Written by Yaron Ben-Ami
Yamit Hagar is a woman who doesn’t know when she’s up against the odds. And it is because of her inexplicable failure to realize that some things are impossible, that she manages to do them anyway. Like, for example, making a habit of bringing old-time Mississippi blues musicians, many of whom unknown even in their homeland except to dedicated blues-rats, to Israel, to play to packed houses of jumping, wailing fans.
That she manages to do so, is a testament both to her sheer bloody-mindedness – the kind of zeal that only new proselytes can muster – and to an unexpected development: for some years now, Israel has been enjoying somewhat of a blues boom.
Let me explain what I mean: a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking on a couple of radio broadcasts about the history of the blues, on one of Israel’s biggest national radio stations. The reason I’m telling you this, is because it would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Nobody would have thought there is enough of an audience for the blues to warrant two precious hours on the radio. Yet, in the last few years, the blues has been making quite a stir in Israel. A vibrant local blues scene has emerged, big enough to sustain not only a growing roster of Israeli blues musicians, but also appearances by a string of American blues artists who are often surprised to find themselves playing to clubs packed with a wildly enthusiastic audience.
Scenes are hugely important to the blues: from Clarksdale to Chicago, from East St Louis to west London, the emergence of local scenes proved a catalyst to local blues explosions that sometimes – quite often, actually – shook the blues world.
For the longest time, the blues was – in Israel – the provenance of a dedicated handful of people, many of whom were of American or British origin, who brought their musical tastes with them when they made Alyiah – that’s Hebrew for immigrating to Israel. Though Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon played here in the early 1960s, and despite some sporadic – but well received – concerts by such blues greats as BB King, Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor, the genre just didn’t seem to catch on between the North African rhythms, Russian melodies, Yemenite trills, French-style chansons, Greek bouzouki riffs, Old Jewish liturgy, Arab scales, European rock and American Jazz that make up Israel’s hugely diverse musical sphere. Israeli musicians, more often than not, shied away from the blues. Fewer than a handful made the blues their own.
Gradually, some clubs became hubs for a nascent scene, where blues lovers and musicians could get together, hear each other, trade licks and make connections. Other Israeli blues people had to make their own connections and start their own smaller scenes closer to home in other, more distant regions of the country.
The newly emerging blues crowd soon began to produce more and more performers, and these – in turn – began to appear on more and more stages around the country, that were suddenly willing to feature blues music. Noam Dayan, newly returned from an extended stay in Chicago, began playing his beautifully intricate guitar; harp player Guy Dagan and guitarist Assaf Barak formed their jumping Heeby Gee Bees outfit, functioning both as a duo and in a full band format; singer Noa Golan Barel belted out her soul-blues music; Danny Dorchin came up with his meaty, in-your-face one-man-band act; and the aptly named Electric Blue developed their own brand of, well, electric blues.
All this was not lost on previously non-blues artists, who used to nurture their love for the blues in private. Guitar player extraordinaire Uzi Ramirez, already a fixture of Tel Aviv’s hipster scene, gravitated more and more towards blues and Americana, often in a one-man-band format, while Beersheba’s David Peretz, a mainstay of southern Isareli indie, intriguingly attempted to marry blues music with haiku-style poetry.
By this point, enough of a scene was emerging to warrant a growing number of concerts by American artists, from James Cotton to Hot Tuna to the Charlie Musselwhite. These artists were brought over by promoters who, though they loved the blues, were still focusing on “name” acts that played refined, polished blues, which was deemed more appealing for a larger audience. This is where Hagar comes into the story.
About four years ago, Hagar was a high-tech worker, whose musical tastes leaned rather towards the indie side. She was, however, a dedicated listener to a blues radio show, and through one of them was introduced to the blues. She was overwhelmed by this genre – of which she has been hitherto quite oblivious – and her particular favorite was Memphis bluesman Robert Belfour. She longed to see him play in person. Up till now, there’s not much to the story, but here comes the twist: swept in the thrill of her newfound love of the blues, she felt the need not only to see Belfour for herself, but to bring him over to Israel so that all her friends could see him, too. Undeterred by her complete lack of experience in promoting concerts, or by well-meant warnings from her friends regarding the financial prospects of such a move, she brought him over anyway.
It was a huge success. The big venue was packed, all the tickets were sold.
Not only was the show itself an event to remember, but she organized a house party the next day, in which people from Israel’s emerging blues scene got to listen to Belfour talk about his life and his music, and practically give another, more casual, concert of his favorite songs.
The surprising, overwhelming success of that night had long lasting effects: first and foremost, Israeli blues fans found each other and came together in greater numbers than ever before, proving to themselves that their devotion to the music goes beyond “name” acts; this, in turn, was well understood by radio DJs, as more and more radio shows began to devote themselves to the blues. Venue owners around the country were quick to pick up on this, providing more and more opportunities for live blues music. Lastly, Israel has acquired a wholly blues-oriented concert promoter.
Hagar seems to have found her calling in bringing more and more rough-and-tumble blues musicians to Israel. She set up a company, Nobody’s Fault Productions, and set out to bring steady streams of her favorites. In this way, Israel has been treated to three superlatives show and a well-received master class by Texas bluesman Rev KM Williams – while Williams, a deeply religious man, was treated to a personalized tour of Jerusalem’s holy sites. On his Israeli shows, Rev Williams collaborated with Israeli musicians, such as drummer and percussionist Yonatan Bar-Rashi, harp blower Dani Dorchin. A live album of these shows is currently earning impressive reviews names: Reb KM Williams Jukin’ in The Holy Land.
In Williams’ wake, Hagar has brought over LC Ulmer, who made crowds jump both in Tel Aviv and headlining a festival down south, in the Negev desert, which never dreamed it would host a Mississippi bluesman; with him came Broke & Hungry Records’ Jeff Konkel, whose abiding passion for old-time juke joint blues matches Hagar’s own. His movie, We Juke up in Here, was screened both at the festival and at Tel-Aviv’s Cinematheque.
Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean and power house Ben Prestage also rocked Israeli blues audiences and expand their sensibilities. And then, a one-man-band festival was born, featuring both Israeli one-man-bands such as Danny Dorchin and Uzi Ramirez, and Arizona’s punk-bluesman Bob Log III.
The next events to come were Super Chikan who came for several shows including Metula – the most northern city in Israel, later writing a song about Tel Aviv and Metula which appear in his new album. At the end of 2014 young bluesman Jerron Blind Boy Paxton came to Israel for 10 shows in 10 days – everything was sold out. The papers in Israel are writing about the flourishing of the Blues scene in Israel and the crowds are waiting for more. In May 2015, Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayers landed in Israel for several shows, starting the secret tradition of bringing the Burnsides to Israel.
This exposure to more and more authentic live blues poses an interesting question to Israel’s growing body of blues musicians: while authentic American blues is unquestionably English speaking, it is often also very local in its scope and subject matter. Israel’s Hebrew has a rhythm and a sound all its own, very different from the English language’s rhythm and sound, but singing about local Israeli subject matter in English sounds awkward. Some Israeli blues songwriters chose to bypass this by attempting – and succeeding – to write as American sounding blues as they could, in English, often focusing on the blues’ universal themes in order to avoid this awkwardness of addressing Israeli issues and concerns in a foreign language. Others attempted to take the bull by the horns, by accommodating Hebrew’s rhythms, sounds and poetic idiosyncrasies into their blues. In this, musicians such as Yaron Ben Ami, Itay Pearl, Eyal Ben-Hamoriah, all of them having recorded Hebrew blues albums, have been following in the footsteps of one of the pioneers of Israeli blues, Avner Strauss, who’s been recording Hebrew blues for decades, and who has also enjoyed a sort of a comeback in recent years.
Just over a decade since Mike’s Place rose again and just over six years after the founding of the 1st Israeli blues society, the Israeli blues scene is thriving as never before. Another Blues Association was founded – Highway 61 – It seems only a matter of time until some of this frenzied activity will break out from the blues scene proper and take pride of place within the country’s mainstream music, at which point a sound well-loved the world over will be added to the mosaic that is Israeli music.
In the meantime more festivals in Israel, from all kinds of genres, accepted blues to be a part of them. Hagar brought Corey Harris to the Sacred Music Festival in Jerusalem and few more shows to other festivals around the country including the Jacobs Ladder folk festival.
And then it was time. It was time to form a festival that will let everybody see that not only we have plenty of local musicians, not only more and more international musicians are coming here – but there is live and kicking blues scene in Israel and it is here to stay.
The last two events that are almost unbelievable to exist were the 1st Tel Aviv Blues Festival, produced by Hagar, which took place at July 2015 and the winter acoustic edition who took place at December 2015. Leo Bud Welch was the star of the 1st festival and together with Lightnin Malcolm and Candye Kane – made this festival a reality. 40 shows took place in 4 days, 40 Israeli solo and bands will perform in 20 different clubs in Tel aviv. More bands you will hear about are part of this festival like Dani Dorchin, Full Trunk, Gal De Paz Band, The Blues Rebels, Papa Blues etc. Special events like tribute to Bessie Smith would also be a part of this exciting, hopefully long lasting festival.
The 2nd festival was exciting just as much! Lil Jimmy Reed was here, Piedmont Bluz acoustic Duo and the one and only Jerron Blind Boy Paxton, who came to Israel for the 2nd time, did 13 shows and being the star of the festival. The amount of people who saw him is unreal to the amount of blues fans that were in Israel just few years ago. Only god knows what the future of the blues holds in Israel.
Videos: (American Bluesman)
Jerron Blind Boy Paxton at i24news TV station:
Super Chikan acoustic in a radio station in Israel:
Super Chikan Electric with Yehu Yaron on Bass and Aviv Barak on Drums at the Barby club Tel aviv:
Robert Belfour in a house party in Jaffa, Israel, August 2012:
KM Williams in Israel, recording live the album: Rev KM Williams – Jukin in the holy land:
LC Ulmer in a festival at the south of Israel:
Ben Prestage preaching the blues in Tel aviv, Israel:
Terry Harmonica Bean in Tel aviv:
Bob Log at the One Man Band Festival, Tel aviv 2014:
Jerron Blind Boy Paxton during his 10 shows in 10 days tour in Israel:
Cedric Burnside Project in Israel May 2015:
Nobody’s Fault Productions website:
Israeli blues videos:
Gal De Paz:
The Blues Rebels: