The Sound of Israeliana

An eclectic hybrid of inspirations, the Botimzog band spreads love through musical chaos around the kumzitz campfire.

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How did the 10 members of Botimzog, which launches its debut album today at The Zone Club in Tel Aviv, come to form a band that sings campfire songs? "Sex!" tosses one of the band's two soloists, Chemi (from Shabak Samech), while his friend Kfir Rimoch, also a soloist and a guitarist in the band, suddenly tries to be the more serious one (not an easy task) and says: "The core of 'Botimzog' was formed in Yavneh, and it grew out of a lot of my other ensembles."

In Yavneh, where Shabak Samech was also founded, Rimoch had another group, called The Pickles. "Rimoch always had about eight bands of guys from Yavneh," says Chemi, who himself was a member of The Pickles. "Every two weeks he felt like playing a different style of music, broadening his musical range," he adds.

Today Rimoch also plays and sings in the band The Giant Lizards from Nibiru Planet, which is like the electronic, dark version of the acoustic and sunny Botimzog. Lately Botimzog has been combining classical and acoustic guitars, violin and mandolin, percussion, congas, xylophone, drums and melodica (a harmonica with a keyboard ). "The entire concept was not to be dependent on amplifiers," explains Chemi. "Even when we perform at a club, we prefer to play outside."

Two years ago, Chemi (whose real name is Kfir Artzi ) received a phone call from the Channel 8 television station inviting him to join the Indie City video clip project together with The Pickles. "I told them The Pickles had just broken up, but they wouldn't take no for an answer - they didn't care," says Chemi. "They had decided they would film the song 'Eifo Telech' (Where Will You Go, part of Botimzog's repertoire) in a clip in which we would play while walking down the city streets. Rimoch - maybe for the album debut we should walk on stage already playing, what do you say?"

For the clip, Chemi and Rimoch, both in their 30s, published an open invitation on Facebook calling musician friends to come join them with acoustic instruments. The response was huge. "About 30 people from Yavneh came, guys from the bands," says Chemi.

The clip for "Eifo Telech" was highly popular on the internet and "we started getting show offers." Then Rimoch's friend, today a member of Botimzog, musical producer and bass player Ziv Harpaz (who plays with Shalom Hanoch, Ronnie Peterson, and others), called him and said: "Look, this is what you've been looking for. This is the acoustic band that will be the home for all your ensembles."

Distinctly contemporary Israeli

Botimzog's songs have been played by its members over the past two years mostly outside Tel Aviv, at festivals and improvised jam sessions, in the streets of outlying towns, at kibbutzim, near streams and in forests. Most of the band's songs were written and composed in the open, around campfires. Previously the band was called The Rimoch Campfire. Chemi says of his friend, "He was always the one to go on playing and singing after everyone had fallen asleep in their sleeping bags."

"The Rimoch Campfire and the Disconnected Ones" is also the name of the last song in Botimzog's new album. Rimoch insisted on removing his name from the name of the band because the project has become greater than him and the sum of its members; today the band performs songs written and composed by other members, including Chemi and Oren Asaf, who plays the mandolin.

"We go out to some forest, barbecue, laugh and jam without stopping for about three days." The Hebrew/Yiddish word for campfire, kumzitz, is actually a combination of the two German words kum and zitz, meaning "come, sit." "That's why we're Botimzog (literally 'come, pour'). Come sit with us, we'll pour you a drink and let's play together."

The 18 songs that make up Botimzog's album include drunkards' songs, plenty of humor, a wild violin, and shamanic songs inspired by Rimon's travels in the world. The lyrics convey a distinctly contemporary Israeli, even neighborhood feel. For example, in "A Mizrahi Song" Rimoch sings, in a voice filled with pathos, "I want to sing you a Mizrahi song / like the taxi driver who just downed a glass / I want to sing you an Arabic song / with lots of chorus and a home keyboard sound." It's hard to hold back a smile.

Rimoch and Chemi call Botimzog's style "Israeliana," a kind of hybrid between Israeli folk songs and a paraphrase on the Americana genre, which is a generic name for rural American musical folklore. But what do they mean by localizing the expression?

Chemi says that "It's a very Israeli mix of lots of styles, rock, folk, blues, reggae, gypsy, Russian, Romanian, Mediterranean, all with a whiff of alcohol that makes you want to clink glasses. That kind of salad, together with our lyrics, is very Israeli. We've been playing together for years in order to reach that Israeli sound, which for some reason doesn't exist."

What do you mean it doesn't exist?

Chemi: "There's no sound that you hear and say, 'Oh, that's Israeli.' Shlomo Artzi is not Israeli. It comes in one ear and goes out the other. What we tried to do is to break down barriers."

They add that they didn't try to flatter or be pleasant to the ear in their music, although it should be said that all the songs on Botimzog are catchy and suitable for the radio.

"We could have done these songs in lots of styles, but after a lot of hard-core and wild playing with other ensembles, we feel we really have found a back door through which we can penetrate with our texts, so even a grandmother or a little kid can connect," which certainly cannot be said of The Giant Lizards from Nibiru Planet, kind of the Mr. Hyde of Botimzog.

Rimoch's girlfriend, known as Awesome Jackie, is also a member of the band. In the hallucinatory hiking song "The Screech of the Eagle in the Gorge" (an allusion to the Hawkwind band), Rimoch sings: "I've been eating crocodiles for an hour and a half / oh, and frogs. Giant dragonflies / and tadpoles, tadpoles, tadpoles. / What a nice trip me and Jackie are naked." Rimoch agrees to the definition of a love song on a hike, or rather, on a trip.

Chemi also writes quite a bit about girls. In "Polish," for example, which he composed based on "The Witch" from 1964 by the American garage band The Sonics, he teases a girl in a bar: "She likes Neil Young / and wears flowers / at home she's got a collection of wet wipes / but inside - she's Polish!"

There's a girl in a bar in "The Pipe Factory" as well. After Chemi sings, "Cold women who come to drink I can't stand it," he goes on in a Dylan-style chorus with "Dad's been fired from the pipe factory / Mom is at the villas cleaning floors / and me, you know, I don't need any favors." Although the song speaks of a depressing situation, its rhythm makes you want to get up and dance.

"Great men before me have said, 'there is no despair in the world.' Despair is a choice, unlike pain which is inevitable," says Rimoch.

He also mentions The Grateful Dead, a band he admires. He shares their philosophy and that of their leader Jerry Garcia, which always focused on the road. "We live the road, we absorb influences and change. Like the Hebrew language."

What does the song name "Warm Bongos" mean?

Rimoch: "When Chemi and I were 17 years old in Yavneh, we would jam together, he on a falling-apart electric guitar with three strings and I on the bongos, and all the time he would tell me to warm the skin of the bongos so the sound would come out good. I would ask, 'so, are the bongos warm enough?'"

So it's not an allusion to bongs, like there obviously is in the song "Eden Water Bottle"?

"Oh, that too," smiles Rimoch.

At the end of "Warm Bongos" there's a very funny part where Rimoch whispers, "careful with that bongos Eugene, it's warm," alluding to "Careful With that Ax, Eugene" by Pink Floyd (from the album Ummagumma).

There's something very hippie-sounding about the spread-the-love style of Botimzog's songs.

"That's true, because the world is becoming more and more alienated," says Chemi, and adds that "people believe in violence, in a culture of wars. Here we'll soon have a radical right-wing government. So, based on an entirely conscious choice - after all we're distortion people, screaming and yelling and suddenly we're singing, and even playing on a violin and mandolin. We decided to take our clothes off. Even when we're protesting, it's with energies of love. That feels to me like it's totally against the time, in which there's no greater protest than spreading love."

The Botimzog band. ‘Even when we’re protesting, it’s with energies of love,’ says Chemi.Credit: Roee Feinberg
Botimzog band album