Black Betty / Black Heat
Azerbaijan-born singer-songwriter Ella Daniel goes by the name Black Betty. Her songs are dark, bluesy and grotesque - and she likes murder ballads.
"I kind of wanted to cancel this interview," says Black Betty, who performs tonight at Tel Aviv's Uganda Bar. "I don't really know what I'll get out of it. I'm not working on an album at the moment, and I want to keep on playing on the streets and at small venues."
Black Betty is another name for musician Ella Daniel, 24, a native of Azerbaijan who immigrated to Israel with her family when she was 2 and grew up in Acre and Ma'alot. She plays the accordion and melodica - a keyboard you hold while blowing through a mouthpiece. The Angelcy's great contrabassist Aner Paker will be performing with her.
When Daniel was 16 she started taking piano lessons, "but around that time, I also started a period of roaming around the country, and it's really inconvenient to travel with a piano on your back," she says. She met singer and composer Kama Vardi, who became her good friend. "I saw her at different festivals and got caught up," Daniel says.
Black Betty was engulfed in a creative world, "but one that was big and ambiguous. It was a period of youthful craziness," she says. She and Vardi lived for a long time on the shores of Lake Kinneret and on the banks of the Banias River, which for years has hosted a hippie commune of Israeli women. They walk around nude and live in the place and moment.
In 2006, Daniel went with Vardi to London to meet a friend. "Sasha Boyesen was an English-American woman who left home at 14 and traveled the world, came to Israel and started playing here. She's the one who affectionately referred to me as Black Betty," Daniel says.
Why Black Betty of all things?
"I'm not sure. Once she just called me that; maybe because of the song, or because I like to wear black clothes."
In London with Vardi, Boyesen and another musician, the four formed the Gypsy cabaret band La La Cravat, which released an album and disbanded. "Sasha was the soloist, songwriter and bandleader," notes Daniel. "We played on the streets in London. We did a lot of busking."
Black Betty's music is dark, bluesy and grotesque, yet still full of life. She's basically following in the footsteps of her friend Boyesen, but in her own way. "I want to continue what Sasha did," Daniel says. "She was a year younger than me, but she was so great, larger than life. Sasha died in Berlin of a drug overdose. She was just 23."
Was your relationship romantic?
"It went well beyond romantic. I was willing to do anything for her. And I still am. She was the love of my life, and it's not that I'm a lesbian. She's the only woman I was ever with."
Daniel and Boyesen were together in England and later in France. They hitchhiked to Paris, where they volunteered at Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore and hangout for poets and young people from around the world. "From there we somehow went on to live in the south of France."
Among her musical influences, Daniel lists accordionist Astor Piazzolla and singer-songwriter Tom Waits. Even without knowing a thing about Black Betty's story, it's easy to spot the Parisian influence in her songs. "Sure," she says, "I play the accordion!"
How did you choose the accordion?
"By chance. In London, Sasha found some guy who was selling a small accordion for a ridiculous price." First she taught herself how to play, and when she returned to Israel, she took whatever help she could get.
"I studied a little with Tuval Peter [of Hatarnegolim] and a bit at the Neveh Eliezer Community Center. What also filled me with inspiration was street performing; to roam around all night with the instruments on your back. When it hurts and you need money for the train back home, you just pull it out and start playing for people."
One of Black Betty's more endearing songs is "Hamimut Mitahat Latahat," the only one she has released so far in Hebrew (on the Internet ); the rest are sung in English.
"4 A.M. / I'm awake again / calling for the man / who the legend is about / stretching a hand down, because there it's human / at 4 A.M. a female chromosome."
In the song "Another Time," the heroine also sings about what's going on between her legs, or at least what she'd like to be happening there. The protagonist hopes for another night with a man, but that man is looking for a mother figure.
And Black Betty also has one murder ballad, "Pleased to Please." "Yes, I like ballads that end in murder."
Over the last two years, Black Betty has performed mainly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. She recently was the warm-up act for a performance by the band Kitzu.