On the occasion of Hanukkah DJ Gal Kadan has put together a playlist exclusively for SCHIRN MAG. It sheds light on a brief period in Israeli pop music when Greek music became so popular that it dominated the local music scene and turned into an instrument of liberation.
In the 2nd century BC the land of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants were under the rule of the Greek Seleucid Empire. The Greeks sought to solidify their control over the ancient east not only by military prowess, but by cultural assimilation too. The Jews of Israel were expected to “Greekify'' themselves –to willingly adopt Greek culture, religion, names and language in place of their Jewish ones. Refusing to give up their Jewish identities, Israelis took rebellion against the Empire. In 160 BC they succeeded in overthrowing the Greeks and founded the sovereign Israeli “Hashmonite” Kingdom. To this day, every year on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Tevet (around December), Jews all around the world celebrate the miraculous win over the ancient Greeks in a holiday called Hanukkah.
The “Greek Craze” in the 1970s
Fast forward about 2000 years later to Israel in the 1970s and Greekification was once again on the rise. This time it wasn’t driven by swords and shields but with electric guitars and pop hits. This playlist is a story of a brief period in Israeli pop music sometimes called the “Greek Craze” – a decade when Greek music became so popular in Israel that it was produced, performed and recorded completely locally. Many of the performers on the playlist are immigrant Greeks who came to Israel to capitalize on the “Greek Craze”, but hidden among them are also rebel imposters, fake Greeks. They are Israeli Jews who, thousands of years after the Hashmonites’ win, willingly took on false Greek identities and sang in a language foreign to them. Who are they and why did they do so when no one was forcing them to?
To give one possible answer we must take a deeper look into Israel’s society in the 70s. Since its formation in 1948 the country has seen huge waves of immigration of Jews from all over the world. Many of these were European Jews, known as “Ashkenazi” Jews. But many more came from countries in the Muslim and Arab world such as Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey and Yemen. Unlike the European Ashkenazi Jews who frowned upon Arab culture as foreign and strange, for these Jews, known as “Mizrahi” Jews, Arab culture was an essential part of their heritage. For this reason, among others, many Mizrahi Jews suffered both systematical and casual discrimination in then Ashkenazi controled Israel.
One of the most evident forms of discrimination was a cultural one. Back in the 70s and up to the early 90s, Israeli radio and TV were owned and controlled solely by the state and promoted primarily Western culture. Getting radio airtime with Arab melodies or Arab accent was virtually impossible. But as much as it tried to be a European country, Israel was deeply rooted in the Middle East and Israelis grew an appetite for local sounding pop music. Into this conflict came Greek music as a sort of a compromise. Not Arab but still somewhat oriental sounding, it became a musical platform bridging between east and west that could be adapted to absorb influences from both the Beach Boys and Um Kulthum. The first to adapt it was Aris San - a Greek who immigrated to Israel and through Jaffa’s club scene became a pop super star in 60s Israel.
After Aris San, who wasn’t Jewish, left Israel in 1970 he left behind a popular demand for Greek music that had to be filled. This posed an opportunity for Mizrahi singers who couldn’t find themselves performing Western pop. Having to distance themselves from their Mizrahi identity for commercial success on one hand, but finding room in Greek music for oriental sounds on the other hand, they took up false identities and recorded music in Greek under made up names like Stalos, Stavros, Levitros and Nikolas. And so, they Greekified themselves.
To an unsuspecting listener they were indistinguishable from their Greek counterparts. Many of them held so strongly to their false identities that even to this day it is difficult to uncover their true names and origins. Some of them, like Stalos (Real name Shimon Mizrahi), still perform Greek music in Israel under these monikers. When Nikolas, a known singer from the time, passed away a small article in a newspaper mentioned his death but never noted his given name – Amnon Kimgarov.
Greekification – From Opression to Liberation
The compromise these Mizrahi Jews had to make in regards to their public identities came with a surprising privilege – it freed them from any commitments to actual Greek musical traditions, which they did not possess anyway. It allowed them to experiment, fusing together different genres, instruments and cultures. Some would even sing in both Greek and Turkish on the same record. In a sense, they were free to invent a new multicultural sound, a unique Israeli sound, that would later come to define Israeli pop for decades. Especially noticeable on these recordings is an unorthodox approach of playing the electric guitar as if it was a bouzouki. Aris San was the pioneer of this approach and you can hear a prime example on the opening track of the playlist. Another prominent non-traditional instrument used at the time is the synthesizer with its wild 70s psychedelic sound. It’s especially dominant on tracks like Nino Nikolaidis’ “Koutalianos” and Grazia’s “Rampi Rampi”, played on both of them by Marko Bachar. We can also notice trending pop genres of the 70s such as disco and rock find their way into these recordings, with good examples being Stavros’ “Reikan” and Stalos’ “Pigge Pigge”.
Following the pivotal parliament elections of 1977, Mizrahi identity and culture gradually started to be accepted by the Israeli state. Armed with a new way to distribute music cheaply – the cassette – the early 80s saw pioneering Mizrahi artists such as Zohar Argov and Margalit Tzan’ani not shameful to perform under their real names, singing in Hebrew with Mizrahi accents, while enjoying great commercial success. This in turn contributed to a decline in recordings of local Greek music in the following decades.
Nonetheless, the work made by the artists of the “Greek Craze” was carried onwards by the 80s Mizrahi pop generation. The playlist ends with Zohar Argov’s hit “Elinor”, which is a Hebrew version to a song by Greek pop icon Stelios Kazantzidis, the musical backing track originally recorded for a Nikolas album.
To this day Greek music remains popular in Israel and Hebrew versions of Greek pop hits are still being recorded and released. In the 90s, Mizrahi pop sound came to be the dominant form of pop music in Israel and tops radio charts to this day. Once a despicable sign of oppression, Greekification became under the hands of a few musical rebels a liberating instrument, enabling the formation of a unique Israeli pop sound and allowing the country to accept, if only in its music, its multicultural nature as an immigrant society.