Haifa’s Kabareet club. Political stickers in the toilets. Rami Shlush

These Musicians Come to Israel, but Only for Palestinian Venues

The owners of two European recording companies explain their clients’ controversial decisions, while admitting the complexity of the issues



The French duo Acid Arab, among the pioneers of a genre that combines the sounds of the darbuka goblet drum with electronic music, created shock waves with a Facebook post last week. Guido Minisky and Herve Carvalho wrote that despite their successful performances in Israel, in the future they would only take part in Palestinian productions there in the future.

The announcement came on the heels of the decision by one of the biggest electronic music producers in the world, Nicolas Jaar to skip Tel Aviv in September in favor of dates in Ramallah and Haifa, and the announcement a few months ago by the German label Habibi Funk that it won’t perform in Israel as long as the occupation continues.

Acid Arab’s performances this weekend are being produced by Jazar Crew, a Haifa-based Palestinian collective of DJs, filmmakers and other artists that sits on the geopolitical seam between Ramallah and Haifa. Members are involved in music, film, identity issues and night life, and they aren’t afraid to talk about politics.

This is evidenced, inter alia, by the phrase “Leave your racism outside our dance floor,” which it writes on its Facebook page before nearly every event it produces. This week, it will host Acid Arab for the second time, in parties at Haifa’s Kabareet club (Thursday) and Jaffa’s Arab-Hebrew Theatre (Friday).

Jazar is Israel’s most interesting nightlife collective, challenging local nighttime entertainment and introducing politics without trying to flatter or to be liked.

Everyone on the dance floor, right and left, agrees that Jazar is creating a small cultural revolution that is being felt beyond Israel. Out of the same belief in its path and in underground principles, its members aren’t interested in giving interviews.

Rami Shllush

It arranged performances in Haifa and Ramallah in September by Jaar, an American producer and recording artist of Chilean-Palestinian origin who is one of the most important and famous electronic artists today. Now, it is bringing Acid Arab.

The duo’s announcement about taking part only in Palestinian productions in Israel caused controversy on social media, because its upcoming performances will nevertheless be on Israeli territory.

Fell into a trap

Gilbert Cohen, a famous DJ and owner of the veteran French record company Versatille Records who gave Minisky and Carvalho their first platform in 2013, says he understands their Tel Aviv fans’ anger and disappointment but doesn’t believe the artists are being hypocritical. People sometimes change their opinions, he said, and they have a right to do so.

Though the Facebook post was poorly phrased, Cohen continued, its basic message wasn’t so terrible, given that many people in Israel think the same way. He added that he believes someone forced them to take sides.

Who?

“I’ve known them for many years, ever since meeting them at a music festival in Tunis, back when Acid Arab was just a dream.

Flavien Prioreau

“Their entire being always revolved around music, not around anything else. In the past, they knew how to keep away from these things. I think they believed they could change the world with their music, or come to Tel Aviv and talk with people and thereby create openness. Unfortunately, this was a very nave view.”

Cohen said he thought they were pressured by aggressive boycott, divestment and sanctions, as often happens to artists planning Israeli performances.

Cohen said that while he opposes the occupation, he also opposes boycotts. If he were invited to Saudi Arabia he would happily come and play despite his dislike for the Saudi regime, because it’s necessary to find ways to conduct a dialogue.

“Many things in Israel have changed over the last 20 years,” he said, adding that as a Jewish state, Israel has a duty to behave “with more compassion for the other.”

Are you angry over Acid Arab’s decision?

“I’m a little angry, but mainly I’m sad. I think they fell into a trap they managed to avoid for years.”

A few months ago, Habibi Funk, which reissues recordings of Eastern and Levantine music, said its DJs wouldn’t perform in Israel. This statement was a surprise for the Israeli crowd since Habibi Funk has always engaged in politics, and in recent years it has even produced products with Arabic writing whose revenues were donated in their entirety to human rights and refugee organizations in Syria and Libya.

Owner Jannis Stürtz said in a telephone interview from Berlin that he didn’t want to be part of a narrative in which Tel Aviv and Israel are viewed as very liberal and open at a time when not far away, an entire people is suffering. “This narrative creates reality,” he said.

He said the company made the announcement after numerous Israeli producers contacted him to ask him to play in Tel Aviv. He turned them all down, and to some, he didn’t even respond. He decided it was better for him to explain his position than to have someone else try to explain it.

“I was nave. I didn’t know this post would generate so many shock waves.”

What about working with Israelis? If you’re already engaging in a boycott, why not take it all the way?

Bursting the party bubble

Stürtz said he had no objection to other people performing in Israel and doesn’t want to yell “boycott,” in part due to Germany’s history. Moreover, he said, he has no problem working with Israelis or Jews.

Timothy Norris / AFP

Next month, for instance, Jakarta, an affiliate of Habibi Funk, is producing a record by a Moroccan-Jewish artist named Malca, “and I think Fortuna Records does astonishing work,” he added, referring to a Tel Aviv-based label. “I’ll continue sending recordings to Israel as long as they keep getting ordered. But you simply must improve your postal service; it’s shocking.”

Why not engage directly in dialogue between the parties? Why not try to create togetherness by throwing a joint party?

Stürtz said he had discussed this idea with many people, but everyone knows most West Bank Palestinians wouldn’t be able to attend. Given this, remaining in the “party bubble” seemed to him like running away or ignoring reality. “It’s also a political statements, whether people like it or not,” he added.

He said he understands why Tel Avivians feel frustrated by people coming from outside and criticizing their country’s behavior, but sometimes “you have to draw a line. What Acid Arab did was a political statement.”

'Every citizen of Tel Aviv will be able to attend'

Thanks to Stürtz’s help, Minisky and Carvalho of Acid Arab also agreed to explain their position directly to Haaretz. They said the Facebook post was a response to statements on social media accusing them of supporting Israel.

You performed in March at Kabareet Haifa. To me, as a guy that saw you also a day before at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and in 2014 at the club The Block, it was a new experiment because of the intimacy. I mean when you put on “Still” the place was tight! What did you feel?

“It was a warm and powerful night.”

How did you get to know Jazar Crew?

“We met that night at Kabareet. We connected with them and they’re the ones inviting us this week.”

Your post two days ago was quite shocking to most Israelis because you were here three times already and also worked with Israeli artist and labels such as A-WA and Disco Halal. Does it mean that you are not working any more with Israeli artist?

“Absolutely not. This post was an answer to other messages going through social media, implying we support Israel. A text was given to us by promoters, we added our bit. Even though we care for Israel artists as every other, even though we are not anti Israel, we felt the need to correct: who we support is the people of Palestine.

“As musicians we have never expressed our political views, only through music. For instance we have always incorporated music from Tel Aviv in everything we do, sending a symbol of gathering. Same motivation drove us to take this decision: We will symbolically perform in Palestine-related venues of Israel.”

You also wrote that the Israeli government is too present in every aspect of cultural life in Tel Aviv. Did you feel that during your past shows?

“We’ve only been three times in Tel Aviv in four years, it is not enough to fully understand. For foreigners like us, even if the city itself has positive values and people respect each other, it’s hard to be so close to this situation of injustice and to party as if this is not happening at the moment.”

You wrote — and told me — that you know now that the situation is more complex than good or bad, and I fully agree with that, but tell me, where do you get your information about the situation here? Where do you read about it?

“The greatest complexity is that we share beliefs with a lot of Israelis, almost every one we met. In Tel Aviv you can vote, protest, march. From the outside, we believe the only way of expressing our opinion is to take this stand. It is more humanist than political.”

Don’t you think that boycotting a city or a crowd of fans that loves you so much is a hard thing to do?

“In France we have cities run by the far right. We will never play there unless we are invited by protestors, activists, whose message we respect and want to help spread. This doesn`t mean we ‘boycott France.’ We’re doing the same thing here in Israel by choosing to work with Jazar Crew, whose belief is: We should carefully select the venues to make a message. We will play this week in Israel, in venues which have been chosen by Jazar Crew for good reasons. Every citizen of Tel Aviv will be able to attend, while most people of Gaza Strip and West Bank will not.”

Although Jaffa and Haifa are Arab-Israeli cities these are not the people that live under occupation, so why don’t you play in the West Bank at this visit? Are you planning to do that in the future?

“Yes, we are planning to do that.”

Don’t you want just to do a big party for Palestinians and Israelis together at the same club? Isn’t music’s role to connect people? Especially your music, which runs through all of our (Palestinians’ and Israelis’) veins.

“Obviously, we would love that.”

You wrote in this post that you refuse to lend your names to a regime of occupation, led by religious convictions instead of human rights. And I fully respect that but most if not all of the Israeli club owners aren’t working with the government and oppose it. Don’t you think that maybe that was a bit harsh thing to say?

“We have conscience that it is a heavy decision. It is the strongest way to express our support to people from occupied territories.”

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