Israel has a vibrant music scene with artists representing a wide variety of ethnic and cultural traditions, but much of that music never makes it to the United States. An upcoming series of Israeli music concerts aims to introduce American audiences to some legendary Israeli pop musicians, as well as fresh faces on the nation’s music scene.
“Celebration of Israeli Arts” is a co-production of American Jewish University (AJU) and the Israeli cultural promotion agency Teev Events, and the bands were selected to give local audiences a taste of the variety of Israeli rock, pop and world-inspired music.
“It’s part of an ongoing vision to bring Israelis and Americans together in a concert venue and make it accessible to Americans,” said Genie Benson, executive producer of Teev.
The five concerts at AJU’s Familian Campus in Bel Air include famed composer and singer Matti Caspi; Alon Oleartchik, co-founder and singer of the influential band Kaveret (also known as Poogy); the young singer-songwriter Idan Rafael Haviv; Maya Avraham, known as a member of the Idan Raichel Project and now pursuing a solo career; and Sephardic brothers Guy and Roy Zu-Aretz.
The series kicks off on Nov. 19 with Caspi, a singer and songwriter who is regarded as one of Israel’s most beloved musicians. Active since the late 1960s, Caspi’s music ranges from jazz to rock to Brazilian-inspired songs. He is the recipient of the prestigious “Kinor David” (David’s Harp) among many other awards, and has inspired a generation of Israeli musicians.
With a honey-soaked voice and gifted piano-playing ability, Caspi has been a staple on Israeli radio for decades. He got his start in the Israeli military, forming a trio with two friends, Gadi Oron and Ya’akov Noy, called the Three Fat Men. They released Caspi’s first big hit, “Ani Met” (I’m Dying). During the Yom Kippur War, Caspi toured army bases with the late Leonard Cohen, who arranged his song “Lover, Lover, Lover” with Caspi.
During the 1970s, Caspi began a long collaboration with Israeli songwriter Ehud Manor. Caspi wrote the melodies and Manor penned the lyrics for some of his most popular songs, including “Hine Hine” (There It Goes Again). The pair also recorded the collaboration “Tov Li Ba’kibbutz” (It’s Good on the Kibbutz), which draws from Caspi’s upbringing on Kibbutz Hanita, where he was born in 1949.
“My childhood was in a kibbutz in the north of Israel and I spent most of the time in the nature,” Caspi told the Journal in an email. “I used to listen to the radio once a week, which broadcast a special program about authentic music from all over the world. Those two things affected and influenced my ability to compose in a lot of styles.”
Caspi has been incredibly prolific in recent decades, releasing dozens of records and collaborating with Israel’s most iconic artists. His most recent album, “Nefesh Teoma” (Soulmate), was released in 2010.
Alon Oleartchik headlines the second concert in the series on Dec. 10. He was the co-founder, writer and singer for Kaveret (Poogy), perhaps Israel’s most famous and popular rock group of all time. Oleartchik will perform his greatest hits, including “Ba La Schuna Bahur Hadash” (A New Boy Came to the Neighborhood) and “Hi Holechet Badrachim” (She Travels the Roads).
Oleartchik was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1950 and immigrated to Israel at the age of 6. His father, Edward Olearczyk, was a well-known songwriter in Poland who gave young Alon an early training in classical piano. Oleartchik eventually developed a mastery of a variety of instruments, including bass, piano and guitar.
He first made his name as the bass player for Platina, an Israeli jazz band, and he was a co-founder, writer and singer in Kaveret. The members met during their Israeli army service and represented Israel in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. Kaveret has had several successful reunion tours in the last three decades.
The veteran performer says Israeli artists can serve as ambassadors for their country and offer a different perspective from what’s seen on television news or in newspapers.
“We express our views through the songs, whether directly or indirectly,” Oleartchik said in an email. “When abroad, we find ourselves becoming spokespeople for our governments, and this is not easy. So most of us just sing and play and talk about other things and avoid politics. I think in the end, a more positive picture of Israel emerges as the world is exposed to different Israeli artists.”
The third concert features Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Rafael Haviv on Jan. 21. Haviv’s first two albums, 2011’s “A Little Bit Each Time” and 2013’s “To Lose Interest in Time,” both reached gold status. Some of his songs have become Israeli radio staples, including “Mechaka” (Waiting) and “Achshav o Leolam” (Now or Never).
Haviv also collaborated on the Idan Raichel Project’s songs “Ima, Aba Vekol Hashar” (Mom, Dad and All the Rest) and “Ba’Layla” (At Night), which was named song of the year in 2013 by Israeli entertainment magazine Pnai Plus.
A self-taught multidisciplinary artist, Haviv has released music while also being highly involved in painting, visual arts, poetry, photography and more. His concerts are accompanied by original video content he shot and edited.
The fourth concert at AJU features Maya Avraham. Her March 5 show will include greatest hits from the Idan Raichel Project, with whom she recorded and toured regularly, and some of her solo songs and covers.
Avraham released her first album, “Rak Ratzit Ahava,” in 2008 and “La Yom Haze Chikiti” in 2015. She combines elements of world, Middle Eastern and pop music. Before joining the Idan Raichel Project, Avraham was a backup singer for some of Israel’s biggest music stars.
The final concert in the series, on April 2, is a Sephardic music production featuring brothers Guy and Roy Zu-Aretz. Guy, an actor and television host, and Roy, a musician and record producer, were raised in Jerusalem listening to the Ladino melodies and poems in their grandparents’ homes and synagogue. They trace their lineage from the Jews’ expulsion from Spain up to their parents’ aliyah to Israel. Their mother’s family comes from Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, and their father’s from Libya, by way of Portugal and the Netherlands.
“I knew how to play all the Sephardic romance songs when I was 6 years old,” Roy told the Journal in a phone interview. “I went to Juilliard in New York to study composition. When I was away from my land, I started to dig into myself. I saw music that I never noticed and I realized I was built up from this material.”
He lived in Los Angeles for several years and opened a recording studio in Hollywood, where he wrote soundtracks for motion pictures. He has produced albums for some of Israel’s best-known artists, such as Hayehudim, Rita and Dudu Fisher.
When the two brothers began producing Sephardic music concerts, Roy said, he was surprised by the high level of interest. At first, audiences were mostly older people and Orthodox Jews wanting to hear piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems). Then the concerts started to draw Ashkenazi Jews and younger fans.
“People come crying, saying, ‘You’re showing something good in Sephardic culture.’ People felt like they’re not equal. It’s so rooted in them that they believe in it,” he said.
Roy credits the internet with the resurgence of interest in Mizrahi music, with young listeners able to discover music that previously had only been available to collectors.
“The melodies are so charming,” he said. “Music touches wherever words cannot.”