is synonymous with clubbing, but it is a culture it originally imported from elsewhere. When India reopened its borders to Israel in 1988 after years of policy alignment with Arab countries, young Israelis flocked to Goa’s beach parties and psychedelic trance, acid house and techno got a foothold back home as a result.

In Tel Aviv, acts like Astral Projection made homegrown Goan trance and venues like the Penguin Club became key to a burgeoning club scene focussed on the intersecting Allenby, King George and Sheinkin Streets and Rothschild Boulevard in the city centre.

But it was number 58 Allenby Street that became one of Tel Aviv’s most legendary musical locations. Originally an International Style cinema designed by Ukrainian architect Shlomo Gepstein, this monolithic building opened in 1937 but fell into disuse in the 1980s before being reborn as one of the best dance music venues in the world.

The superclub Allenby 58 was the project of locals Uri Stark, Rall Nadel and Nitzan Lev-Tzur and opened on New Year’s Eve 1994.

It quickly gained an international reputation and attracted the biggest DJs from all over the world – the first of the long-running Global Underground releases, capturing a megastar DJ playing a key international clubbing destination, was London hard house DJ Tony De Vit’s set at the club in 1996.

Despite its success, Allenby 58 fell victim to a societal disapproval of drug-fuelled hedonism that even laid-back Tel Aviv was not immune to, and the club was pushed out by city centre regeneration efforts, closing in 2000.

That was the year the Tel Aviv club scene as a whole was hit hard by the Second Intifada breaking out, as clubs became a target for violence, but the scene has since come back strong.

Allenby 58’s Nadel and Stark soon opened the TLV club in the city’s old port area, and across Tel Aviv at clubs like The Block, located inside the old Central Bus Station, to Bootleg on King George Street and the famed Breakfast Club on Rothschild Boulevard, homegrown DJs like Shlomi Aber, who cut his teeth on the city’s club scene in the 1990s, rub shoulders with international guest artists.

Add to that the city’s famously vibrant gay scene, revolving around old favourites like Shpagat on Allenby and Apolo Club in the Sarona neighbourhood, and Tel Aviv is one of the world’s clubbing capitals.

The incurious carapace of Anglophone musical culture is pierced but once a year by the foreign language offerings of the Eurovision Song Contest, a competition which has brought acts from Tel Aviv to British attention and in which Israel has done uncommonly well over the years.

Israel made its Eurovision debut in 1973 and has never come last. It is one of only four countries to have ever won in consecutive years and has won the contest four times.

Tel Aviv native Izhar Cohen garnered Israel its first Eurovision win, bagging the 1978 prize with his group Alphabeta performing the dramatic disco number A-Ba-Ni-Bi (‘I Love You’). The following year, Milk and Honey, fronted by Tel Aviv-raised singer Gali Atari, won in Jerusalem with their Hallelujah, a sunny number in the spirit of Brotherhood of Man’s winning Save Your Kisses for Me of three years before.

Israel waited nearly two decades for its next Eurovision victory, but when it came it was an all-time classic Eurovision moment, as Tel Aviv-born Dana International won in 1998 with Diva. The no less brash Netta took the 2019 competition to Tel Aviv when she won with Toy in 2018, a song written by Doron Medalie, who is also notable for writing the anthem for Tel Aviv Pride 2013, performed by the wildly popular Mizrahi singer Omer Adam.

But Tel Aviv music is more than clubs and Eurovision, and the city was at the centre of Israel’s pop and rock revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.

The trio The High Windows, with their vocal harmony-oriented pop, marked the beginning of Israel embracing the Western pop idiom, just as the outbreak of the Six Day War signalled a new era for the country as a whole (the band’s 1967 debut album came out just a few weeks before the conflict began). The High Windows was also the starting place for Arik Einstein, the Tel Aviv-born singer-songwriter who was an Israeli institution – Benjamin Netanyahu gave the eulogy at his funeral in 2013, calling him ‘the essence of the real, beautiful Israel’.

Einstein was instrumental in helping Tel Aviv’s The Churchills to success, their English-language 1969 eponymous debut exploring mod rock and psychedelia and seen by many as Israel’s first rock album.

Tel Aviv rockers Kaveret quickly followed, although singing in Hebrew (they represented Israel at Eurovision in 1974, the year ABBA triumphed), but Tamuz’s pioneering 1976 album Sof Onat Ha’Tapuzim (‘End of the Orange Season’) – recorded at Triton Studios on Tel Aviv’s Idelson Street – was the first truly classic Israeli rock album, and the band marked the beginning of the careers of godfathers of Israeli rock Shalom Hanoch and Ariel Zilber.

In the early 1980s, artists drawing on Yemenite Jewish tradition emerged from Tel Aviv. The mesmerising Ofra Haza, from the city’s poor Hatikva neighbourhood, had international success with her Shiri Teyman (‘Yemenite Songs’) (1984) and later got a Grammy Best World Music Album nomination, while Mizrahi singer Zohar Argov released his debut in 1981 to great initial success. Both became iconic by virtue of their tragically young deaths and began the rehabilitation of Mizrahi culture from its long-time second-class status.

But Tel Aviv was also quick off the mark with post-punk in the early 1980s, as Minimal Compact formed in the city before jumping ship for Amsterdam and then Brussels and garnering the crucial critical diptych of a John Peel session and an NME Single of the Week in 1985.

In the next decade, the city proved it was no less dextrous in other genres of rock, from the soft rock of HaYehudim (literally, ‘The Jews’), with 1995 debut Metziut Nifredet (‘Different Reality’) showcasing frontwoman Orit Shahaf’s impressive vocals, to the indie sensibilities of Monica Sex.

Into the 2000s, Tel Aviv has produced everything from the chilled electronica of Garden City Movement to the leftist pop-hip hop of Hadag Nahash (a spoonerism of ‘nahag hadash’, the ‘new driver’ signs that can be seen on Israeli cars). Based partly in Jerusalem and partly in Tel Aviv, Hadag Nahash reflected on the experience of being pulled between the two cities in their 2006 high energy song Hine Ani Ba (‘Here I Come’) – in Jerusalem ‘everyone here is set on God’s frequency’, Tel Aviv ‘sparkles more’, but the protagonist finds it is ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ and Jerusalem again calls as a place where you can ‘breathe a little mountain air, clear like wine’.

Although often jokey in their approach, Hadag Nahash have made calls for peace a central part of their lyrics, their debut single Shalom Salaam Peace – an Israeli No.1 in 2000 – claiming peace is ‘possible here too/ Not just in Paris or Nice or in Amsterdam’. Such a stance has set them up for a long-running beef with Tel Aviv rapper Subliminal, who has made extreme Zionist lyrical statements his USP.

But it is Hadag Nahash who are more symbolic of laid back, liberal Tel Aviv, the band’s Sha’anan Streett having launched the One Shekel Festival in 
2000 which takes affordable live music 
to Israel’s neglected neighbourhoods 
and puts an emphasis on bringing 
Jewish and Arab bands together. The festival’s slogan is ‘culture is a basic right’, a slogan that seems to be lived 
out in Tel Aviv every day.

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