How Kobi Oz Gave Israeli Music Its Middle Eastern Flavor

July 9, 2021 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

Nobody has had a greater influence on contemporary Israeli popular music, argues Matti Friedman, than Kobi Oz, who led the way in bringing North African and Middle Eastern sounds into the mainstream. Born to Tunisian parents in the working-class southern city of Sderot, then populated mostly by Moroccan Jews, Oz—together with his band, Teapacks—popularized a genre that Friedman terms the “spiritual equivalent of American country and Western music”:

[Teapacks’] first hit, [in 1992], was about a miracle-working charlatan, Rabbi Joe Kapara, a common type around the Israeli south. The idea was to sing specific songs about a specific place, like country music: you don’t drive a truck—you drive a flatbed Ford. You don’t sing about a woman, but about Jolene. And you’re not from just anywhere, you’re from Luckenbach, Texas, or Muskogee, or Sderot. (“When I hear country, I’m in my own country,” Oz said.)

Friedman describes one of Teapacks’ most memorable performances:

It was a night in June 2001, and the band was performing with the Mizraḥi pop queen Sarit Hadad, who’d become famous for singing with Teapacks a few years before. News began to arrive of a Palestinian suicide bombing at a nightclub in Tel Aviv; 21 people were dead, mostly teenagers. It’s the kind of situation Israeli artists have to deal with.

Oz wasn’t going to call off the concert, but the situation needed to be addressed, so he decided to open with the national anthem, “Hatikvah.” Why, I asked. “I always want to sing ‘Hatikva,’” he said. He and Hadad rehearsed a version that incorporated the style that Oz heard when his Tunisian grandfather sang the anthem. . . . Without adding a word, Oz’s version made a political point: the anthem might have been written by an East European but the song, and the country, belonged to people from Tunis as much as to anyone else.

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