Let’s play an association game. What do you think of when you think of the state of Israel? If you’re like many Americans, you’ve thought of an impoverished, dangerous war zone. But ask a person who’s been to Tel Aviv or to Jerusalem and they’re likely to say they feel safer in Israel than they do in America! So let’s narrow this down and play another round. I’ll describe an area, you tell me what you’d expect there.
Imagine, if you will, a small impoverished desert city, barely half a mile from the Gaza Strip border, the direct target so many Qassam rockets (over 4,200) that its unofficial nickname is the Bomb Shelter Capital of the World, where over 70% of children show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, where you can’t sell your house and leave because nobody would buy it, a city that other cities’ mayors use as an example of what they will not turn into. What do you suppose would be this city’s greatest contribution to the world? War reporting? CNN coverage? Michael Bay movies? Well, how about a music scene so vibrant and revolutionary it’s called the Seattle of Israel? Ḥaverim, may I welcome you to Sderot, home of the most unlikely rock hotspot on the planet.
The story of Sderot’s rock all started with a man named Ḥaïm Uliel, born to a poor Moroccan Jewish family in a tin shack in Sderot, founded as a refugee camp in 1951. Israel had, and still has, a serious problem regarding relations between (largely wealthy and successful) Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and (often poorer and discriminated-against) Mizraḥi and Maghrebi Jews from Arab countries. Pronunciation and language differences and a music industry controlled by Askenazim meant that Israeli music was dominated by Ashkenazi artists, Western bands, or Ashkenazi artists covering Western bands. But, like a high-schooler in a Twisted Sister video, Ḥaïm wanted to rock. In 1988, he founded a local Sderot band called Sfatayim (“Lips,”) which mainly got work at local Moroccan weddings. Uliel recalled in 2007, “Beatles, Led Zeppelin. I dreamed of being Jimi Hendrix. But I also understood that to make a living, I had to play at weddings, and that meant playing… songs in Moroccan.” So he combined the songs of his Moroccan heritage with the rock he loved, adding his own inspiration to create something new and never before seen.
The Israeli mainstream couldn’t make head of tail of Sfatayim. Labels weren’t interested in Arabic music, and radio DJs wouldn’t play it. But it caught on, surprisingly enough, on world music stations, played along with Cuban dance music and West African guitarists. In the words of Matt Rees, “Most of the first Sfatayim fans outside the Moroccan Jewish community were unaware that the Arabic hits ‘Lalla Isha’ and ‘Ahlan waSahlan’ were recorded by five guys who grew up forty minutes outside of Tel Aviv.” But their notoriety grew as they released gold album after gold album, until they were welcomed into the Israeli mainstream. Looking back, Uliel reminisced,
“As we matured, we became more socially aware. We started to understand what we had achieved. That we had won. Until Sfatayim, North African music wasn’t played on the radio in Israel. I feel we managed to save the culture of our parents and bring it from the margins into the mainstream.”
Sfatayim’s keyboardist Kobi Oz founded Teapacks, a “bizarre mélange” of rock, Mizraḥi music, and Chasidic klezmer that became so popular as to record the disturbingly schizophrenic klezmer-French-folk-metal-rap ode to nuclear annihilation “Push the Button”, the official Israeli entrant for Eurovision in 2007.
Altogether, this poor dusty desert town of Sderot begat a new kind of rock – Rock Mizraḥi (note – link in Hebrew). Combining Arabic folk music, Western rock, and a unique Israeli ethos, it was born and raised here, but, like the Liverpudlian skiffle that inspired the Beatles or the Seattle garage rock responsible for the ‘90s alternative renaissance, a seed of something wholly new was planted. The Seattle of Israel may have more missiles raining down than water, but, more than the Ashkenazi establishment’s talking points ever could, the seed of Rock Mizraḥi “made the desert bloom.”