Taking the Temperature of Tel Aviv's Insanely Eclectic Music Scene
Amidst the intense heat and the ever-shifting political tides, Israel's second largest metropolis heaves with musical talent of all genres.
Tel Aviv-based electro-pop duo Reo.
Please excuse my pathetic posture, but I’m wrinkled under the weight of a giant melting icepack I’m trying to cool my body down with. Even for this African, walking through the streets of Tel Aviv during the peak of summer’s rage feels marginally biblical—one toe tap in the wrong direction and I might burst into flames.
Ah, yes! War! Violence! There you are. I’d forgotten to be mad about you all week.
I moved to Tel Aviv from Cape Town, South Africa, 11 months ago. I needed change. I needed more. I needed to continue to feel on the edge and to feel alive. Sometimes the most rational choice you can make is a random stab in the dark. Also, I couldn’t handle having an opinion without being on the ground to witness it first hand, because empathy is a feeble instrument for making any sort of moral progress and wagging your little finger from afar only goes so far.
After hearing that the music industry was similar to South Africa—in that it manages to muscle forward despite its tiny size, suffers humungous political challenges, and lacks production resources—I needed to pole vault into the deep end. I’m now swimming in a gigantic vat of what-the-bloody-fuck. It’s been a year since the last summer war, and while extreme terrorist organizations continue to launch rockets into Israeli territories, Israeli extremists continue to retaliate. It’s that inhumane tit-for-tat, that political whiplash that makes living and working here a constant conundrum.
I’ll compare the feeling of living in Tel Aviv to the precise moment where everything goes from severe militant black and white to vibrant color in Pleasantville. It’s rare you’ll find yourself with absolutely nothing to do which makes the underground scene here so above ground you can't help but trip over it. It's liberal, with a multiracial demographic (you’ll hear French sooner than English in some spots), and I suppose its puny size (Israel can fit into Texas approximately 34 times) means the artistic scene is incredibly close knit.
For the past few years Israeli artists (similar to South African creatives) have become novel flash cards asked to approach political vitriol by the rest of the world, often criticized more for what they are, than what they do. From what it looks like standing in the middle of the mess, they’ve reached an unapologetic collision between perception and reality; Arabs and Jews are making music together, Jews sing in Arabic, Arabs cover Jewish songs—we’re practically watching that middle finger rise up to expectations. Artists are unapologetically embracing limitation and using it to drive creativity.
It has long been fashionable to say that the world is shrinking. Distance is crushed by technology, and it’s important (not easier) to laser away the layers of hypocrisy in media and politics. Heck, the Greeks mused about how we have two ears and one mouth and we should be using them in that proportion. So, while the human symphony still feels out of tune, music can easily become that key factor for human moral progress even if its effect might take generations to unfold.
Well, this much is true: There isn’t a better freeze-frame-moment of where Israel’s music industry stands now than looking at a group of artists who fold the hardest things happening in their lives into a narrative that’s celebratory.
On this syrupy pop trip, a new listener could be forgiven for missing Tzlil Danin’s darker vein. No emotion is minor in her world as she pairs soft, echoing synth with Middle Eastern atmospherics, while detailing the topography of knotty relationships. It doesn’t take long for it all to unfold into R&B disarray, her chants curving around and climbing over instrumentals which complement the gloominess of her lyrics, “I know it ain’t easy to feel unique / What can they do I’m in this mess,” she sings on “City Friends” turning Tzlil’s delicate repetition of the words “dream on” into a rhythmic tattoo.
Being a dot in an Acollective audience is something you can never describe properly without sounding like an idiot: you’ll see fists clutching the air (as if it weren’t even made of air), fans reciting every lyric, arms linked up and swaying together; it’s extraordinary. Take one listen to “Happiest of all Memorial Days,” the third track off their newest album, Pangaea, and even that sounds too liberating to parade as a miserable song and too miserable to be liberating. It explodes with a height that makes raw pain and devastating loss sound triumphant. They invoke this rare balance between catharsis and sorrow—a fitting demonstration of what its like to live in Israel—while meandering across progressive pop, Middle Eastern-blues, folk, and electronica. Having worked with Chris Shaw (longtime engineer for Bob Dylan), the septet have created one of the most popular music videos in the Middle Eas, for “BreakApart” (featuring modern music’s best beloved LP covers animated and singing along), and remind us exactly how high artists who band together can climb.
Within the first few seconds of Nico Teen’s lately released fourth studio album, In the Houses, the withering melody leaks into a damp underworld where warbling samples mold off the walls of its lo-fi production—much like a haunted house where the inhabitants exist, unaware, within it. It’s an unsettling blend of sonics from Zohar Shafir—who has been making music as Nico Teen for nearly a decade—and it will surely find favor with fans of Warpaint and Grimes alike. In the midst of it all is Shafir’s reeling folky vocals, cooing a serenade that bends dark moments inside taut, grime-flecked electronic layers, deftly exploring human connection, whether verbal or physical.
Released this past July, their LP Other Selves, comes backed by buzz and suave, surf-rock riffs and a theatrical 60s pop spin, but while lessAcrobats use nostalgia like some sort of instrument, it’s Thom Monahan’s mixing (Vetiver, Devendra Banhart, Au Revoir Simone) that became the thread tying the tracks together. The quartet swing between arching, psychedelic burners with guitars reminiscent of The Drums and The Beach Boys. Itay Nirenblat sounds youthfully self-absorbed keeping a 90s boyishness intact while sounding sincere, and even lusty when he sings. Though the hooks are earnest and heightened by the rapid-fire Roi Keidar guitar shrills, the arrangements aren’t complicated, and the drums carry it all home.
BILL AND MURRAY
We interrupt this outrageous multi-genre mix for a brief dose of serenity. From the jangling disaffection of “What’s There to Fear” to the somber, synth-pop twisted “Rabbit Hole," Bill and Murray are newbies who make music that’s mellow, eerie, and compelling. “The Silence Grows” (above) is the stand out from their forthcoming debut album, likening a lover’s argument to the volatility of the ocean, washing it all under a pile of intimate, warm synths. Gotshtein’s voice carries the weight of a love song too—it’s delicate, but impossible to ignore. They have the ability to explain relationships in a tumultuous country in painfully simple ways: “All these colorful lives / We live in a country that dies.”
This young electro-pop duo steep their sound in the 80s and 90s delivered via analog instruments. Hebrew lyrics ride over fluttering electronics on their recent single “Courage,” while Zoe Polanski and Or Edry breathy vocals coalesce under fits of disco-tinted trills. Reo sing about human free-falls, anxieties, and fears. Even if you’re plunged into a cosmos where the language is unfamiliar, consider that for over a century songwriters have placed their emotional stock in self-reflection, and sometimes meaning is communicated in spite of any language barrier. When literally translated, their's is the stuff Tumblr is made of: a motivational quote encouraging the listener to attack the day, “I have the power / Don’t forget to remember what is best / I do not care what he thinks / Or who I am,” they croon. It’s three minutes of upbeat, airy loveliness, and if there’s one thing that sets these girls apart from their peers, it’s that they can so easily pivot from spaced-out shiny synths to keenly felt personal diatribes.
This TA trio’s music can best be described as fat, buttery (yup!) funk, chewy chunks of neo-soul, with seductive electronic waves that flicker in and out like radio frequencies on the fritz. Beno Hendler, Rejoicer, and KerenDun take bite out of every electronic plug and after releasing material titled “Toast,” “Jam,” and “Falafel,” you could say they’re hungry for it. When Snoop Dogg’s called you “dope as fuck,” you’ve been supported by Hudson Mohawke, and have had your musical sessions consistently bombarded by the bombings between Israel/Palestine in 2012—you can choose to crumble or revel under pressure. Songs such as “I Cried,” “What Is Madness,” and “Master Of Rockets” exemplify the latter. With a healthy measure of trip-hop beats “Master Of Rockets” taunts the listener with Mario Brothers laser beams and haunting backing vocals; they metronome from beat to ballad without compromising their aesthetic. One look at their bandcamp says it all—there in clear caps they scream: “MAKE FALAFEL NOT WAR.”
Moody singer-songwriter riffs provide the backdrop for the brooding, contemplative lyrics of Arnon Naor, the man behind Sun Tailor. He boasts an air of ease that suggests wonder without being overly maudlin. His vocals vie for space above the music’s blissful backdrops, offering warm-heartedness during unfolding layers of guitar plucks. He’s Elbow’s Guy Garvey hanging out with Jeff Buckley and there’s charm to the way his words jostle for room between gentle snare taps and piano lines. There’s a feeling that what you can’t hear—those spaces of recorded breathing—are just as crucial as what he’s singing about. Lyrics like the loaded, “One foot at a time, all together / Don't let them break it up, break us up / We can survive, as the stars shine now,” ride up and out of the songs, while others might remain unassuming, and this light and shade is partly what makes Sun Tailor so engaging.
When the exquisite Ethiopian-Israeli Ester Rada, sings about skin while living in a country where race relations are exceptionally fraught and complex, she’s conducting a private conversation with herself, in front of an audience. “Could it be that the moon touched my skin? / Is that the way love is measured?” she asks during “Could It Be”—a song which could very well be tackling the feeling of being judged by color, not substance. But Israel’s Queen of Jazz wards off alienation and loneliness by sounding so goddamn powerful. In a recent interview she mused, “Tel Aviv is freedom. There are no borders here. I like the variety of people, colors, smells, the music, and the art. Mainly the freedom.” Her uninhibited sound is reflected in a surge of reggae and R&B instrumentals that all live harmoniously inside the structure of Ethio-Jazz.
I haven’t been blessed with enough hands to count the sheer number of instrumental musicians in Israel. Electronic, classical, tribal, and jazz—it’s all here, but while language and tradition could very well be triggers for this proliferation, a lively beat can make you want to listen to almost anything. In this event we’re rewarded by a jazz-rock trio including Dan Mayo on drums, guitarist Tamuz Dekel, and Offir Benjaminov on bass. Together they make up Tatran, three men who sound like they’re strutting, engrossed in each note, getting loud, breaking things down, and then decompressing into steady composure. It sounds familiar, music that’s akin to the current state: a country embroiled in frailty and frenzy.
Very few things in life are as universally gratifying as musical freedom. To the left, music is the ultimate act of a society in action, and to the right, it justifies the industry’s universal power. While these excellent bands, which comprise several differing genres might not totally capture the experience of every alternative musical offering in Israel—they do come close. A divergent group: a city, a generation, galvanizes Tel Aviv’s music scene, and to witness it is utterly thrilling.
Lior Phillips is a South African writer living in Tel Aviv. Follow her on Twitter.