In Jan. 2020, Israeli pop duo Static & Ben El (Liraz Russo and Ben El Tavor) teamed up with Grammy-winning multi-hyphenate Pitbull on “Further Up (Na, Na, Na, Na, Na),” a bouncy interpolation of reggae artist Ini Kamoze’s 1994 hit “Here Comes the Hotstepper.” The track, which features a version of the “Na Na Na Na Na” chorus — an arena anthem all over the world — was the inaugural release from Saban Music Group, and garnered nearly 40 million views on YouTube and 80 million streams across various music platforms. It was a noteworthy collaboration in that it marked a winning pairing of two musical identities that complemented each other — Latin and Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms.
“Further Up” got a trickle of Top 40 radio plays in the U.S. this spring which helped introduce the Saban Music Group act to an American audience, but in Israel, the track landed in the middle of a bona fide trend. In April, Israeli music producer Yonatan Goldstein, who goes by Johnny Goldstein, produced 12 songs on the Black Eyed Peas’ “Translation” album, one of which was the break out hit “Mamacita,” featuring Latin rap and Reggaeton artist Ozuna and Hong Kong-born singer J. Rey Soul. In June, “Mamacita” rose to the number one spot on Latin Airplay. Then in July, Israeli pop artists Omer Adam and Eden Ben Zaken released the video for their single “Kuku Rico, a peppy duet in which Adam and Ben Zaken sing in Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, English and Italian, and don costumes ranging from cowboys to Mariachi band leaders to Arabs. The track, which drew ire from certain critics who decried its “cultural appropriation,” netted 7.5 million views in its first three weeks, signaling a definitive progression in the Israeli-Latinx music space.
“Israelis and Latinos and Latinas are very connected,” says Static, speaking via Zoom from Tel Aviv. “We’re both very warm people who love good music, good form and warm temperatures. “South America and Israel are both very hot, and I feel like musically and rhythmically, the Middle Eastern groove is very similar to Reggaeton — it’s almost the same music. Music is international in every way. You might not be able to speak someone’s language, but you can still be vibing in the studio, pick up the same instrument. People can recognize great music in languages they cannot understand. They can listen to hit songs from other countries they’ve never heard of in a language they cannot speak.”
The duo’s latest single and video, the infectiously upbeat “Shake Ya Boom Boom,” recorded in collaboration with the Black Eyed Peas and featuring a mix of Hebrew and Spanish lyrics, debuted Oct. 30.
“When it comes to the Israeli and Latin music, we both draw from each other,” adds Ben El, also speaking via Zoom from Israel. “When they hear the Arabic violins and when we hear what they’re doing, we adopt it here in our ethnic music. So, when you think of it in those terms, we are coming from the same place musically; there is no cultural gap.”
Goldstein, who was named Variety’s Hitmaker of the Month this past July, proffers that there’s a common “rhythm” in Middle East and Latin musical cultures. “In the Arabic countries and in the Latin countries, there’s a certain rhythm, and really it’s so basic, it’s a simple rhythm,” says Goldstein via phone from Tel Aviv. “You have these huge cultures and they are all using the same exact rhythm, but the end result is totally different. It’s like when you’re dancing to the same song, but the dance comes out different.”
David Broza, one of Israel’s most iconic singer-songwriters whose 1977 hit “Yihye Tov” remains Israel’s de facto peace anthem, has crafted a four-decade career that brings together the influences of Spanish flamenco, folk and rock and roll. Broza has released over 40 albums, writing and recording in Spanish, English and Hebrew. Broza’s latest project, “En Casa Limon,” dropped Aug. 27 and is named after the Madrid-based studio, Casa Limon Studios, in which the all-instrumental album was recorded.
“I think there is an affinity for [Spanish] music in Israel, and vice versa,” says Broza, who lived in Madrid for several years with his family as a teen. “Maybe it’s the Mediterranean that’s affecting us. But, I really think it’s more in the blood relation. Five hundred years after Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were exiled from Spain or forced into conversion, the Spanish people and the Jewish people have a lot of similarities, especially Israelis.”
Broza felt this sense of kinship when he was 12, “walking the streets of Madrid,” trying to make sense of the abrupt shift from life in his “Tel Aviv neighborhood” to life in Spain. It’s this connection, he says, that continues to run through him and shape his music, and likely that of other Israeli and Jewish artists. One only need look at the Ladino language–a melange of Old Spanish and Hebrew–to note the ethnic links. And it stretches beyond just the music.
“At 12, I wasn’t able to understand the complexity of what I was going through, but one thing that I would notice is that I was recognizing a lot of faces on the streets,” adds Broza. “There was a similarity in the complexion. They say that between half to two-thirds of Spain has Jewish blood. And they know it. They are very aware. Anywhere I go in Spain, people come up to me, and they whisper it, secretly, ‘I’m Jewish.’ So there is a connection. You can’t deny it.”