Arts & Culture

The Origins of Israeli Post-Rock

During the late 1970s, I can't remember how many times my siblings and I would hear a song on the radio–most often English-language pop and disco–and try to sing along. We'd mimic the lyrics, switching back and forth between English … Read More

By / July 11, 2008

During the late 1970s, I can't remember how many times my siblings and I would hear a song on the radio–most often English-language pop and disco–and try to sing along. We'd mimic the lyrics, switching back and forth between English and Hebrew as we unsuccessfully attempted to master particularly difficult American-sounding turns of phrase. Boney M's 1978 mega-hit "Rasputin," and Earth, Wind and Fire's 1979 smash "Boogie Wonderland" were particular sources of amusement, as friends and family would struggle to properly enunciate "R" and "W," sounding, in the case of "Vonderland," like Israeli caricatures of Bela Lugosi.

We tried to be forgiving of each other, but sometimes it just wasn't so easy. As a family composed of multilingual Israeli parents and British-educated adolescents, we were no strangers to the embarrassment of lacking fluency in such a resolutely complex linguistic context. However, it made appearing cool and hip that much harder, especially when it came to showing off our knowledge of popular music. "Stairvey to Cheaven," I can recall an older relative singing in our car once, as the Led Zeppelin song came on the Voice of Peace station. That time, I had to work a little harder than usual to stifle a laugh. I was ten years old, and at that age, anyone's shame was my own personal gain–especially when I could congratulate myself for knowing better than a longhaired twenty-something. Listening to the new Numero Group compilation Soul Messages From Dimona is like being transported right back to that time. An anthology of soul, funk and disco by Black Hebrews who'd decamped to Dimona (home to Israel's sole nuclear reactor) this twelve-track collection recorded between 1975 and 1981 sounds exactly like what everyone would have done back then if they'd happen to have gotten everything right–including the air guitar. Consisting of tracks by four different bands made up of veteran musicians from Chicago and Detroit, this surprising, highly politicized collection is a stark reminder that despite the overwhelmingly Anglo-American rock leanings of Israeli bands like Kaveret, there was some remarkable urban music being produced in the country during the 1970s that was every bit as good as The O’Jays. Okay, so the few efforts at Hebrew on this CD sound just as clumsy as Israeli attempts at sounding like African-Americans. But damned if, when the religious pretense is dropped, each one of the groups on Soul Messages delivers musical goods that sound unlike anything else that was happening in the Middle East at the time. Indeed, the funk and jazz-damaged instrumental workouts on this album are frequently stunning and exhude an almost avant-garde quality–not only musically but also in terms of cultural context. When The Spirit of Israel sings “I just want to live in Israel/Live a life of purity" in “A Place to Be’” these four bands’ work takes on an immensely profound significance, especially when you realize that the song was most likely written in the shadow of a factory producing the region’s first nuclear weaponry. If what you want is to encounter a quintessentially “Israeli” record that inhabits the essence of local vernacular in all of its contradictory glory, you can't do any better than Soul Messages From Dimona. How can you argue, when the Tonistics praise their hometown on the final track: "Dimona, the spiritual capital of the world"? For a dusty desert community that feels like it is at the absolute end of the world (and, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have you think, a place that also threatens Iran's destruction), that lyric says an awful lot about how appropriately “native” this music really is–so much so that, of course, it would take me nearly 30 years to finally hear it, not in Israel, but America.