Israel Takes on Music Diplomacy, Bands Go Global

Israelis dig their music, from rock to reggae to R&B. And plenty of musicians from Israel are putting out great stuff these days. But for many aspiring Israeli artists, making it big requires going global, which means dealing with a unique set of challenges.

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If you have followed Israeli popular music at all in recent years, you know Hadag Nahash. The funk and hip hop outfit is one of Israel's biggest music success stories. They have toured the globe, sold tracks to Hollywood and shared stages with top performers. This week, however, they played a quick set in their hometown of Jerusalem, as part of Israel's first international music conference.

"It's a good time for Israeli pop culture," said Sha'anan Streett. The vocalist for Hadag Nahash sings about being a "little man from the Middle East" sports a pair of colossal mutton chops.

Streett said he considers himself and his bandmates among the chosen few. They are Israeli artists who have made a great living primarily from Israel's small, over-saturated music market. And with some help from Jewish organizations overseas over the years, they have also built up a following abroad.

"We never took the foot off the gas," Street said. "We always kept going. Even tough times, we kept going. And we were lucky. But a lot of people that started out with us aren't as fortunate as we are, and they're now doing something else."

Streett's advice to upstart Israeli artists? "If somebody can manage to get a few songs into a radio station overseas or if somebody can manage to go on some festival circuit in Europe or in the States, definitely, I'd recommend it."

This is precisely what the Jerusalem Music Conference was set up to do: help aspiring Israeli bands break into the global market. The event is consciously modeled on the "South By Southwest" festival in Austin, Texas. The participants are a mix of technology, business and music people.

Venture capitalist and conference funder Erel Margalit said the event is about creating international buzz for Israeli artists.

"Just like we're doing in the Israeli film industry, just we're doing in the high-tech industry," Margalit said. "Israel became the 'start-up nation'… by taking innovation from a small place, far from the market, and letting the world know about this. Now, it's from the 'start-up nation' to the 'creative nation.'"

Conference organizer Jeremy Hulsh moved to Israel from the US ten years ago. He runs a non-profit called Oleh Records that bills itself as "Israel's Music Export Office." Hulsh said this is a country with loads of musical talent. But he said, here's the problem.

"Quite simply Israeli musicians have absolutely no knowledge and very little access to the tools or networks that can help develop them professionally."

Take Israel's physical isolation. In the US or Europe, bands can rent a van, scrape together some beer money, sleep on friends' couches, and hit the road for weeks on end trying to kick start their careers. That's not an option here, Hulsh joked.

"Let's just put it this way, doing a national tour in Israel is going to Tel Aviv, then going to Jerusalem, and then going home," he said. "It's 45 minutes actually without traffic. So, in the States it's a whole another story."

Hulsh has done the numbers. A five-piece band planning a US tour can expect to shell out about 10-thousand bucks for air fare and visa fees. And that is before they play their first note of the tour.

For his part, Hulsh is seeking more Israeli government support for Israeli music export. He told me the agency that has been most willing to help out so far is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And that is not ideal. Hulsh said introducing Israeli bands to the world can certainly help the country's public diplomacy effort and he is all for that. But it should really be about the music, he said, not politics.

One question for bands from Israel — and many other countries, of course — is this: do they have to sing in English to make it big internationally?

The members of Monti Fiori say, hopefully, no. They sing in Italian.

"We're not trying to hide the fact that we're from the Middle East. And we're not trying to imitate the Italian music like per se," said Itamar Fintzi. Guitar player Asa Reviv said he just loves Italian rock from the 1950s and 60s. Then, there were aesthetic concerns.

"[Italian] just sounds better than English sometimes and, you know, we can't sing in English because we're Israeli," Reviv said. "We have an accent problem."

"For some reason, for an Israeli to sing in Italiano, it's much easier," Fintzi said. "Can't explain it, but it works." And besides, he added "it's sexy. Always."

Monti Fiori has had a hit single in Israel. But it didn't make them rich. They have had to play a lot of wedding gigs to save up for their first tour abroad. It's planned for next month in Germany.

In addition to all the other challenges, even those Israeli artists who do manage to make it internationally often have to deal with something that the rest of the music world never does. They are targets for political activists opposed to Israel or Israeli government policy.

"We've been demonstrated against a few times in the States and Canada," Sha'anan Streett said. Nevermind that his group is well-known for its left-wing politics and its unapologetic criticism of the Israeli government.

"A lot of times we speak to the demonstrators, we tell them what side of the map we lean to, you know, what we believe. And they'll say stuff like, 'Well, that's nice to hear. We agree with you. But we're [still] going to demonstrate.'"

Street said his band would never be comfortable waving the flag of Israel on stage abroad. But they do feel proud to be international ambassadors — of a sort — for the Israeli people. And they hope more Israeli bands are able to join them.

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    The funk/hip-hop band Hadag Nahash is one of Israeli music biggest success stories. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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    The Israeli band Monti Fiori does 1950s & 60s style Italian rock. In Italian, of course. (Photo: Matthew Bell)