Israeli Popular Music

A unique sound emanating from a unique place

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This article, written by a journalist in Israel, explores the evolution of Israeli popular music from the days of the pioneers in the pre-State period until today.

The story of Israeli popular music is intimately interwoven with the country's history and culture. From the young country's embrace of Zionist folk songs to the blossoming of Middle Eastern-tinged ballads, to the "Israelization" of imported hip hop songs, the music reflects the development and challenges of a young struggling country.

Land of Israel Songs

The earliest genre of Israeli popular music is known as "Shirei Eretz Yisrael," or "Land of Israel" songs. The poetry and music were written during the 1930s and 1940s, the years leading up to the establishment of the state. The ideology of the nation-in-making centered on pioneering youth reclaiming the ancient land of their forefathers. For this reason, many of the songs included romantic themes about the new and mysterious natural surroundings of the new immigrants. A good example can be found in Natan Alterman's Shir Ha'amek (Song of the Valley), which is a dark lullaby about Jezerel Valley in the voice of a pioneer. Although the lyrics spoke of building and defending the new land, the actual music was based on the folk music brought by many of the pioneers from Russia.

During Israel's first two decades of existence, the country found itself perpetually threatened by hostile neighbors, and the Israel Defense Forces, which functioned as the country's security blanket, was revered by the public. By organizing a handful of military bands whose job it was to travel throughout the country and entertain the troops, the army made a singular contribution in the history of Israeli music. 

A CD from the Israeli hip-hop group Subliminal and the Shadow shows a hand gripping a Star of David.

Adopting the names of the various units, the army entertainment troupe performed tunes that glorified battle and emphasized collective vales of the country like self-sacrifice. The Nahal Entertainment troupe's "Hora He'achuzut" lionized the farmer-soldiers who set up the agricultural outposts near the country's frontiers that served as military bases as well. When Israel captured the Sinai in the 1956 war against Egypt, the Nahal troupe performed "Before Mt. Sinai," a tune that begins with a flourish of trumpets and a proud victory march, proclaiming "it is no dream" that Israel's army had conquered the Egyptians just like in the Bible.

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Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.