The blues that Israelis never heard before
Robert Balfour, a singer of chaotic Mississippi blues, will be playing in Tel Aviv to an audience that is accustomed mainly to mainstream blues.
It was great to witness my friend's excitement when he learned that Robert Belfour was about to appear in Israel. He'll play Tel Aviv's Barby Club on August 23 - truly thrilling news because Belfour is a fabulous blues singer. But he also represents a marvelous tradition with roots in the Mississippi Delta, whose singers have never set foot on the Israeli stage.
"The amazing and ridiculous fact is that there has never been such a blues show in Israel," says radio personality Eran Sabag. "Establishment blues, which has crossed the borders of race, has been heard here, of course."
He means the urban, electric blues of performers who left the Delta for Chicago. "Established blues, even when it's wild and wonderful, still sounds arranged or adapted," Sabag says.
"But blues from Mississippi, especially the northern hills, where Belfour is from, hasn't undergone this. It's completely chaotic music, even though it's based on a single chord. The people who play it are the last voodoo priests of the blues, and Belfour's performance will be the first time we'll get to hear the original in Israel."
We owe Belfour's visit to Yamit Hagar, a blues fanatic without any experience as a producer. She organized the 72-year-old musician's appearance and is marketing it with boundless energy.
A number of people have joined her: real-life and Internet friends, members of the Israel Blues Society, the Barby's staff, and the person funding Belfour's appearance. But in the end, this show is the commando operation of one woman who dreamed a dream and made it come true.
It started on Purim
When Hagar is asked how the idea to bring Belfour to Israel was born, she points to a small poster on her refrigerator. It says "Purim Blues Party, March 2012."
"Three days before Purim I wrote on Facebook that I wanted to hold a blues party. I just wrote it; I didn't think there really would be a party. But there were so many responses, and within three days I had organized a party attended by 100 people who brought instruments and sang," she says.
"It was an impressive success, and the thing that moved me most was that people who passed by Nahalat Binyamin [where the party took place in a store] heard the blues I love so much - not the regular blues that you hear all the time. The next day, excited by what had happened, I called a friend and told her, 'Someone has to come to Israel.' She said, 'Yeah, yeah, okay,' because what do I know about producing shows? But that's how it started."
Hagar, who earns a living testing computer games and catering dinners for two, fell in love with the blues a few years ago.
"Someone recommended listening to Eran Sabag's show, not necessarily because of this music. I listened to one program, and one of the songs Eran played was by Mississippi Fred McDowell," she says.
"I couldn't believe my ears. It fried my brain. I couldn't understand how I had missed out on this wonderful thing for 30 years. How could I have listened to Radiohead and Pearl Jam and not to this? Since I'm obsessive, and since Eran's programs were on the Internet, I sat one weekend and listened to 50 of them. From that moment I began to delve deep into genuine blues."
Why exactly did she home in on Belfour? "Because he's amazing, and because he's one of the last of the authentic blues singers. Unfortunately, not many remain. Over the last few years a few of the blues people we love have died: David 'Honeyboy' Edwards died at the age of 96, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Louisiana Red. Last week Robert Cage, another one of our heroes, died."
Hagar retrieves a disk from her collection and says, "There are still blues singers who do amazing things: Odell Harris, Precious Bryant, Pat Thomas. But they only suggest the real thing; they're not the genuine article. Belfour is the last remnant of the real thing. It's as if he's from another time; he belongs to something that's already dead."
When Sabag is asked whether he feels like the event's godfather, he immediately answers, "No. The blues are like something passed in a chain from friend to friend. It's an endless chain of people who have passed this on to me. It just happened that a radio broadcaster got into the blues. Over the last decade I've devoted most of my shows to the blues, and I was lucky to be the only one playing Robert Belfour."
Sabag got to Belfour through Mississippi Fred McDowell.
"Suddenly I heard the old notes in a new sound. When you listen to Mississippi Fred, you hear from the air blowing through the microphones that this is the 1950s. You understand that you've gotten on board the train too late and that this man is no longer among the living," he says.
"With Belfour you hear the same notes, the most mystical basis of the blues, but you say: 'Wait a minute; this is a new recording.' And this is a sensational discovery because we've been taught that there was once a golden age of blues that died out and is over, and Belfour shows that this isn't completely true."
Belfour was born in 1940 in the northern hills of Mississippi, in an area that was also home to McDowell and other blues legends like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. Belfour began playing as a young man, moved to Memphis at the end of the 1950s, married, raised a family and earned a living for decades as a construction worker. He played during that time but wasn't known outside his circle of friends and family.
In the mid-1990s, when Belfour was 55, blues scholar David Evans heard him sing. Evans was enthusiastic, recorded Belfour and produced a blues collection featuring him. Only in 2000, when the singer was 60, did he record a solo album on the Fat Possum label specializing in contemporary traditional blues. His second solo album was released in 2003, his last to date.
The fact that Belfour was discovered at an advanced age is unsurprising. "This is the story of almost every blues singer," Sabag says. "Just like the rabbis in the Gemara, they studied their subject without being paid. They were sharecroppers, farmers, truck drivers and hairdressers until a white man heard them and made money out of them."
According to blues musician and expert Eli Marcus, "Belfour reached the public at an advanced age, but one assumes he played all his life on porches for family and friends. In our world there's a clear separation between playing for family and professional appearances.
"But in the blues world this separation doesn't exist. One man with an acoustic guitar is the basis for dancing. People worked all week, and when Saturday night came, they wanted to relax, be released from their hard work. They went out to dance in a juke house: a shed with moonshine. There were no amplifiers or a stage in the juke houses. There was one kind of music played on a guitar or piano, and it was dance music."
Marcus says "Belfour isn't a hero in the blues world. Many blues fans have never heard of him. He plays rather standard Mississippi blues, nothing fancy, in a style based on rhythm, not on special strumming or other techniques. The beauty is that these artists rely more on feelings. Their expressiveness is based on their voices and timing, not on virtuosity."
Belfour will play alone in Israel: him, his guitar and the whole history of black people in America over hundreds of years.
Mystery man provides the money
When Hagar began to check the options for bringing Belfour to Israel, she turned to the director of Broke & Hungry Records, a blues expert. Hagar is a regular customer of the label. The director said it might be better to bring in other performers, but Hagar was determined.
The only problem was money. She didn't have enough. But in the end, someone agreed to fund Belfour's appearance. Hagar smiles when she says in the tone of a radio announcer, "He requests to remain anonymous." Is he a blues lover? "A little bit," she says. "A fan of Robert Belfour."
In recent weeks, Hagar has been doing all she can to market the show. She has sent disks to every possible radio station, knocked on the doors of studios and rehearsal rooms, called musicians who have the slightest trace of blues in their repertoires, gotten out the word on Facebook and blogs, and even approached classical-music schools.
One interesting question is whether Hagar will attract a decent number of electric blues fans, those who flood performances by virtuoso guitarists such as Joe Bonamassa and fill large halls here.
"Tickets are relatively inexpensive, NIS 100. That's much less than what's usually charged for foreign performers," she says.
"I have a job, and the investor isn't looking to make a profit. The thinking is that if we ask a reasonable price, people won't be able to say, 'I didn't come because it was too expensive.' My fantasy is that 1,000 people will attend, and no one will be left out - that the last person who wants to get in is the thousandth."
Meanwhile, she hands out leaflets at other performances almost every night. "At one of them, I sat behind a young couple who had leaflets," she says. "The man, who didn't know who I was, told his friend, 'Robert Belfour is the last. When he dies, the blues die.' It gave me goose bumps."