Archaeologists of Mediterranean Music

Tel Aviv-based Fortuna Records has been digging up some musical gems for DJs to play.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
The four DJs who comprise Fortuna Records: Maor Anava, Zach Bar, Ariel Tagar and Yoav Magriso.
The four DJs who comprise Fortuna Records: Maor Anava, Zach Bar, Ariel Tagar and Yoav Magriso.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Fortuna Records may be the first Israeli record label to operate from the Dubai area. Actually, it operates in a small alley close to Allenby Street in Tel Aviv but under certain circumstances, when they are asked where they are located, they prefer to say “from the Dubai area.” It’s not a total lie, it depends on how one defines “area.” This serves Fortuna’s goals, which coincide with the interests of music lovers in Israel and across the globe, much better than a precise answer such as “Tel Aviv” can.

Not long ago, says Maor Anava, one of the four people who make up Fortuna (the others being Zach Bar, Ariel Tagar and Yoav Magriso), he contacted a producer in Beirut in order to find out if they could purchase the rights for a Lebanese record made in the 1970s, which really excited them and made them want to reprint it under their own label. The producer sounded interested and asked where Anava was calling from. “I see that the country code is 972. Are you calling from Dubai?” he asked (Dubai’s code is 973). “The Dubai area,” responded Anava. The producer did not give up. “Yes, but where are you right now?” he asked. The best answer Anava could do was “right now I’m in Tel Aviv.” “There was silence at the other end of the line,” he reconstructs the event. “He then said ‘OK, I welcome you my brother.’ Since then he hasn’t answered the phone or emails.”

Happily, such geographical juggling isn’t always required. The last release by Fortuna was another small Lebanese record, whose owner wasn’t scared off by the Israeli label. The music is by composer and keyboard player Ihsan al-Munzer, who played with the best Lebanese performers such as Fayrouz, as well as recording instrumental pieces under his own name. Two of these, called “Jamileh” and “The Joy of Lina,” were put out by Fortuna last month. Thus, following an initiative by four Israelis, music recorded in Beirut in 1979 is enjoying a new lease on life, reaching dance floors in clubs, radio stations and blogs around the world.

Al-Munzer reached Fortuna’s attention due to a sample from “The joy of Lina” that appeared in a piece by a French hip-hop producer. The sample led them to other pieces of al-Munzer that appear on the Internet.

However, in order to hear the whole record and discover the entire story they visited a collector of Lebanese music in the Israeli Druze town of Daliat al-Carmel. The collector is interested in authentic music and wasn’t keen on al-Munzer’s album, in which the unequivocal hero is the synthesizer. In contrast, the people from Fortuna were very excited by the music.

“We like synthesizers and older organs such as the Moog and Farfisa, we like the drums up front, and when we find this sound in the musical space of the Middle East, we want to publish it at Fortuna,” says Bar.

Fortuna was born four years ago after Bar, Tagar and Anava came across a record by the now-forgotten singer Tsvia Abarbanel. A friend who worked at a Tel Aviv record shop heard the rare record (sold to them by songwriter-journalist-playwright Didi Menusi’s widow) and called the people at Fortuna to come and listen to the wonder. This started a “crazy obsession,” relates Tagar.

Abarbanel came to Israel from Yemen in the 1940s. She danced and sang as a member of the Inbal dance troupe. In the mid-1960s she went to study in Los Angeles, where she discovered black American music. She told the Fortuna group, which came to meet her at her house, that she’d see open performances in the black neighborhood of Watts on weekends, by performers such as Ray Charles, James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

When she returned to Israel at the end of the 1960s she approached saxophonist Albert Piamenta, telling him she wished to blend Yemenite music with jazz. The result was a record called “Songs of the Heart,” which she recorded in 1970 with a group called “Piamenta’s Guys.” This glorious record was released privately. No company would finance it, and the radio wouldn’t play it.

“This was one woman’s obsession, which was one of the things that excited us about it,” says Tagar. This is how Fortuna’s first release came about.

One of the nice things about this record, beside the music itself, is that Abarbanel’s lonely obsession in 1970 has become a cultural reality at the time of its renewed release by Fortuna. The current wave of Eastern Indie or Eastern groove music, with musicians such as Shai Tsabari or the “A-Wa” Yemenite music band derives from work by Abarbanel (and many others, obviously), bringing to fruition what she could not achieve in the cultural reality of Israel in 1970. The preservation and exposure by Fortuna is one of the important links in this welcome process.

A similar thing is happening with another album that came out a few months ago, “Mezare Israel Yekabtzenu.” It is performed by the “Jazz Workshop,” a quartet that includes Piamenta, pianist Danny Gottfried, double bassist Teddy Kling and drummer Jerry Garwell. The album was first recorded in 1971, becoming the first instrumental jazz album to be recorded in Israel. It was a pioneering attempt to create unique Israeli jazz, blending American jazz with Eastern tunes and sounds.

This attempt was not picked up at first, but 30 years later increasing numbers of young Israeli jazz musicians are starting to follow that creative path, whether they’re conscious of the Jazz Workshop or not. Re-releasing this album increases the chances that more musicians and jazz lovers will become acquainted with the original version.

One of Fortuna’s releases that aroused the most interest here and abroad was the sole album of the young female singer Grazia Peretz. She was a highly sought-after singer at parties in the mid-to-late 1970s, singing in Turkish and Greek. In 1978, at the height of the disco craze, she recorded an album at Israel’s Koliphone studios, conducted by keyboard player and musician Marko Bachar (who came from singer Zvika Pik’s band). Her album combined disco grooves with Turkish singing. She was only 16.

The album flopped. “It was too Turkish for the disco crowd and too disco for the Turkish music lovers,” says Bar. Over the years it acquired the status of a sought-after and valuable album for collectors. Its renewed release by Fortuna has focused attention on the new label. Grazia currently lives in Beit She’an and performs at parties.

The records put out by Fortuna are of interest mainly for collectors, but the main target for their label is DJs and their audience. The people at Fortuna are also DJs, well-connected in that world (their best ambassador is the highly influential British DJ Gilles Peterson, who constantly plays Abarbanel on his sets). Before issuing an album they mainly ask themselves if the music will work on a club’s dance floor. Recently, they have been working as DJs with music they put out at Fortuna.

Next Friday they will be at the Sunbeat Music Festival, to be held on June 12-13 at Park Hayarden (The Jordan Park) just north of the Sea of Galilee. The festival will include performances by the Romanian band Taraf, J.Viewz (who will host Geva Alon), Dirty Honkers, Hoodna Afrobeat Orchestra (which will host the Angolan songstress Romi) and Anikuku.

Fortuna members often perform as DJs overseas, recently appearing at leading European clubs as part of the fashionable “Boiler Room” parties. After the exposure, they have been receiving many invitations to play in Greece. “At first it seemed strange – why would they want to hear Greek music produced in Israel?” asks Tagar. “But the younger generation in Greece is rediscovering their older music after trying for years to be European, ashamed of their plate-shattering culture. It’s a bit similar to what’s happening here with Mizrahi [Eastern] music.”

A propos Greece – the next single disc to come out at Fortuna “will be one of the most played pieces in Israel over the last 50 years,” says Anava. “This is ‘Bum Pam’ by Aris San, with the wonderful ‘Dam Dam’ on its other side.” The world hardly knows Aris San, and Fortuna is hoping that the disc will change this. They will release this disc, just like all their recent ones, in digital format as well, realizing that producing vinyl-only music (as they did with their first releases) will limit the music’s impact. They don’t hide their desire that the music will also reach commercial agents. “Advertisers, TV producers, fashion companies – that’s definitely one of our targets” says Bar.

When asked about future releases, they wonder how many old gems still remain in Israel. Anava says that the end of available material is in sight, but Magriso disagrees. “We always find new items. Someone shows up with some old recordings from some small studio in which some Greek singers were recorded in the 1970s. Some of these are right under our noses.”

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