Kobi OshratBorn: July 15th, 1944, Haifa (Mandatory Palestine, nowadays Israel)
“I finished high school just like everybody else”, Oshrat continues. “In 1960, my father sent me to a vocational school. He wanted me to learn a proper profession, mechanics. Little was I to know that I would never ever use my diploma from that school. After my father had passed away in ’82, my mother confided to me she had had a big argument with him at that time. When I had just been given my guitar, with just a couple of lessons under my belt, I took part in a youth competition of a Tel Aviv newspaper and won first prize. It even led to some performances on national radio. My mother thought I should try my hand at making a career in music, yet my father could not see it happening. Mind you, he had the best intentions and I never blamed him! When I won the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Hallelujah’ in ’79, he admitted he had made the wrong decision.”
Between 1962 and 1965, Jacob Ventura performed his four years of obligatory military service. It was not long before he was recruited into the famous Army Entertainment Group as a singer, guitarist, and actor. “I was in the North Command Group, the base of which was in Nazareth”, Oshrat recalls. “Though the Entertainment Group still exists nowadays, it was much more important back then and some great talents emerged from it. Nurit Hirsh was in the army at the same time, in the Tanks Command Group. We met quite often, as she wrote songs for the group I was in. Needless to say the Entertainment Group was a priceless learning school for me, although even then I did not envisage a professional career in music yet.”
Ventura was released from the army in 1965. Shortly after, he ‘became’ Kobi Oshrat. Kobi: “In ’65, I married my first wife, who was one of the girls from the Army Entertainment Group. She was from a kibbutz near Haifa and I moved in with her. As, in kibbutzim, it was deemed improper to have a European name, everyone who entered one took on another, unofficial Hebrew name. Since ose is the Hebrew word for the English verb to venture or to do, ‘Oshrat’ was as close to my original surname as I could possibly get. Although I have never changed my name officially, ‘Kobi Oshrat’ has been my professional name ever since. In this kibbutz, it became more and more clear to me that I wanted to give it a shot in the entertainment industry. After all, my time in the Army Entertainment Group had been great. I knew that everything happened in Tel Aviv, so, in 1969, now and again, I started going there on and off, looking for gigs. I worked as a guitar player here and there. It was really a case of starting at the bottom… I already had two daughters and I owe my career to the fact that I had to support my family. It took a change in mindset, because I had to think of myself as a musician from that moment onwards.”
Oshrat continues: “At first, this could lead to what I thought were intimidating situations. My first serious commission was being the musical director of the Israeli interpretation of a musical from America called ‘The me nobody knows’. I happened to get in touch with a woman who turned out to be the director of the show. She saw me performing somewhere in Tel Aviv. When she told me she was looking for a MD for this musical, I boldly reacted: “Why don’t you hire me?” To my astonishment she gave me the job! When I was handed the score, I was in shock, because I did not even know how to read an orchestral arrangement… I had never seen anything like it before, I had never written any arrangement before, and of course I had never been a musical director. I was just a simple guitar player! My job was to lead the other musicians while playing the guitar myself. I saved my skin by just learning the parts for all instruments for the entire play by heart. At the rehearsals, I pretended to know what I was doing when I turned the pages, but I was just giving them orders on memory only. The money I got for this particular job was the first tangible proof to my wife and children that I could perhaps sustain them by being a musician.”
In 1970, Oshrat worked as a singer and actor in the play ‘Bald’, which was the Israeli answer to the American box success ‘Hair’. One year later, he moved with his wife and children to Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv. In 1971, he co-founded the later legendary Israeli rock-‘n’-roll band Kubiyot. “In Tel Aviv, I met Kobi Recht, a musician of the same age as me. We started composing songs together and put together Kubiyot, which started as a duo. Later, we were joined by a third guy and we changed the group’s name to Shovevy Zion. In view of what I did later onwards in my career, it is funny to think that I only composed one song for our group. The other two were far more productive in those days than I was. Because neither of the other two wanted to play the bass guitar, it was up to me. Somebody had to do it! I also took care of all vocal arrangements. We had many hit songs in Israel and, as it was our ambition to succeed internationally, two of us even spent a couple of months in the Netherlands, where we changed our group name again – Spell of Eden – and enjoyed a minor radio hit success with ‘Hey down below’. It was Israeli-Dutch producer Ralph Inbar who used his connections at Radio Veronica and elsewhere in Holland to get us in the business there. The truth was, however, that our group was constantly on the brink of falling apart. Musically speaking, my two colleagues were farther apart than east and west, while I was in the middle trying to hold them together. After two years, we broke up.”
From 1973 onwards, Oshrat focused on working off stage, most importantly penning pop songs. It was not long before he was amongst Israel’s most recognized composers in the business, making his mark with a string of hits for many different artists. Did Kobi regret giving up his career as a rock star? “No, I did not really aspire to stardom… I realized there was a price to pay for that, being away on tour night after night. To my mind, everybody is born to do something that he has to do… call it ‘fate’, if you like. I could not feel the excitement on stage with Kubiyot; apparently, it was not in my blood. Essentially, I took the decision to focus on composing and producing from one day to another. For Kubiyot, I had taken care of all vocal and instrumental arrangements – simply by listening and without writing anything down. Now that I had my new ambition, I knew full well that I needed to improve my theoretical knowledge about instrumentation and orchestration. I bought myself some study books, soaking up everything I could find in them… the most important thing was to get to know the range of each instrument. You cannot write an arrangement in the same way for, let’s say, a trumpet and a string instrument. Armed just with the information from those books and my two ears, I have managed to work alongside people with impressive formal education for many years.”
As for songwriting, it would not be completely true to say that Oshrat had never tried his hand at it before joining Kubiyot. In 1969, a civilian army entertainment group called Pikud Dizengoff recorded his song ‘Ha olam kulo negdej nu’ (The whole world is against us), which wonderfully captured the general mood in Israel in the aftermath of the Six Days War. Oshrat: “True, this was a huge hit, but it was some sort of incident. From ’73 onwards, composing became my core business. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, I wrote ‘Eyn lach mah lid’og’ (You do not have to worry about anything) with lyricist Talma Elyagon, her lyrics being a poetical reworking of a letter she received from her brother who was in the front line. It was recorded by Uzi Fuchs and was an instant success with the troops. As I was recruited into the army for ten months, I travelled about performing this one song for the soldiers in the south and the north, even after the actual war had stopped. Everywhere we came, the soldiers were shouting the words with all their lungs. But then again, Talma’s lyrics were so realistic, talking about the hardships of a front soldier…”
In the remainder of the 1970s, Kobi Oshrat was amongst Israel’s most prolific songwriters, arrangers, and producers. His work was recorded by the likes of Chava Alberstein, Ricky Gal, Arik Lavie, Chocolata-Menta-Mastik, Mike Burstein, and Avi Toledano. More hit recordings followed, including ‘Guliver’ by Ilanit, ‘Lech ita’ by Ilana Robina, and ‘Shesh esra malu la’na’ar’ by Gabi Shoshan. Significantly, Oshrat was not afraid to experiment, being one of the first Israeli composers to try his hand at the newly invented disco genre with songs such as ‘Shemesh aduma’ by Gali Atari. Oshrat: “In those days, I produced one song after the other. With Nurit Hirsh and Matti Caspi, I was one of the new kids on the block, who replaced a jealous old gang of songwriters. Our songs were all over the hit parade. I won the prize for best composer of the year on three occasions.”
In 1976, Kobi Oshrat represented Israel in the World Popular Music Festival in Tokyo as a composer, arranger, and conductor, reaching the final with his song ‘Bo hayom/The same old game’, which was interpreted by Gali Atari. In Israel, Oshrat competed in numerous festivals, including the IBA Children’s Festival, writing songs for the likes of Mike Burstein and Ruchama Raz. Describing Oshrat’s career without mentioning the Eurovision Song Contest and the Israeli Eurovision pre-selection would be impossible. Between 1977 and 1995, he submitted dozens of songs to the Israeli selection committee, of which many were allowed into the competition and of which five reached the international Eurovision final. After winning the Eurovision Song Contest as a composer and conductor in 1979 with ‘Hallelujah’, performed by Gali Atari with the group Milk & Honey, Oshrat composed several English-language songs for the group, which saw an international release, including ‘Goodbye New York’. In Israel, the success of Milk & Honey continued for several years with compositions by Oshrat such as ‘Yachad’ and ‘Galgal anak’.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Kobi Oshrat continued to be much in demand as a songwriter and producer for the country’s most popular vocalists. For Ilanit, he composed several trademark hits, such as ‘Balalaika’, ‘Chlek ba’olam’, and ‘Achsav kulam beyachad’. Other successful compositions by Oshrat from this era include ‘Al tishkach’ by Gali Atari and ‘Bat shishim’ by Ha’givatron. Ofra Haza also recorded several of Oshrat’s songs, including ‘Adama’ and ‘The paint box’ – the latter of which she was invited to perform at the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo with prize winners Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat in the audience.
One of Oshrat’s main assets has always been his astonishing versatility, allowing him to work in many different fields of the entertainment business. Besides having asserted himself as one of Israel’s main songwriters and record producers, Oshrat also made his mark as a composer of hundreds of commercial jingles as well as music for radio and television from the 1970s onwards. Amongst many other things, he composed and arranged the music to sixty episodes of the highly popular children’s series ‘Rosh kruv’ (Cabbage head), in which he also performed. On top of this, he was singularly successful as a composer of countless jingles for commercials, earning the epithet ‘King of Jingles’ in Israel and being awarded with the first and second prize in the Jingle of Jingles Gala, an award show held in 1990 on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Israeli advertising branch. Moreover, Oshrat tried his hand at composing film soundtracks, the first one being ‘Badranit Ba’hatzot’ in 1977. Other titles include ‘Dizengoff 99’ (1979), the action movie ‘Ahava ilemeth’ (1985), and ‘Havurat rosh kruv’ (2010). Later onwards, in the 1990s, he became involved in composing music for theatre, such as ‘Murder holiday’ and the musical ‘Contra tenor and a symphony orchestra’. In 1988, Kobi Oshrat founded Oshrat Productions, taking care of the production of events such as the Miss Israel Contest and fully-fledged entertainment shows for the Israeli army. In ’96, at the request of the municipality of Jerusalem, he composed 30 minutes of instrumental music which was used to accompany a laser show projected on the walls of the old town on the occasion of the city’s three-thousandth birthday.
Oshrat about this wide range of activities: “Once I had taken the decision to become a professional musician and that this was the way to support my family, I told myself that I should be able to do anything which was asked of me. I mean… I still do not know how I had the gotspe to accept the offer to write my first film soundtrack, because I knew nothing of the movie business and had no clue where to begin… but I did it. Working on film scores gave me the opportunity to write music for full orchestra, which was great. As for these jingles, I quickly realized that I could make good money in this business. It allowed me some breathing space, as I did not have to rely any longer on songwriting alone, waiting for the Muse to come to my house. On the other hand, in these advertisements, I lost quite many good ideas which I could have used to compose songs.”
In 2000, Kobi Oshrat’s career took an unexpected turn: he became the Consul of Cultural Affairs for the consulate of Israel in Los Angeles, United States, thereby giving up all his professional activities in his motherland, including his production company. Oshrat stayed in LA until 2004. How did this interesting job come his way? Oshrat: “During a common holiday in Greece, a friend of mine who had returned from a spell as Israel’s Consul General in LA brought up the subject… he thought I would make a great cultural ambassador for Israel in the States. At that time, I could not see myself working for the foreign office, but it turned out my friend had in fact dropped my name at the ministry in Jerusalem as well. I was formally offered the function of cultural attaché. Slowly, it dawned to me this was something which crossed my path at the right time. I had had a career of thirty-five years in Israel and in fact everything I was doing amounted to more of the same over and over again. To me, this job in LA could prove a welcome change, while I could serve my country at the same time. Therefore, in the end, I said yes!”
As a cultural attaché, Oshrat was expected to bring Americans in touch with Israeli culture, as well as bringing about cultural exchange between Israel and the US. Initially, it seemed he had been given an impossible task. Oshrat: “In 2000, the year of my arrival in Los Angeles, the Second Intifada began. Israel received a universally bad press, with the LA Times showing pictures of Palestinian kids menaced by Israeli tanks. As Israelis in America, we were treated as lepers, as absolutely nobody seemed to want to talk to us; even the many Jews involved in the Hollywood movie business ignored us. My colleagues decided that, in this situation, my job was the most important one of the consulate. After all, the public affairs department had nothing to do, because everyone in America seemed to believe we were issuing propaganda anyway. We felt we were besieged, albeit in a moral way. We wanted to break this siege with culture. Slowly but gradually, and admittedly with a little help from the Jewish lobby in America, I succeeded in bringing about contacts with the dominant communities on the West Coast, for example the Hispanics and the African-Americans. Amongst other things, I organized a symposium with important people from the motion picture world of all communities. This was a huge success and, from that moment onwards, more and more doors opened for us.”
“When I returned from America in 2004”, Oshrat continues, “the Israeli music and entertainment landscape had changed. I could not see myself competing with guys of about half my age, who composed jingles on a computer. Therefore, I took the decision that I would henceforth focus only on projects I felt passionate about. I have not had to worry about work, initiating record projects, concerts, and shows, as well as composing several pieces, including a children’s opera.” Doubtlessly, the most special commission that came Oshrat’s way was the request by the government of Poland to compose a piece of classical music to honour Irena Sendler (1910-2008), a Polish social worker who helped thousands of Jewish children escaping from the Warsaw ghetto in the Second World War. Oshrat: “She was a remarkable lady... a Polish Catholic risking her own life to rescue Jewish kids. I first heard about her story in 2009 from a friend of mine who is the manager of the Ranana Sinfonietta. He was looking for the right person to give this commission to, as the Poles wanted an Israeli to write this piece of music. This manager thought I was the man for the job! Though I initially protested to him that I was not a composer of classical music, I found this professional opportunity quite irresistible. It took me three months to write this piece, ‘Irena Sendler – a ray of light in the darkness’. Its first performance was in Israel, with the pre-recorded music accompanying a video about Ms Sendler, but, subsequently, the Poles invited me over to Warsaw to perform it, conducting a local orchestra live on stage. Since, I have conducted the piece with several more symphony orchestras in Israel, but in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States as well.”
In 2010, an homage concert called ‘Hallelujah Kobi Oshrat’ was held at the Karmiel Concert Hall in Oshrat’s native Haifa to honour his work and his contribution to Israeli cultural life in general.
Kobi Oshrat in the Eurovision Song Contest
The story of Kobi’s involvement in the festival started in 1977, when he submitted ‘Nesich hachlomot’ for the internal selection committee of IBA. This song, however, was not chosen, as the jury preferred ‘Ahava hi shir lishnayim’, with which Ilanit represented her country in the contest’s final in London. One year later, the composer suggested the song once again for the Israel Song Festival (Festival Hazemer ve Ha’pizmon), the open pre-selection in which the Israeli Eurovision entrant was chosen. This time around, the song – better known by its catchword ‘Valentino’ – was accepted and, interpreted by Gali Atari, came third behind Nurit Hirsh’s unstoppable composition ‘Abanibi’. What was more, another of Oshrat’s songs, ‘Bikashti’ by Nava Bruchin, was accepted for the 1978 Israel Song Festival as well. The disco-esque ‘Nesich hachlomot’ was a major hit success in Israel for Gali Atari and has become an evergreen.
At that time, Oshrat felt quite downhearted about the 1978 Israeli pre-selection, as he believed the best of the three songs he had submitted, had been refused to the final. Its title: ‘Hallelujah’. “When the producer of the 1978 Israeli final called me to tell me that two of my three songs had been accepted for the programme”, Oshrat recalls, “I said: “All right, ‘Hallelujah’… and which of the other two?” I was flabbergasted when he told me the selection committee did not think ‘Hallelujah’ was strong enough. Right from the moment I created the song with lyricist Shimrit Orr in early ’78, I had a special feeling about it. Shimrit and I decided we wanted to write a song for a close harmony group in the style of Manhattan Transfer. The both of us went home to think the idea over… and on a Friday morning, seated at the piano, I started looking for a melody. Just when I had found the idea for a chorus, the phone rang. It was Shimrit on the line. “Kobi, you will not believe it”, she said, “but I have the words of the song. The title is ‘Hallelujah’!” I thought she had gone mad to use the sacred word (‘Hallelujah’ is Hebrew for ‘praise the lord’, BT) and asked her if she wanted to get us in trouble with the orthodox community. She persisted, claiming it was the sacred word, but the sacred word of another world. At that point, I thought to myself: she is right! When she read out the first line… ‘Hallelujah la-olam’… it turned out to fit my music perfectly. Quite astonishing, as we had been working separately! As the basic idea pleased the both of us, we continued working on it and finished the song fairly fast. We recorded it with the group we had had in mind all the time, Habibi, and submitted it for the Israeli Song Festival – only to have it refused by the jury.”
Oshrat, suddenly: “I do not want to sound too arrogant, but… with ‘Hallelujah’, I experienced the interference of God at several moments! First, during the songwriting process, but, in hindsight, there also was the refusal of the 1978 song committee. It does not matter if they did it because they genuinely disliked the song or because they deemed the title unfitting, but without them Israel would not have won two Eurovision Song Contests in a row. After all, in 1978 the Israeli final was won by ‘Abanibi’, which also won the international final, while ‘Hallelujah’ went on to give Israel a second victory a year later… if they had both been in the same pre-selection, this could never have happened. Perhaps even more striking is the fact that it was not my intention to submit it for the Eurovision heats once again. Quite opposite, I tried to get the song accepted for song festivals in Japan and Chile, but it was refused on both occasions. We decided that Habibi could have the song and they were on the brink of performing it with the orchestra of the Israeli air forces in the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. I prepared an arrangement and they did a rehearsal. This would have meant the end of any hopes for Eurovision, because the rules stated that it was strictly forbidden to perform a Eurovision song prior to the national final. When the evening of the concert came, Habibi performed a set of songs, but no ‘Hallelujah’! What had happened? The director of the show, after having taken a closer look at the programme, thought it was too long and had taken this one song out… call it fate or God or whatever you like!”
Oshrat continues: “When the submission deadline of the 1979 Israeli Eurovision pre-selection drew nearer, I had a chat with Ami Mendelman, one of the members of Habibi, and suggested him to give it another try with ‘Hallelujah’. Why not? He agreed and… this time around, it was accepted! It was time to start preparing the project seriously, but at that point, the girl who was the lead singer of Habibi, Shlomit Aharon, stated she had second thoughts… to our astonishment, she declared she did not want to go to Eurovision. She wanted to raise a family and an international career did not fit into that. Her whole entourage, including the other group members, begged her to reconsider, but she stuck to her decision.” Thus, Shlomit and Habibi missed the opportunity to win Eurovision. In 1981, the group represented Israel after all, having to settle for a seventh place, however, with Shuki Levi’s composition ‘Halayla’.
Back to 1979 and Kobi Oshrat’s memories: “There I was: I had a song which had been admitted, but I did not have a group to perform it. So I called the producer of Israeli television, telling him I was forced to withdraw my entry. He protested, saying he thought it was a nice song, but I replied it was quite inconceivable to build a group for just one song at this very late moment. Coincidentally – another point in which a higher power seemed to be at work – publisher Shlomo Zach and Gali Atari came to this same television producer very shortly after I had withdrawn. Shlomo was looking for a song for Gali and, of course, the producer suggested ‘Hallelujah’ to him. As I was told later, Shlomo was instantly blown away when he heard the demo. He called me: “Kobi, let’s do this together!” I protested that it was a song for Habibi and there was nobody else to perform it. Of course, Shlomo suggested picking Gali instead. He insisted and won me over. We picked three unknown guys (Samuel Bilu, Reuven Gvritz, and Yehuda Tamir) to form a group with Gali to match the vocal possibilities of the Habibi quartet. The group’s name was Chalav Oudvash, which we changed to Milk & Honey for the international audience. We won the national final and the rest is history… an unbelievable story!”
Milk & Honey earned the right to represent Israel in the 1979 international Eurovision Song Contest, which, after Izhar Cohen’s victory with ‘Abanibi’ the year before, was held in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha-Ouma Congress Hall. Oshrat, who conducted the orchestra for his own composition, experienced how stressful the build-up to a successful Eurovision performance can be. ‘Hallelujah’ exceeded the three-minute time limit by seventeen seconds. Several delegations filed a complaint to the EBU’s scrutineer Frank Naef. Kobi: “The heads of delegation of all countries were in the auditorium to attend the rehearsals to find out which of the competing entries were potential threats to their own chances of winning. Many of them had a stopwatch… and when they found out our song was too long, an official request to disqualify us was submitted to Mr Naef. I received a phone call from Naef, who said: “I am sorry to tell you… though I like your song, I will be forced to take it from the competition if you do not shorten it to three minutes!” Just three days before the competition, I was faced with the daunting task of adapting the score… all the more difficult, because ‘Hallelujah’ is a song in which the build-up, starting with just a piano and building up to full orchestra, is crucial. The song is like a ladder, and shortening it amounted to taking one stair from the ladder… nonetheless, I deleted seventeen seconds from the last part. In the new version, the song lasted exactly three minutes. I told the guys in the orchestra not to throw away the original score, as I wanted to play the full version in the reprise in the event of a victory for us.”
Astonishingly, Oshrat remembers most of the other countries’ entries from the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest, including the singers. He admits he had a crush on Holland’s lead singer Sandra Reemer. Another competitor, Austria’s Christina Simon, asked him to show her around in Jerusalem. Oshrat: “Christina Simon was a great singer and her song was called ‘Heute in Jerusalem’. She was frustrated that she had not had any time yet to visit the city she was singing about. So I took her down to the old town and the Wailing Wall. She was moved when an orthodox Jew came my way, asking me to put on a tefillin (a set of black leather boxes containing scrolls inscribed with Torah verses, BT). Afterwards, she thanked me profusely and said: ‘Now at least I know what I will be singing about’. I loved her song, but it was doomed from the start: too jazzy and much too complicated for a song festival. Unfortunately, Austria finished last. I also met another special person that week… all delegations stayed in the Hilton in Jerusalem. Every night, there was this same guy at the bar. He looked kind of old and had red cheeks. He was totally drunk, night after night. I did not know who he was. At one point, the representative of the Israeli branch of record company CBS told me the head of CBS Europe wanted to meet me in his suite. I went there and… it was this drunkard! Without bothering to introduce himself he said he was sure my song was going to win. He offered me a five-year-contract with CBS Europe, meaning that all my songs would be published at CBS. However, I was slightly stressed due to the rehearsing schedule and thought: who is this alcoholic anyway? I said I would think about it, but he and I knew exactly what it meant: no contract! Later, I found out who he was: Stikkan Anderson, the producer of ABBA! Can you imagine I turned Stikkan Anderson down?”
The 1979 Eurovision Song Contest was only the second time Kobi Oshrat conducted a live orchestra after his participation in the 1976 World Popular Music Festival in Tokyo. Contrary to the chief conductor of the 1979 festival, Yitzhak Graziani, Oshrat was not a skilled maestro. “True, I could have left the job of conducting the orchestra to Graziani”, Oshrat says, “but I could not let this opportunity pass me by of appearing on stage with the whole of Europe watching. True, technically speaking, I was not a good conductor in 1979. All I did was beating the measure. Nevertheless, I knew exactly what I wanted from the orchestra in the rehearsals and together we prepared the song thoroughly. To me, that was enough to ensure a correct interpretation. In the live concert, it was just about counting to four – that is all. There was no change of tempo in ‘Hallelujah’ and nothing could go wrong. I just used a metronome to make sure the score was played in the right speed, as we could not exceed the three minutes. Later onwards in my career, I realized that it was slightly unusual to stick to those simple gestures and I managed to refine my style. In fact, my confidence about arranging was greatly boosted by Ziko Graziani; for the Israeli selection programme, which he conducted, he checked my arrangement of ‘Hallelujah’. It made me quite nervous, as I was not very experienced in working with strings and brass yet, but he said to me with a smile: “Do not change one note in this score… this is what it should be. It is perfect!” Graziani was a great character and a mentor for me and many others of my generation.”
In an exciting voting procedure, in the end, ‘Hallelujah’ managed to shake off its main rivals, the entries from Spain and France. In the weeks following Milk & Honey’s victory, continued international success seemed logical. While the group members toured across Europe to perform on many TV stations, record company Polydor International contracted them for an international album. Soon, however, dissent broke out, as Gali Atari preferred pursuing a solo career. The album was released, with a part of the songs recorded with Lea Lupatin replacing Gali, but the expectations of Polydor never materialized. Oshrat: “We were really on the edge of a European career. All over the continent, we were treated as kings, with limousines and luxury hotels being booked for us. Polydor believed we could be the new ABBA and, in the record business, the follow-up single of ‘Hallelujah’, called ‘Goodbye New York’, was widely expected to become a monster hit. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Gali refused to take the path with us, although I begged her to at least finish the album and take it from there. The company had given us 250,000 dollars to produce this album – so strongly did they believe in us!”
Although nothing came of the international career, this one song ‘Hallelujah’ offered the composer some experiences he would never have lived otherwise. Oshrat: “In 1980, the group and I were invited to perform in Amsterdam in a show celebrating the succession of Beatrix to the throne of the Netherlands. It was a very international affair, as 3,000 Canadian soldiers who had liberated Amsterdam from German occupation in ’45 being flown in. The group performed ‘Hallelujah’, while I conducted a symphony orchestra of 120 pieces and a choir of 300 persons. It was a moving evening – in fact, the highlight of my career. Moreover, I am very proud of those countless cover versions all over the world. There are over 400 different ones! Most stuck to my original arrangement, but others completely changed the song to fit their own style. Eddie Gorme and Steve Lawrence recorded a fantastic jazzy version and the New Seekers turned it into an American country style song. I re-recorded the song myself with the Black Hebrews of Dimona, who gave it a gospel and reggae flavour. During my spell in Los Angeles as Israel’s cultural chargé, this song was more powerful than my diplomat card. When people discovered I was the composer of ‘Hallelujah’, it opened me gates. It has opened doors for me all over the world… it seems as if it is just not me anymore!”
Unlike many other Eurovision winners, either performers or composers, Kobi Oshrat did not shun the festival stage after his victory – he was obviously not afraid to compete again after having won the competition. He wrote many songs for the Israeli national final, some of which became hits on the Israeli market. Oshrat’s impressive list of participations in the Kdam, the Israeli pre-selection from 1981 onwards, includes ‘Serenada’ by Milk & Honey (1981), ‘El haor’ by Izhar Cohen, ‘Lahimalaya’ by Sasi Keshet (both from 1982), ‘Mila ve od mila’ by Arik Sinai (1985), ‘Na’ara’ by Yehuda Tamir (1986), ‘Hi rokedet’ by Yardena Arazi (1988), ‘Hagvul hu hashamayim’ by Osnat Zano (1989), ‘Ad’ by Adam (1993), and ‘Batelevizia halayla’ by Si Haiman (1995). Although Osnat Zano finished near the bottom of the pre-selection in ’89, the song she interpreted was given a second life in an English-language version by Ofra Haza.
“The main reason why I kept competing”, Oshrat explains, “was most of the times the fact there was someone pushing me who is sadly no longer with us today: Ehud Manor, the lyricist. Like me, Ehud had won first prize, being the co-author of ‘Abanibi’ in ’78. When I objected I did not want to do Eurovision again, he kept talking to me until he had won me over. He was so anxious to compete! “Come on, Kobi, why don’t we give Eurovision a new try?” There was one more thing, which was the fun of being at an international Eurovision final. After having participated in the contest once or twice, it was no big deal anymore – I knew what to expect – but every time, I looked forward to working under the best possible conditions, most notably a fantastic orchestra. The organizers were always very professional and polite. Each time, it was a great enjoyment to me, both professionally and personally.”
Although Oshrat’s next Eurovision participation after ‘Hallelujah’ was in 1985, a rumour has persisted among aficionados of the festival that the Israeli broadcaster IBA had selected a song written by Kobi Oshrat, ‘Balalaika’, to represent the country in the contest in ’84 before the decision was taken to the effect that Israel withdrew from the competition because the international final in Luxembourg was held on an important religious festival on the Jewish calendar. Oshrat himself explains the song was never intended for Eurovision: “I wrote this song at the special request of the leader of the Labour Party in Israel, Shimon Peres. In the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was still there, many Russian Jews could not come to Israel, though they wanted to. He asked me to write a song about that. So I approached a friend of mine, Yoram Tahar-lev, to write lyrics on this theme. When the song was ready, we gave it to Yardena Arazi, who refused it. Then, it was recorded by Ilanit and it became one of the most popular songs of the decade in Israel. It was never intended for 1984, but one thing is true: we submitted it for the Kdam one year later, in 1985. Though IBA’s committee selected it to participate in the pre-selection, it was Ilanit herself who decided to withdraw the song. According to her, the lyrics were too political for an event such as Eurovision.”
In 1985, Kobi Oshrat’s jolly upbeat composition ‘Olé-olé’ won the Kdam by just beating Kobi’s good friend Uzi Chitman (‘Kmo tsoani’) into second place. The vocalist was no other than 1978 Eurovision winner Izhar Cohen. After ‘Valentino’ and ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Olé-olé’ was again a song with a magic word to draw the attention of an international audience. “Yes, I was always looking for some word or catchphrase”, Oshrat admits. “In those days, the use of the national language was obligatory and, to Europeans, Hebrew sounds quite inaccessible. With one or two universal words in the chorus, we were sure to draw people’s attention. In fact, ‘Olé-olé’ originally had another title. I wrote a song for Izhar Cohen, with which he was due to participate in the IBA Children’s Festival. At that moment, Shlomo Zach appeared. He is a man with a good ear. He bought the rights from the guy who had produced the song, paid him all the costs he had made during the recording, and more or less forced me to withdraw it from the Children’s Festival. Shlomo wanted to go to Eurovision with it, but the original title was not appealing enough. He asked me to find a solution to changing the lyrics to make it suitable for the Eurovision Song Contest. My private secretary came up with the idea of ‘Olé-olé’ as a title. Yes, why not a Spanish title! It was a marvellous idea! I contacted Hamutal Ben-Ze’ev and she turned the idea into new lyrics.”
The 1985 festival final took place in the Scandinavium arena in Gothenburg, Sweden, where ‘Olé-olé’, despite being the favourite of the bookies, finished in a fifth place, scoring 93 points. “Yes, I expected to win”, says Oshrat. “For a start, we had Izhar Cohen – to my mind, one of Israel’s greatest singers of all time. True, he was a nervous wreck sometimes, not an easy guy to work with, but that is probably why he is such a great artist. For me, as a producer, half of the job I do is being a psychologist, trying to win absolute trust from the artist in order to get the best possible result. Unfortunately, in Gothenburg, we experienced technical problems. In the concert, three of the four backing vocalists had a microphone that did not work. That ruined part of the effect. It was a stressful time. Perhaps my nicest memory is working with the two keyboard players in the orchestra. Because I wanted them to play the important synthesizer part in the song in exactly the same way as in the demo we had recorded in Tel Aviv, I had brought them cassettes with some examples of the sound my session keyboardist managed to get out of the new Yamaha synthesizer. He was one of Israel’s most brilliant musicians who got sounds from this instrument that even the Japanese themselves had not discovered yet. The two Swedish guys were astonished to hear these sound effects and begged me to leave them the cassettes. Therefore, I made a phone call to Tel Aviv to ask the session player if it was ok with him. He was generous enough to allow them to keep their copies.”
Since 1981, most editions of the Kdam have been held without an orchestra present. The exceptions were the 1987 and 1991 selection programmes, where each song was conducted by its respective arranger. On both occasions, Oshrat happened to be the conductor of the winning team. Shockingly, Oshrat comments: “Admittedly, these orchestras did not play live. IBA, our Israeli television authority, did not have the money and the means to create a good enough sound quality. In ’87, there was no intention of playing live from the start – the conducting I and my colleagues did was just rubbish, part of the show. In ’91, the decision to not play live was taken a couple of days in advance. We pre-recorded the arrangements we had prepared with the same orchestra which was on stage during the concert, so the musicians were at least pretending to play something they had recorded themselves. Nevertheless, this situation was an example of how unprofessional the IBA could be at times.”
In 1987, to everyone’s surprise, the comedians’ duo Nathan Datner and Avi Kushnir won the Kdam and thereby the right to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest, due to be held at the Heysel Conference Centre in Brussels, Belgium. The duo’s song ‘Shir habatlanim’ (in translation: ‘Lazy bums’ song’) was written by Zohar Laskov, who, far from being a professional songwriter, worked as a theatre and film production manager. In the lyrics, the nonsensical words hupa hule are a recurrent element. “The song is a typical example of Israeli humour”, Oshrat comments. “Zohar Laskov, who wrote it, is a friend of mine, but he is really a crazy lunatic. ‘Shir habatlanim’ is probably one of only two or three songs he ever wrote in his life. When I was asked to arrange and produce his entry and heard the demo cassette for the first time, I thought what I heard was some retarded child. It was so stupid – and so bad! There was no solution I could think of to make it ‘work’. After three days, I called Datner & Kushnir’s manager to tell him I declined the offer to work on this song. At that point, however, Nathan and Avi themselves started imploring me not to leave them. As they were both friends of mine, I promised to give it one more shot. Accidentally, that same night, I watched the movie ‘Blues Brothers’ on TV. ‘That is the solution!’, I thought. I took the rhythm of the film’s main song, ‘Everybody needs somebody’. That was actually a case of a reinvention of the song, because the demo of ‘Shir habatlanim’ was in a totally different tempo. I told Micha Levinson, who was the guys’ director, about my idea and together we decided they should be dressed exactly like the Blues Brothers, with black hats and dark glasses. I firmly believe that, if it had not been for these ideas, this song would have stood no chance in the Kdam at all.”
With their eccentric performance, Datner & Kushnir won the Israeli pre-selection. Together with their conductor Kobi Oshrat, the duo travelled to Belgium for the international final. To the astonishment of many, this most unusual entry managed to obtain an eighth spot among twenty-two competitors. “Quite opposite to all the stress in Gothenburg, my time in Brussels was totally relaxed. Datner and Kushnir were as surprised as everybody else in Israel when they won the Kdam. They had only taken part for the fun of it. After all, they were comedians and the song was the opposite of what people in Israel expected from a Eurovision song. For that reason, the week in Brussels felt as an extra gift. We had no expectations about doing well in the voting and enjoyed our time. At the same time, the guys were extremely professional and their performance was choreographed to perfection. Even I as a conductor wore dark glasses to fit in with the theme. Micha Levinson built the choreography based on my arrangement. During the week, we made friends with the Icelanders, who had a beautiful singer (Halla Margrét, BT), and our delegations were together for almost all of the week. We laughed our heads off, especially because of Avi Kushnir, who spoke Mock French – producing words that sounded French, but meant nothing at all. People on the streets in Brussels answered him very politely, as if they had understood what he had just said. We were followed around by an IBA crew who made a TV special which was broadcast after the contest.”
In 1991, Oshrat again arranged and conducted an Israeli entry which he did not compose himself: ‘Kan’, a hymn to the fatherland and, musically speaking, certainly one of Israel’s best-ever efforts in the Eurovision Song Contest. Its composer Uzi Chitman (1952-2004) was a friend of Kobi’s. Performed by Duo Datz (husband and wife Moshe Datz and Orna Cohen), ‘Kan’ finished third, just seven points behind winner Sweden. As in 1987, Oshrat played a pivotal role in making the song effective for Eurovision purposes. “In the demo version which I received, the song sounded like a lullaby… very nice, but too slow for Eurovision. I changed the tempo and built the whole song step by step; moreover, I also adapted the vocal arrangement to the effect that the duo now sang in unison. This resulted in a powerful sound. Moshe and Orna were nice to work with and, perhaps more importantly, very musical. I was confident we would do well in Rome – and I was not proved wrong… we came so close to winning!”
In Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, where the festival took place, Oshrat was unexpectedly honoured by the Italian orchestra members. Oshrat: “In advance of the first rehearsal, even before I had introduced myself to the orchestra, the musicians all rose and applauded me. At first, I felt embarrassed, but when the Italian chief conductor (Bruno Canfora, BT), who had prepared all scores with the orchestra, explained that his musicians liked my arrangement the best of all twenty-two scores, I felt immensely proud. I have only good memories of this contest in Italy. To my mind, the Italians are the symbol of elegance and beauty in everything – if it be cars, food, clothes, or music. The way they had decorated the concert hall was unique! After the voting, we felt a little down for not winning, especially as we were convinced some countries had not voted for us for political reasons. On the positive side, Carola, the girl from Sweden who won became a friend. We stayed in touch for some ten years. Unfortunately, we lost contact when she left her Norwegian husband.”
In total, Kobi Oshrat arranged and conducted five Israeli Eurovision songs, of which he composed three. Notably, all of Oshrat’s participations finished amongst the first ten on the scoreboard. The last of his three compositions was ‘Ze rak sport’, with which Dafna Dekel obtained a sixth place in Malmö, Sweden (1992). This Eurovision project started in a familiar way. “As usual”, Oshrat comments, “lyricist Ehud Manor called me with an idea. “Kobi, let’s write a song about the spirit of Eurovision. It is like sport: participating is more important than winning.” As so often before, he succeeded in winning me around. The driving force behind Ehud was once again publisher Shlomo Zach, who had asked him to write some material for Dafna. Of course, the theme of the lyrics required an up-tempo composition. Dafna, with all her beauty and charisma, was the perfect interpreter. Actually, we ran into a little bit of trouble after winning the Kdam. Jaroslav Jacobovich, a brilliant saxophonist who composed the song which finished second behind us (‘Hatikva’ by Anat Atzmon) sued me, because ‘Ze rak sport’ exceeded the three minutes limit. In Kdam, the rules were not that strict and nobody cared about the length of a song. Jaroslav, however, claimed that he had been beaten because I had had an extra twelve seconds. When I heard about the court case, I phoned him. “Jaroslav, are you crazy, do you sue me for this? Have I killed your daughter or is it still just about music?” He said it was unfair my song had had an extra chorus. So we met in court, but the judge actually laughed straight in Jaroslav’s face. He was probably thinking the same as me: ‘What are we doing here?’ He dismissed the case and that was the end of it.”
In Malmö, Kobi Oshrat had more to worry about than just the rehearsals. “At Ben Gurion Airport, I had been approached by an orthodox man, who gave me a one dollar banknote saying: “Wherever you are going now, give this dollar to a poor man.” This one-dollar-note was a burden to me. I mean, it is impossible to find a beggar in Malmö, because there aren’t any! I told the Swedish guide who had been assigned to our delegation about my problem. In the end, she took me to her housecleaner, a Polish guy, thus allowing me to keep my vow. As for the competition itself, although we came sixth, I felt we should have fared better. The problem was the venue: Malmö is a rich, provincial town where everyone seems to move in slow-motion. Though all people looked nice and were very friendly, I thought it was a boring place. That is why I think ‘Ze rak sport’ only came sixth. After all, this was a really Spanish-oriented song, full of rhythm. The audience in the concert hall did not feel its flavour and tempo at all. If the contest had taken place in Italy or Portugal, we might have been more successful.”
When comparing the very rudimentary conducting technique Oshrat applied in 1979 with ‘Hallelujah’ to his much more refined style of later years, one wonders if he had taken some lessons in between. “No, not at all”, Oshrat comments. “Whatever you saw me doing in front of a Eurovision orchestra, was based on my two ears and my talent. I am an autodidact without any formal education. It was only much later, in the 2000s, when I started working with symphony orchestras occasionally, that I took some lessons. For a Eurovision performance, however, these intricate techniques are not really necessary. The important part of the work of a conductor in a Eurovision Song Contest took place during the rehearsals, giving instructions to the orchestra. In the 1980s, I learned to conduct in a more elegant way, but actually those moves are not really necessary when you have prepared the song thoroughly in rehearsal. Really, in a live show, counting to four is the only thing a conductor has to do. After that, he can go out to have a cup of coffee. Then again, it would be silly if a conductor just stood there, doing nothing. At the same time, working with orchestras is what I like best in life… raising your hand and hearing a group of musicians play your music is the best feeling in the world – more exciting even than sex! I would not have wanted to miss those Eurovision experiences!”
Since the orchestra has vanished from the Eurovision stage in 1998, Kobi Oshrat has not attempted to re-enter competition with a composition of his own making. In 1999, he was a jury member for the Estonian pre-selection in Tallinn, of which he does not treasure any fond memories: “It was stone cold, so I stayed inside my hotel room for most of the time. Tallinn was boring like hell and the winning song (‘Diamond of night’ by Evelin Samuel & Camille) was not my choice.” Would Oshrat consider taking part again? His immediate reaction: “If they were to decide to re-introduce the orchestra, I would instantly write a song. Coming up with a good Eurovision song is one of the most complicated things imaginable, as there is no winning formula, but I would love to do Eurovision the old way once more. I feel that the competition would benefit from returning to the original rules. It was so much more charming to hear songs in many different languages… it was fascinating! I think it is not a coincidence that most of the winning songs since the late 1990s have not become European or worldwide evergreens. People across Europe have become fed up about how this TV programme has evolved. Something has to change!”
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