New Lions in Zion: Israeli Reggae Comes of Age

The debut CD of Ethiopian-born singer Gili Yalo and Zvuloon Dub System was worth the wait.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

An Israeli reggae album is quite rare. An excellent Israeli reggae album is very rare. But an excellent Israeli reggae album with a prominent presence of dub - the vaguely familiar instrumental "cousin" of reggae - is an event that is even more than just rare.

This small miracle is happening now, with the appearance of "Freedom Time," the debut album of Zvuloon Dub System. Local reggae fans should greet it with boisterous cries of "Jah Rastafari!" (a reggae expression of jubilation ) - as should music lovers who don't belong to the Israeli reggae nation, but have a basic affection for the sound and feeling of this music. As is true for other really good niche albums, "Freedom Time" should not remain the exclusive property of believers.

This CD has many good qualities, but the most prominent of them may be the fact that this is an album that means what it says. Ethiopian-born Gili Yalo sings about the usual reggae subjects: freedom, equality, love of man, love of marijuana, and the mythical struggle between Zion (which, in Jamaica, is a symbol of goodness ) and Babylon (the symbol of evil ). The naivete of these texts is so overwhelming that it is liable to be seen as divorced from reality and even ridiculous, but the music, the beating heart of the tracks, anchors the textual naivete within a musical, cultural and spiritual context that has all the validity of genuine experience. These songs aren't selling a prettified picture of reality; they represent a worldview that observes reality through rasta lenses that love the good. In other words, this is an album that gives naivete a good name.

Zvuloon Dub System, which has eight players led by brothers Ilan and Asaf Smilan, has been around for seven years. When I saw them in performance five years ago, their high level of playing justified - indeed demanded - production of a debut album. But the members of the band, as is typical of reggae musicians, were in no hurry. They continued to stylize their sound, to work on the small and important details that make a good band excellent, and "Freedom Time" makes it clear that their patience was rewarded.

The idea of attending to the tiniest musical nuances may surprise anyone who thinks that reggae is music that's easy to perform. In effect, the airy simplicity and the regular beat require the reggae musician to be meticulous about every note, because if not the simplicity will become overly simplistic, and the regular beat will become monotonous and tiring.

The members of Zvuloon Dub System manage to avoid these traps. Their work constantly maintains a productive balance between a regular, stable and deep rhythmic and sonic foundation, and small sparks that stray from the regular pattern.

It's hard to decide who should be praised first: the two woodwind players; saxophonist Omri Abramov and trumpeter Inon Peretz (who add their own clever, beautiful melodic declarations to every track ); bassist Tal Markus, whose dominant playing constitutes the glue that holds the music together; keyboard and melodica player Lior Romano, who says a great deal in a few notes (and with a heartwarming sound that sometimes reminds one of an old piano with a few broken keys ) - or guitarists Ilan Smilan and Simon Nahum, who create a slender but reverberating sound. They are all excellent.

Yalo sings well in a soft but rough voice, but the first-among-equals is probably percussionist Asaf Smilan. In a sense he serves as a kind of soloist in a band without soloists. He maintains the rhythm outstandingly well (his beats, thanks to the use of certain effects, sound distant but full of volume ), and also adds very creative embellishments with his percussion instruments. These embellishments come to the fore at just those moments when the songs are transformed from reggae to dub.

Dub, for anyone unfamiliar with the genre, is reggae that has been stripped of most of its components, mainly the singing. The music remains naked and airy, and is performed usually by only drums and bass, but is conveyed via a large number of sound effects that blur, slow down, cut and reassemble the music.

This happens in about half of the new CD's tracks, including the Zvuloon Dub System's version of "Voodoo Child" by Jimmy Hendrix. Covers of Hendrix, and especially of a great song like this, are usually a recipe for failure. The fact that Zvuloon is up to the task is further proof that they are doing something right.

The positive naivete of "Freedom Time" reaches a peak toward the end of the album, in "Going to Zion," but right in the middle of this track, one suddenly suspects that the naivete is a cover-up for harsh criticism. The song tells about a man who is going to Zion and is sure that he will meet only righteous people there, because only righteous people can live in a holy place like that. But the members of Zvuloon Dub System know that the 2012 version of Zion is a place that is far removed from righteousness. It's more like Babylon. And yet they still put this naive text in the mouth of the hero of the song, allow him to have his mistaken illusions, and force the listener to murmur to himself, "This naive man is about to get the shock of his life when he discovers the real face of Zion."



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