Stand by Your Music!

Karmiel and Tel Aviv are tapping their feet to the sounds of homegrown folk, country and bluegrass tunes - not necessarily performed by nostalgic Anglos

Sagi Bin Nun
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Sagi Bin Nun

Saturday night, 10 P.M., at the Karmiel community center. About 50 Anglo-Saxons are munching pretzels, drinking beer and chatting in English. Another meeting of the Karmiel Folk Club, which convenes monthly and organizes performances by folk, country and bluegrass artists in a slightly sleepy atmosphere. Contrary to what you might expect at such a gathering, no one in the audience bursts into a frenzy of American country-style line dancing.

The evening starts off with administrative matters. Larry Rosenfeld, the master of ceremonies and organizer of these evenings, ascends the stage to tell the audience about an overseas trip the club is planning. He is followed by a middle-aged bearded gentleman who performs several Irish songs "unplugged" and is in turn followed by P-Country, a country band. Adrenalin is flooding the members of the audience and Meri Roth, the group's soloist, mesmerizes them with her successful rendition of the popular song "Jolene, Jolene." At the height of the evening's liveliness, merriment and excitement, the crowd "goes wild" with the light drumming of palms on the edges of tables. Some even go as far as to allow their toes to gently tap the floor.

Besides Roth, P-Country includes Tomer Shohatovitz and Alon Zamir, guitarists who are also computer experts; Shahar Bergman, a bass guitarist who is also a carpenter; Hillel Mogle, who plays the dobro (an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator) and banjo, and is also an engineer; and Adrian Yustus, a violinist who devotes all his time to music. All the group's members are in their 20s or 30s and none of them is Anglo-Saxon. These two points set them apart not only from the crowd gathered this evening at the community center, but also from most of Israel's country music artists.

The Anglo Maimouna

"You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Israeli country artists who are not Anglo-Saxons and who are not middle-aged," observes Mogle. "Sometimes Anglo-Saxons come up to me after a performance, saying in amazement and in English, `I heard a rumor that you're an Israeli. Is that true?'" recounts Meri (whose name might be mistaken for being American, but actually means "revolt" in Hebrew; besides, her parents are from Netanya).

"The image I once had of country and western music was full of drunk ranchers and buxom women," explains Roth with a smile. However, in recent years, after becoming acquainted with this music, she has become drawn to it "because of its wonderful instruments, like the banjo and the fiddle. And also because this music has so much energy and feeling and because it is not pretentious. It has a special magic: The melodies and the lyrics are so simple. Sad is sad and happy is happy. The simplicity gives you a unique freedom because it is much easier to improvise with something simple."

"Country and folk music's escapist outlet reminds me how people once used to watch `Little House on the Prairie' and `Bonanza' on TV. This is the magic of getting close to something that is so distant from and unrelated to this place," Roth says. "It's really exciting to see mature people with careers, families and worries refusing to give up the opportunity of going out twice a month to a folk music club in Tel Aviv or Karmiel. The escapism and euphoria are also prominent in the Israeli folk music festival, the Jacob's Ladder Festival, which is held every Passover. This festival, which you could call the Anglo Saxons' Maimouna [the Moroccan holiday following Passover] is the most tranquil festival I have ever attended. Unlike other festivals, people don't go there to see and to be seen and to meet other people - they go just because of the music."

Roth is also the member of another band - Roth, Levitt and Eiland - which primarily plays folk, but also a little country music. If the band's name sounds like a law firm, that is no coincidence. Roth and Ohad Levitt, two-thirds of the band, both have law degrees. Levitt today works as an attorney while Roth gave up the idea after she completed her studies and passed the bar examination.

P-Country's performances are essentially cover versions of country, folk and bluegrass songs by artists such as John Denver, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. Some of the songs (including "Stand by Your Man") are sung partly in Hebrew, partly in English, and there is even a country version of Britney Spears' song "Hit Me Baby One More Time."

"A performance of Britney Spears' song might be a way of establishing a link between country music and Israelis who have never taken any previous interest in it, because they did not grow up on this music," says Mogle. "Hopefully another thing that will connect more people to country will be the mushrooming of interest in Irish music here in Israel."

Talking about Satan

When Bob Dylan appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and played an electric guitar for the first time, the audience booed. It seems reasonable to assume that if the Spinster Sisters - a duet that creates rock while integrating elements of country music - were to appear at the Karmiel Folk Club, the crowd's reception of their electric guitars would be lukewarm at best. Many country-folk addicts still cannot stand deviations.

Unlike P-Country, which never touches rock, the Spinster Sisters creates a brand of glam rock that is called "Gothic country." The duet consists of sisters Eleanor and Sharon Cantor, who call themselves "Sister Chain" and "Sister Swamp," respectively. Sharon has been a prominent figure on the local rock scene since the early 1990s. She hosted and edited the music program, "The Box," has directed many video clips and this year brought out an album entitled "Black and Whites." Eleanor has been with two alternative groups - Skin Blues and the Unnecessary Revolution.

"I think that we are the only official Gothic country group in the world," Sharon says. "What merges country with Gothic is the focus on the dark sides of the soul, including the delightful opportunity to talk about Satan. In these two genres, there are ballads about murder and songs about frightful jealousy that ends in a horrific murder."

Sharon took her first steps in cowgirl boots when, as a teenager, she would regularly listen every week for two hours to the country and western music that was broadcast by the now-defunct Voice of Peace radio station. In 2000 she and her sister founded the Spinster Sisters, and ever since they have been appearing in night clubs in Tel Aviv and Germany, where Eleanor has been living for the past six years. They recently put out, on their own private label, a mini-album with six songs entitled "Bad Deal."

Sharon argues that there is a similarity between American country-western music and Israeli Mizrahi ("Eastern") music: "Both styles belong to broad social strata, primarily because of the straightforward, even banal, texts. Whereas in sophisticated rock, you can't say `My heart is broken, I love you,' in country-western and Mizrahi songs, you can say this very simply - and you can also say `I'll kill you' or `Your ass turns me on.'"

Birthday gimmick

Alongside her work as part of the Spinster Sisters, Sharon Cantor has, over the past year, served as a dee-jay of country music in various Tel Aviv nightclubs. "The audience reaction has been enthusiastic," she reports. "There are many heart-breaker songs and people with romantic inclinations enjoy them. Country music also fits in with happy trends like the Gypsy trend."

The Boom Pam band, one of whose members is Uzi Feinerman, has been prominent in purveying the Gypsy trend. His interest in world music led him a few months ago to found another group, Rosco, which plays an up-to-date music called "country glam." In this group Feinerman appears under the stage name "Bruce" and plays the banjo, while singer Motti Bercher, whose stage name is "Rosco," accompanies him in English. They have made several appearances in Tel Aviv in recent months.

"Before our first few performances, I was afraid that the audience wouldn't be able to connect with an entire evening of the country style," admits Feinerman. "Some of the people really reacted with remarks like `Hey, what is all this cowboy music crap? Hell, I'm leaving. I want to hear electro.' Some people consider this style archaic and ancient, regarding it as the music of an America that existed a century ago. However, to my surprise, we also got many positive reactions - from people who were really turned on by the theatrical performance. Some members of the audience began square dancing, shouted out `hee-haw,' and got very excited at the point in our performance where Rosco, wearing a buttoned-up priest's robe with a cross, gets off the stage, mingles with the audience, delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon, promises them salvation and passes the donation plate among them, just as if this were a church."

According to Feinerman, "country gives the impression of being the simplest kind of music. Generally speaking, it is based on the same three chords - you hear a song for the first time and think that you must have heard it somewhere before. But you really have to be very familiar with this style in order to play it right."

In his opinion, the growing interest among Israelis in world music could turn country music into a really hot trend in Israel. However, there are also those who are skeptical about this possibility.

"Unlike Indian music or Chinese music, happy country music is not hypnotic, mysterious or mystical," notes Suzy Miller, who has been singing and playing country music since age 13 and is best known locally for her performances in English programs on Educational TV, including in the role of "Suzy Surprise." "Country music has not made any real inroads in Israel and one of the reasons for this is that Israelis do not find it sufficiently alien. They are familiar with it chiefly through songs like `You Are My Sunshine' and processed meat commercials."

"People in Israel think of country music as a gimmick," adds Miller. "In my view, there is only one way that country will become popular in Israel: If someone organizes American country-style line dancing. Singles don't like to go to Israeli folk dancing because they need a partner. The advantage of country-style line dancing is that you don't need a partner to participate. If somebody sets up singles clubs with line dancing, that will be a real hit."

From Suzy Miller to Jonathan Miller

Country music artists in Israel, most of whom are Anglo-Saxons, have never become "mainstream" here. Among the most prominent artists and groups have been The Golden Strings, one of the first local commercial country bands, which appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s; The Taverners, whose members included Jonathan Miller, Shay Tochner, David Deckelbaum and Paul Moore, who appeared for 25 years (from 1976 to 2001), primarily in kibbutzim; Suzy Miller, the female vocalist most closely associated with country in Israel; Michal Levin, the soloist of Michal's Chorale; and groups like Smoking Gun, The Grinders, White and Blue Grass, and Country Cool.

The most publicized involvement of mainstream local artists in the realm of country music was the Red River Valley Project, which produced a television program and an album that came out in 1982. Celebrated Israeli songwriter Ehud Manor has translated American country classics into Hebrew and they have been performed by such well-known singers as Dori Ben Ze'ev, Dafna Armoni, Benny Amdursky, Ricki Gal and Matti Caspi.

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