The one declaration all music critics must refrain from ever making is: "I saw rock 'n roll's future and its name is ..." That statement became anathema for music critics after Jon Landau wrote in 1974, in The Real Paper, "I saw rock 'n roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen" - and later became the Boss' personal manager. However, on rare occasions, especially after a particularly stunning performance that leaves you fully charged and optimistic when you emerge into the night air, you still feel that such a bombastic, emotional declaration is in order. So let me put it this way: "I think I saw what I would like to see as part of the future of Israeli music and its name is System Ali."
System Ali comprises 10 members (one of whom plays the accordion!), including a guitarist who sometimes raps, a guitarist who sometimes sings, a violinist, a bass guitarist and a drummer. They rap in four languages: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English. The members of the group first met five years ago in an air-raid shelter in Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood. Since then, they have given a fairly large number of performances (including both concerts and appearances at demonstrations and political events). But they still have not put out their first album. A week ago Wednesday, they performed at the Tmoona theater in Tel Aviv before a modest audience of a few dozen and brought down the house.
Groups of rappers create a kind of energy that no other kind of rock group (even a top-notch one) can create. That energy can best be described as crazy polyphonic noise, which sounds most like a cross between a street fight and a neighborhood party.
The last group to offer this kind of show in a superb manner was Parvarim Refugeez, a band of rappers from the Maccabim-Re'ut area that unfortunately broke up a few years ago. Produx, a newer hip-hop group from Petah Tikva, has come close to generating this sort of energy, but the power in their microphone comes from only four rappers, plus, to the best of my knowledge, they have not been active over the past year.
Which leaves System Ali as almost the only group in the genre of neighborhood collective rap. Now, energies alone are not what make a rock group great. Thus, what's so terrific about the "conglomerate" of System Ali's rappers is that each has a separate, distinct identity. The rapper with the accordion looks and sounds like a Russian revolutionary, while the second Russian-speaking rapper, dressed in a jogging suit, resembles an assistant trainer in a Golden Gloves boxing club in Jaffa's Gimel neighborhood - and is responsible for injecting humor into the group's performances.
One of the two male Arab rappers is a tall fellow who serves up his rap in an ice-cold manner, while the second is - what else? - a short guy with much more energy. There is another terrific rapper who also wears a track outfit; every sentence she raps in Arabic is packed with emotion, intent, the freshness of someone who has just discovered that she is a rapper. If somebody decides one day to make a Jaffa rap version of the movie "Bend It Like Beckham," she could star in it. It could be called "Bend It Like Tupac."
So System Ali has both energy and character. What more could you ask for? Well, it would be nice if the rappers had something to say, and in their case, they do. The microcosm they rap about in four languages (the decision to opt for multilingual lyrics is in itself highly significant ) is their city, Jaffa. "A great light that somebody has turned into bread crumbs," they sing about the place, adding comments like it being "under Tel Aviv's heel."
You have to pay attention to the context in which they come out with these statements. They take one of the classics of Israeli music of the past three decades - Yehuda Poliker's "Halon Layam Hatikhon" ("Window to the Mediterranean") - and they turn it into something wildly different. They begin singing the song innocently enough, as if they were just doing a cover - "After I came to Jaffa / Hope was born out of despair / I found a small studio apartment / On the roof of an abandoned building." Then they drop the bomb: "Abandoned??!" screams the revolutionary rapper with the accordion. And the innocuous cover becomes a vitriolic political protest song about discrimination and blindness. Only a really sharp, creative mind could identify the right spot in Poliker's song and transform it into a lethal weapon.
The message conveyed by System Ali could, of course, be applied to a wider radius beyond Jaffa's borders. When they sing their powerful line, "System Ali is building the house anew," they are referring to the entire country, not just the narrow territory between Jaffa's clock tower and the Achva elementary school (hmmm... achva means fraternity).
System Ali's recent performance - which included a powerful guest appearance by the Arab heavy metal group, Halas - was preceded by a warm-up by a friend of the group's: guitarist-singer Luna Abu Nassar. She was totally different from the main act: She plays on two guitars, offering a modest, intimate performance, with the faintest touch of New Wave (like Malka Spigel, let's say), and that made her appearance all the more intriguing. Abu Nassar has recently come out with an album, which should be worth listening to. But what about a disc from System Ali?
As I emerged from the club, I vainly looked for a stand with discs (I would have even settled for a demo), and I left empty-handed. Too bad. They need to come out with one. But, until they do, the next time you hear someone tease you with "When was the last time you saw a hip-hop multilingual ensemble from Jaffa perform?" (that was what provoked me to go see their show at the Tmoona) - don't hesitate for even one second. You simply have to hear System Ali building the house anew.
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