Why Kobi Oz is the new voice of Israel

Who is the most important Israeli musician of the last generation? Not the most gifted or popular, but the most influential, one without whom the country’s sound wouldn’t be the same? Matti Friedman’s vote goes to Kobi Oz, who is best know internationally for a provocative entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. Domestically Oz and his Teapacks band broke through into the Israeli scene with a distinctive brand of Mizrahi-Moroccan music. Feature in Tablet magazine (with thanks: Michelle)

My vote goes to Kobi Oz—the mix-track trickster, the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, the Tunisian from a town of Moroccans who brought the South to Tel Aviv and changed what we mean by Israeli pop. Of course, more than one person is responsible for the rise of the once-disdained sound known by the generalization “Mizrahi,” or “Eastern,” which has become Israel’s spiritual equivalent of American country and western music, though the two genres sound absolutely nothing alike. If we must choose one musician responsible for the mainstreaming of the Israeli Eastern sound, it might be Oz.

Listening to Oz’s work over the past 30 years, you get a portrait of a changing country—one constantly in crisis but also one with an irrepressible life, a place that has given up on being someplace else and has come to terms with itself. Because Oz and his band broke through in the ’90s, the age of the music video, it’s actually possible to witness the crucial moments in their rise on YouTube, like the release of “In Newsprint” in 1993. The odds were stacked against the song, which has prickly lyrics about Israelis—describing them as people diverted by jokes, journalism, and self-delusion—and a complicated melody that changes rhythm abruptly in the middle and moves into explicitly Moroccan territory. The song was unlike anything people had heard before. It wasn’t immediately clear if the band was earnestly channeling the North African sound or laughing at it, as was common in those days, when Mizrahi culture was still mocked by the wardens of popular taste.

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