Brothers Hasan and Rami Nakhleh, from the Golan Heights Druze village of Majdal Shams, were raised on classical music. Classical Arab music, that is. Hassan studied Oriental violin. He can play, in their considerable entirety, works made famous by singers Umm Kulthum, Fairuz and other great "roots" musicians, as he calls them. The whole family often came together in the morning to play music.
"As teenagers we started listening to Bob Marley. We liked metal too, and we were crazy about Tupac [Shakur] for a while," Hasan said, "but after being exposed to Miles Davis's cool jazz, our entire approach to music changed. Today our favorite groups are Tinariwen [a band of musicians from the nomadic Tuareg tribe of the Sahara Desert], and Gnawa Diffusion [a French band that combines North African music with rock, reggae and dub].
These days Rami, 20, is the drummer and Hassan, 24, the guitarist and lead singer of Toot Ard (Arabic for "strawberry" ). Three friends from Majdal Shams complete the lineup: Shady Awidat, 21, on guitar; Haifa Technion engineering student Amr Mdah, 20, on saxophone; and bassist Yezan Abrahim, a recent high-school graduate and soon-to-be music student.
Imaginary border of Jamaica and Algeria
Toot Ard is like no other group in Israel. Its music sounds as if it comes from someplace far away - perhaps an imaginary border between Jamaica and Algeria - certainly not from the Golan Heights. It is a fusion of influences from home and beyond together with its members' optimistic, naive worldview. of its members. Their debut recording is set for an October release on local label Jama'a.
"We just returned from Ramallah, where we met with friends and some guy who doesn't know it but is the [Pearl Jam lead singer] Eddie Vedder of Ramallah," Rami told us in an interview held in Tel Aviv. "What he does is very reminiscent of the music Vedder did for the soundtrack of 'Into the Wild.' We plan to perform with him soon," Rami said.
How was your performance at Barby in Tel Aviv last month, at the birthday party for the music and culture website cafe-gibraltar.com?
"We waited a long time and didn't go on stage until 2 A.M. The audience was really happy. Only those who didn't want to miss the music stayed. It was our first time in front of an audience that wasn't mixed," Rami said.
"We've played Rogatka and Levontin 7, but we sing in Arabic, and there have always been a lot of guys from Jaffa in the audience. Barby was our first time before an all-Jewish crowd," Rami said.
Toot Ard has performed in Nazareth, Acre, Haifa, Ramallah, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but before its successful appearance at Barbie in August, Israeli Jews were most likely to have encountered the ensemble at small political demonstrations.
"The last gig in Ramallah was at a bar with about 400 people inside; 200 remained outside. People were jumping up and down like crazy, it was a lot of fun," Hasan said.
Can I come to see you in Ramallah?
"Yes, theoretically, but it's uncomfortable for the people who live there to see you, knowing that afterward you return home and you are able to go to the beach. The people there are dying to go to the beach but they can't. You can come and enjoy it along with them, but they'll envy you," Hasan said.
Do you listen to Israeli music?
"No, most of the popular Mizrahi music isn't interesting, just an imitation of the true greats from the past. Actually, we really like Balkan Beat Box," Hasan said.
Have you ever played somewhere where the audience just didn't get you?
"We've appeared at some Arab festivals before an older audience," Hasan said. "For example, in Nazareth, in front of a thousand people, the kind where the audience stays seated and there are speeches. There we were a little 'weirdos' [he says this in English - U.Z.A.] jumping up and down and going wild on stage, but they liked it."
Is Toot Ard a Druze group?
"No, we are not Druze; our parents are Druze. I don't represent the Druze and they don't represent me. We've had blood tests and they didn't indicate we were Druze. That is, being Druze is a concept that you choose. I've never opened the six holy books, maybe once when I was little. I'm always told that if I'm from Majdal Shams I must be Druze. But, look, I'm from there and I'm not Druze," Hasan said.
How do your parents relate to what you do?
"Now they like it, but at first they didn't like the whole lifestyle we chose for ourselves," Rami said. "It isn't so acceptable to behave like stoners there, and they'd prefer to see us making money rather than music."
How do you support yourselves? After all, it's hard to make a living from music in this country.
"We're a little bit like hippies, you know, we don't need a lot," Hasan said. "We buy secondhand clothing, sometimes make a little money playing, and sometimes work in gardening. That's the style. I think it's a waste of time to work in order to get money. The things you need you can get with very little money. We know what we need and it isn't material things."
You sing about love, peace, nature and colors. Why don't you get into more specific issues?
"It's all just a lot of political nonsense. To get into that is to get lost in the system again. We always sing about the big picture where things are very healthy and spontaneous. We don't feel confident about singing about more specific issues because they are too complicated for us. We sing about going back to nature, on the disappearance of national borders and about the idea of freedom. We live in the middle of the Middle East and have never visited any Arab country. We're trapped in what is called Israel," Hasan said.
What is your album called?
"Shit, we still don't know," Hasan said. "There isn't one single concept that dominates the whole album so it's hard for us to decide."
But there is a particular mood connecting all the songs.
"Nature music [in English]. "The words are very simple and we don't get into complicated language," Rami said. "There are two umbrellas under which our music can be placed. One is nature, hallucinations and prehistoric man. If we could only turn back time and live like animals. The second relates to our situation in the here and now. The themes are very varied. In 'Jenna,' for example, we sing about the political complexity we were born into, the home we come from. But the song doesn't deal with our specific situation, rather to open one's eyes and see above the system we were born into."