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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sderock

Imagine a place where there is poverty, where you are in danger of being killed every time you step outside, where it seems like even your own people don't care about you outside of empty slogans.

If you are the Western media and this is Gaza, you would expect that the natural reaction to this numbing situation is violence - joining terror gangs, marching with AK-47s and rocket launchers.

But the people in the Israeli town of Sderot react somewhat differently:
The underground Israeli pop-rock music scene seems to start here, in a bomb shelter set in the center of town.

It does not matter how loudly the teenagers hammer at their drums or pluck at the guitars; the metal walls that are meant to protect residents from incoming rockets also work as a sound barrier for the funky music.

It is not unusual for Israeli towns to turn shelters into community centers of some sort. But Sderot, barely a mile from the Gaza Strip, is one of the few cities where such shelters are still used with frequency.

And in Sderock, as the shelter-turned-music-studio is called, the teenagers grapple with the dueling realities that have made the city famous: the music that comes out of it and the rockets that come into it.

"This is the safest fun place in the city," said Nir Oliel, a 21-year-old resident, who has played guitar for several years. "It is also where everyone great came from."

In the Israeli public consciousness, Sderot is a place of poverty and danger. It has been barraged by more than 4,000 rockets in the past six years, including nearly 200 since November's shaky cease-fire. Six people have died and dozens of homes have been damaged.

Yet Sderot is also the hometown of a pop-culture hero of the moment: Kobi Oz, lead singer of Teapacks, the Israeli pick for the popular Eurovision song contest. ...

Oz, with two platinum albums in Israel, is by far the most successful musician to come out of Sderot, but he is hardly alone. He got his start with Sfatayim (Hebrew for "lips"), a band composed of young artists from Sderot who played Moroccan music. On Israeli radio, it is possible to hear more than half a dozen bands from this city, quite a feat for a place with a population around 25,000.

The musicians who grew up in the 1980s are the children of immigrants from North Africa and other parts of the Middle East. They blended guitar and drum with oud (a stringed instrument) and darbukah (a goatskin-covered drum) to create what critics called ethnic pop. Those who perform it say it is simply Israeli.

But it is a particular kind of Israeli, reflecting the sort of chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that many children here grow up with, convinced that the wealthier European Jews in the bigger cities like Tel Aviv look down on them....

"Don't Break," a song one group recorded for Independence Day celebrations this week, focuses on their sense of defiance and fear: "We won't break, we won't be afraid," the chorus goes.

And then:

How does the state abandon?

This war, who is extending his hand?

They do nothing, when it comes to you.

The verse ends with "Shma Yisrael," which translated literally is a command: "Listen, Israel." It is also a reference to the Shema, the Jewish prayer said twice daily.

With the success of so many musicians in the past decade, the city has poured considerable resources into cultivating more talent. The city estimated it spends some $30,000, a considerable portion of its budget, on music. International groups have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on projects like Sderock...

For their teachers, it is only a matter of time before the younger students become more political in their songs and outlook. A byproduct of parents' insistence that their children stay inside to avoid the crash of Qassam rockets, the music shelters have became more popular than the basketball courts.

Biton's anthem for Sderot has become a sort of mantra for the residents: "I don't leave the town for any Qassam."

And Oz, who has become a sort of ambassador of Israeli kitsch, said he was determined to sing about a place that lives in a constant tension between joy and sorrow, always navigating cultural divides.

"Our music is a bit schizophrenic, but that is how life is," said Oz, who now lives in Tel Aviv but visits Sderot frequently. "There is always a double kind of meaning. The point is to show everybody that's normal here."

I've recently blogged about how maturity can be defined as taking responsibility, something that most Arabs seem congenitally unable to do. Another good definition of maturity is the ability to work with the cards that you are dealt and make the best of them, as opposed to whining and waiting for other people to bail you out.

The comparisons between Sderot and Gaza are compelling, but the differences of how they handle adversity are even more so.