How Israel Got a Fad Case of the Blues

The Hebrew blues scene is thriving, with the first-ever blues festival to be held in Tel Aviv this July (in 12 bars, we hope).

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Yaron Ben Ami sings the blues in Israel, April 28, 2014.
Yaron Ben Ami sings the blues in Israel, April 28, 2014.Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

“The basic premise of blues music is that things are not good,” says singer Yaron Ben Ami. “When I was a child in the 1970s, the fundamental assumption was that things was good. Somewhere at the end of the 1990s, it changed. [Yitzhak] Rabin’s assassination, the second intifada, the housing shortage ... a thousand things. The feeling is that things are not getting better. There is a style of music whose aim is to help you when life is not good. It’s called the blues,” he explains.

In other words, when the country is down, it should be no surprise that there’s a lot of blues around. “A lot” is, of course, a relative term. Blues has not, and will not ever become, a popular music style here. It’s possible, too, that the word “blooming” is a bit too strong to suit what is currently happening to the Israeli blues. But “awakening” is certainly a word that fits what’s been happening in Israeli clubs and bars of late.

The big news, which reflects the emergence of a serious blues scene here, is that a blues festival will be held in Tel Aviv, starting on July 3. It will last four day and will feature more than 30 blues singers from Israel and around the world. This is the first time – as far as is known – that a pure blues festival of such a size will be held in Israel. So far, there have been only a few small blues events. For example, there was the Seaport Blues Festival in Haifa, which ran in the 1990s, but that was not really a blues festival – Bob Dylan appeared, as well as Nick Cage, P.J. Harvey and even Blur!

The Tel Aviv blues festival, an independent venture being organized by blues entrepreneur Yamit Hagar, is Israel’s first authentic blues festival. It’s hard to believe, but the festival is being produced with zero budget and thanks to the mutual cooperation of Israeli blues musicians and the owners of the city’s clubs and bars.

Video for Yaron Ben Ami's 'Mitdardar' (Deteriorating).

A second track through which the blues scene has developed is U.S. blues musicians being flown over to perform here. Hagar is the driving force behind this, too. Two and a half years ago, with no production experience but a burning love for authentic blues, she brought [now deceased] Robert “Wolfman” Belfour over from Mississippi. The trip was considered a huge success, and since then her production company – Nobody’s Fault Productions, which is basically just her – has brought nine other artists over from America, in particular those who play acoustic Mississippi blues (as opposed to the popular urban, electric blues). Just this week she brought the Cedric Burnside Project over to perform in Israel, culminating in a performance at Tel Aviv’s Barby Club on Sunday night.

Lower volume

“An Israeli musician, I don’t remember who, once said that rock has not caught on in Israel because life here is lived at a high volume. And when people come to hear music, they want a lower volume,” reasons Ben Ami. “Blues is rock at a lower volume, both physically and also metaphorically. From this perspective, it is appropriate for here. There is also something in the tonality of blues that gives it an affinity with Mizrahi music,” he adds, referring to the Middle Eastern sounds that dominate Israeli popular music.

Another big leap made by the blues scene has been the release of albums by local artists. True, Israeli bluesmen have been releasing albums with original material for many years, but it was usually at a rate of one disc every few months. Recently, though, this trickle has turned into an impressive, flowing stream.

In the past few weeks alone, new albums have been released by no fewer than six Israeli groups and singers. Ben Ami released his “Blues in Canaan Land”; The Blues Rebels, led by singer and harmonica player Dov Hammer and guitarist Andy Watts, released their “Open Road” album; the blues-rock group Full Trunk released its second album; while Noam Dayan will release his sophomore album later this month. The recent vintage is the equivalent of about three years’ worth of releases before the present revival.

The profile of the blues musicians riding the current wave – especially those who write and sing in Hebrew – is different from that of your average Israeli indie musician. Generally, the blues artists are older, live outside the center of the country (so, not in Tel Aviv), and are more likely to be teachers than, say, lawyers.

Ben Ami, for example, is a lecturer in Israeli history, 43, lives in Atlit (south of Haifa) and has been performing for a number of years. At first, he performed U.S. blues songs, but later began to write and sing his own songs – whose themes move freely between sex and the Bible, and are rooted deep in the Israeli landscape. His songs may be inspired by black blues giants, but they definitely belong here, on the route between Atlit and Rothschild Boulevard.

Ben Ami will launch his latest album on May 27 at Ozen Bar, Tel Aviv. He says it was the loneliness he heard in the voices of the blues singers from the 1930s and ’40s that drew him to the blues when he was young, adding that it’s what he was looking for in music.

Itamar Beck, 26, from Tiberias, will appear at the blues festival in July. One of his songs is called “Receptionist Blues,” which, he relates, is based on his own life. Beck has cerebral palsy and calls his show “Disabled Placard Blues.” “I was looking for work and encountered this barrier,” he says. “It happens a lot to people with disabilities. I play with it in my songs: on the one hand, I act as if it’s not an issue. And on the other, I use music to lay things on the table.” You can see Beck him live in Tel Aviv on May 19 at the Dancing Camel pub and at Bar Giora on May 24.

Video for 'Made up my Mind,' by Dani Dorchin.

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