Sex, Drugs and Lots of Friends: The Next Big Thing in Israeli Rock

Move over quartets, it's time to hear the orchestra.

Daniel Tchetchik

Something strange has been happening to Israeli rock bands lately. First of all, they are expanding. Instead of the usual three, four or five members, there are eight, nine or twelve. The second change is that the soloist is not the most important person on the stage. In fact, sometimes there is no soloist. Or, if there is, he’s just another cog in the machine. The guitarist, who is traditionally the dominant musician (at least in rock’n’roll) has also receded into the background. The percussionist, the keyboard person or the trumpeter is now usually more central. And strangest of all: this band no longer calls itself a band. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for the orchestra.

More and more groups are forsaking the rock band format in favor of a bigger, more instrumental, more polyphonic lineup. Some of them dub themselves an orchestra, while others make do with orchestral DNA without resorting to the actual word.

In fact, not only is a growing number of groups choosing the orchestral option, they are also exceptionally good at what they do. The Kutiman Orchestra was the star of the rhythm festival held not long ago at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. The largely instrumental musical combination it distilled on the stage, a mix of groove, funk, jazz and electronic, was positively intoxicating.

Igor Krutogolov’s Toy Orchestra, which is situated more on the fringe than Kutiman, recently launched its new album. The joy in the basement of the Levontin 7 club knew no bounds at the fanfare emitted by the plastic clarinets, the quacking of the bathtub duckies and the mooing of the rubber cows.

Balkan Beat Box is not an orchestra, but when it embarked on an acoustic-based tour a couple of months ago, it behaved and sounded like one. There were no fewer than nine musicians on the stage. The soloist, Tomer Yosef, wasn’t even first among equals (that role was taken by the percussionist, Tamir Muskat), and the music that burst out recalled a Brazilian batucada, only with a more Balkan-oriental lineup of instruments.

There are also other orchestras that don’t play Mahler or Ellington but blend into the space of contemporary popular music, even if their material is far from pop. The Avi Lebovich Orchestra comes from the world of jazz, but likes to leave it. Last month, a recording was released of a concert in which the orchestra, accompanied by rotating soloists, played songs of Yankele Rotblit. Another ensemble that has emerged in the past few months is the Hoodna Afrobeat Orchestra, consisting of 13 instrumentalists. Their name indicates their style, but not the high quality and the joy that bursts from their playing.

Orchestras that play North African and oriental art music are also flourishing. The two Andalusian orchestras, from Ashdod and from Ashkelon, have lately been joined by an orchestra that plays classical oriental works. The Ashkelon-based orchestra has released an album together with the rock band Knesiyat Hasekhel, while the Ashdod-based orchestra collaborated with the singer Amir Benayoun and will soon collaborate on a show with a surprising partner: the singer-songwriter Danny Sanderson.

Complementing the emergence of the orchestra, albeit at the opposite pole, we find the minimalist band. The crisis of the traditional band has brought about a minor resurgence of a format that was long somnolent: the duo. Among the duos that have been picked up recently on the local radar are Ivri Lider’s TYP, Bney Hama, Avodot Afar and Yuppies With Jeeps. The most recent splash in this sector was made by the duo Loco Hot, consisting of Gilad Kahana and Tamir Muskat, which released an album a few weeks ago.

But a duo is a big band compared to one of the smallest and most vigorous projects in contemporary Israeli music: Dani Dorchin’s one-man band. I first heard Dorchin sing and play the harmonica about a year ago at a concert by the American blues singer KM Williams. Dorchin was only the accompanist of the warm-up performer, Noam Dayan, but even from that lowly status he stood out as a talented, passionate musician.

Not long after that show, he entered a studio with the producer Uri Werthein and recorded a splendid album, titled, aptly, “One Man Band.” Dorchin is the only musician in the “band” – he plays electric guitar, harmonica and a small set of drums simultaneously (apparently working the drums with a foot). He also sings – with the same passion he exhibited in the concert – rough, dirty songs that fuse blues with garage rock.

When you listen to the album without seeing Dorchin perform, the fact that he is doing everything alone and live is not self-evident. Only the raw beating of the foot on the drum testifies to the unusual format, and even if the drumbeats have a certain woodenness about them, this does not in the least detract from the tremendous enjoyment the album provides. On stage it must be even more exciting.

Kerstin Muller