The history of popular music in Israel begins with the European Jewish settlement of Palestine in the last two decades of the 19th century. Palestine was the name given to the region by the Ottomans, who until World War I controlled much of the Middle and Near East. It was the Zionist movement and its waves of Jewish immigration that created the foundation for the modern secular nation-state and the impetus for the development of popular culture and music, along with the creation of a national identity. The leaders of the movement and the settlers in Palestine aimed at inventing a locally specific, native Jewish culture that would unify the settlers who came from different origins into a common cultural identity. The two art forms that accompanied the ideology of the new Israeli were Hebrew literature and a genre of popular music known as shirei eretz Israel ("Songs of the Land of Israel").
Shirei eretz Israel were essentially Russia and Eastern European folk songs adapted into Hebrew as well as newly composed songs in a similar vein. The songs were often in minor keys, had a duple meter and were simple in structure. The accompaniment was simple as well, typically using guitar, piano or accordion and some of the newly created compositions incorporated the more "exotic" modes and Yemenite-inspired melodic turns. The songs' lyrics spoke of the experience of living in the holy land, and for lyrical content the composers often turned to the works of prominent Hebrew poets such as Chaim Nahman Bialik. This music was disseminated largely through communal singing, the growing popularity of folk dances that were invented to accompany them as well as the youth movements, kibbutzim (collective communities) and military-entertainment ensembles that were formed after the birth of Israel. Shirei eretz Israel became a form of national-popular music after the founding of the state of Israel, and one of the most celebrated composers of the style was Naomi Shemer, whose anthemic song "Jerusalem of Gold", composed just before the 1967 war that resulted in the unification of Jerusalem under Jewish control, became a nostalgic hymn that spoke of the Jewish yearning for Jerusalem in Israel and around the world.
In the 1960s, and especially with the economic growth following the Six Day War of 1967, Israel began to open up to global sounds, and especially to rock. The emphasis on Hebrew and national causes as the core of Israel's cultural identity diminished, and artists sought to stay connected to the global community while retaining their commitment to local culture. Many of the artists began their careers with one of the army music ensemblesan Israeli phenomena put together by various army units to provide light entertainment for soldiers and to raise morale. But for some, rock was also associated with the beginning of a local counterculture that voiced dissent to the occupation of the Gaza strip and the territories, as exemplified by "Shir La'Shalom" ("Song for Peace"), which followed the Six Day War. By the 1980s Israeli rock became the dominant music culture in Israel, with artists such as Arik Einstein, Shalom Hanoch, Yehuda Poliker and Yehudit Ravitz at the center of this transition, and with contemporary artists like Aviv Geffen continuing this tradition today. Although sung in Hebrew, and with a very strong emphasis on lyrical content rather than heavy riffing and guitar virtuosity, the sound, production, arrangements and instrumentation were typical rock.
A later trend is the emergence of ethnic rock, which brings Middle Eastern and Mediterranean musical elements to the sound, with artists such as Ehud Banai, Ethnix and Tea Packs at the forefront of this sound. The difference between the artists lies in the ethnic traditions that they draw upon, and the extent to which ethnic elements and instruments are present. A pioneer in this genre was Yehuda Poliker, whose family came from Thessalonica in Greece, and who on his pioneering 1988 Ashes and Dust album played guitar, bouzouki, baglama and keyboards, and fused a range of stylesfrom hard and progressive rock to Greek ballads and Arabic rhythmsinto a coherent body of songs. Since the '90s trance and electro-dance have been a leading component in the alternative scene in Israel. Tel Aviv, with its discotheques and underground rave parties, created a trance scene that has become one of the most prominent in the world, with artists such as Goa Gil and Astral Projection. Other influences from around the world came with hip-hop, with localized, socio-politically conscious versions such as Hadag Nahash and Subliminal at the forefront.
Mizrahi is a term that refers to Oriental Jews, whose origins are in Muslim, Arab-speaking countries, while Ashkenzi is the word for Jews who originated in Eastern Europe and Westernized, mostly Christian countries. The two streams of the diaspora truly came to live together for the first time in the first two decades after the founding of Israel, when the majority of Mizrahi Jews left their countries and immigrated to Israel. Although there was a Mizrahi presence in Israel prior to the 1948 War of Independence, the majority of the Jewish population in Palestine was overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and its culture and music reflected that. But following these waves of immigration the Mizrahis became approximately 50 percent of the population. Upon arrival, there was an expectation that the Mizrahi Jews, whose culture and traditions were often considered inferior by the mainstream, and was also associated with the hostile Arab world that surrounded Israel, should assimilate into the dominant sabra culture. However, by the 1970s and 1980s second and third generation Mizrahis born in Israel began to assert their "Orientalized" Israeli-ness, and to incorporate traditional Jewish and Arabic culture from Muslim countries into their new identity.
Muzika Mizrahit (Oriental music) features the incorporation of various ethnic colorsYemenite, Greek, Arabic, Farsi and Turkishwithin standardized forms of Western pop. Muzika Mizrahit was initially rejected by the mainstream media, who called this genre "bus-station music" after the old central bus station of Tel Aviv, where much of this music was produced and sold in open-air stalls that played the recordings over loudspeakers. For many years, muzika Mizrahit was disseminated largely through cassette sales and live performances at haflas (parties) that marked the life cycle of Mizrahi Jews. Few venues did begin to offer popular Arabic music, and one of the prominent singers of the early period of muzika Mizrahit was Moroccan born Jo Amar, whose Andalusian style drew on Spanish and Jewish-Moroccan popular traditions. His Mizrahi accent, melismatic style of singing (silsulim), use of improvised free sung passages (mawals) and the incorporation of Arabic string and percussion instruments in the arrangements became a hallmark for muzika Mizrahit.
In the 1960s artists of Greek origin, of which the best known was Aris San, began to perform laika music, then popular in the taverns of Athens and Thessalonica, in Israel. The sound became tremendously popular with Mizrahi Jews and the Greek style became of the major inspirations of muzika Mizrahit. Other influences included rock, Shirei eretz Israel and the San Reno pop ballad. Many of the prominent singers of this genre were of Yemenite origin, a predominance that persists today. Yemenite Israeli Ofra Haza began as a Muzika mizrahit singer with her 1979 hit "Ani Frecha" ("I'm a Common Chick"), although her later productions turned more to Western pop and world music, which positioned her as an international artist.
Over time composers and performers consolidated all the eclectic elements of muzika Mizrahit into a unique sound that was close enough to the Western tradition to be tolerated by tastemakers but also one with a distinct Pan-Mizrahi identity that was not necessarily related to one specific origin. In the 1980s, Haim Moshe and Zohar Argov, both Yemenite Israelis who cut their vocal chops in the synagogues of their childhoods, were the most prominent artists who exploded into the mainstream with crossover hits. Argov's early death from suicide while he was in jail awaiting drug charges propelled him into a level of national consciousness no other Mizrahi singer achieved previously. Later artists of prominence include Zehava Ben and current generation stars Sarit Hadad and Eyal Golan.
Largely ignored by the mainstream media, but working consistently in the past 30 years, have been artists who sought to create an authentic, acoustic blend of music traditions that have come together in Israel, under a world-music umbrella. One of the pioneers in this field is singer-percussionist Shlomo Bar. Born in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Bar formed his band Habrera Hativ'it (Natural Gathering) in the 1970s. Natural Gathering fused a wide variety of ethnic styles into a multifaceted sound set to socially committed texts, and its early permutations included a Spanish guitar, darbukka (Middle Eastern drum), the Persian santour, an upright bass and an Indian violin. Other artists that mixed Near Eastern art traditions, Arabic popular music, European folk and sometimes jazz idioms followed. They include the groups East-West Ensemble and Bustan Avraham as well as oud and violin player Yair Dalal, who took a choir of Palestinian children with him to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords to perform his song "Salam" ("Peace"). --Nili Belkind