16 March 2015

Exclusive Pics: Electric Desert live at the Sounds of the Old City music festival, 11 March 2015

Electric Desert are a young Israeli band that combines a late '60s/early '70s psychedelic rock vibe with a Middle Eastern groove and tonality. On their 2014 album, guitarist Nir Popliker trades fuzz guitar licks with Barak Sober's flute runs. 

But onstage at last week's Sounds of the Old City festival, Sober's place was filled by soprano saxophonist Ayalon Toshiner, whose expressive klezmer-style playing provided a great contrast to the rest of the band's rock groove. During their first set, sans percussionist Gavriel Friesem, drummer Udi Krauss kept the groove going and, together with bassist Omer Lutzky, had the crowd dancing and tapping their feet. 

I don't know whether Toshiner is a permanent replacement for Sober or just a stand-in, but I would highly recommend that the band keeps him on board as a full-time member. He's terrific!

This band is definitely one to watch.

14 March 2015

Exclusive Pics: Lazer Lloyd live at the Sounds of the Old City music festival, 11 March 2015

To hear authentic live blues, you need to get on a plane and go to Chicago, or Austin, or Memphis, and find a proper blues club, right? Wrong! Israeli-American blues guitarist Lazer Lloyd (Eliezer Blumen) plays  some of the best live blues around today. He is one of Israel's best guitarists and regularly plays clubs all over the country. He could comfortably take the stage with the all-stars at Eric Clapton's Crossroads festival, easily holding his own with the legends that join Clapton for a jam.

Last week, at the Sounds of the Old City festival in Jerusalem's historic walled city, Lazer's trio--Lazer on guitar, Moshe Davidson on bass, and Erez Simon on drums--played a couple of absolutely smoking sets of electric Jewish blues, channeling Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, and more. But the big difference between Lazer and the blues greats who influenced him is that Lazer plays the blues through a lens of Jewish spirituality. Whether playing a bluesy "Mishenichnas Adar," playing his own originals like the new tune, "Burning Thunder," from his upcoming album, or getting the crowd to sing along to get their "Mojo working," he had the crowd in his hands.

If you get the chance to see Lazer and his trio, in Israel or overseas, don't pass it up.

04 February 2014

Did Pete Seeger Actually Endorse BDS?

Over the last week, since Pete Seeger died, many people (including Jewz Rock Too, on our Facebook feed) have been posting Pete Seeger's Hebrew and Yiddish repertoire and pointing out his connection to Israel. In fact, Seeger spent time touring kibbutzim, moshavim, and development towns across Israel in 1964 and again in 1967. He had great sympathy for the pioneering, hard-working Israelis, especially the socialist kibbutznikim. He of course vocally advocated peace in the Middle East (as he did for all conflicts--he was a well-known peace activist). But in the last few days, people have been republishing articles pointing to Seeger's support of the anti-Israel BDS campaign. But, was Seeger really a supporter of this hate-driven propaganda movement?
Pete Seeger performing in Israel in January, 1964

In 2010, Seeger agreed to appear in a virtual fundraising event for the Arava Institute, an organization that brings Jews and Arabs together to work on environmental and sustainability issues in Israel's southern desert region. Immediately, the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement, through the New York branch of the Adalah organization, began to petition Seeger to boycott the event. Seeger participated in the event, saying,

“I understand why someone would want to boycott a place financially, but I don’t understand why you would boycott dialogue. . . . The world will not be here in 50 years unless we learn how to communicate with each other nonviolently.

After the event, in early 2011, Seeger met with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a pro-Arab group that claims that the JNF is driving the Bedouin out of areas that "belong" to them and that protests enforcement of Israeli law when it comes to illegal Arab squatting on government and JNF-owned land [see note below]. As a result of that meeting, Adalah announced that Seeger had signed on to support the BDS movement. The press immediately picked up the story and widely publicized it.

Only one news agency actually took the time to follow up with Seeger himself to confirm Adalah's announcement. JTA, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, is a Jewish news agency that supplies news stories to Jewish news outlets around the world. According to JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff, who contacted Seeger days after Adalah's press release, "Seeger told JTA by phone Wednesday that he 'probably said' that, but added that he is still learning a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his 'opinions waver with each piece of information' he receives. The 92-year-old musician also said that contrary to the Adalah-NY report, he does not regret taking part in last November’s online peace rally 'With Earth and Each Other,' which was mounted in support of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel."

From all the evidence we can find, it seems that Seeger was not an outspoken or committed supporter of BDS, and merely considered supporting the anti-Israel initiative. Israelis who knew him claimed that he would not have endorsed a boycott, and he apparently did not ever publicly call for a boycott of Israel. While Seeger's politics were always with the "peace" camp and with the "social justice" movements, over the course of his life he appeared to be sympathetic to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

I, for one, am willing to give Seeger the benefit of the doubt and to dismiss the claims of the BDS movement and Adalah.

Note about land ownership and the JNF

Let's get our facts straight (without getting caught up in the ICAHD and Adalah propaganda): The JNF actually purchases land. Land ownership in Israel is based on the "Tabo" Land Registry system that has been in place since the 1800s, established by the Ottoman Empire, and kept in place by the British during the Mandate, and by the State of Israel to this day. Any person, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or other, who has legal claim to the land he lives on will have records in the Land Registry office proving ownership. Israel only removes squatters who have settled the land illegally, and only a small minority at that.

Ariel Zilber's "Acceptance Speech"

At last night's ACUM awards ceremony, Ariel Zilber took the stage as Mosh Ben Ari started to perform a cover of Zilber's song "V'Eich Shelo" and apologized to Ben Ari for interrupting, but said that he had some things he really wanted to say. Zilber addressed the controversy around his Lifetime Achievement Award being rescinded due to pressure initiated and promoted by left-wing singer Ahinoam Nini, without mentioning her by name.

"I apologize for interrupting the song, but I have something to say. . . . I would like to thank the members of ACUM for awarding me the Lifetime Achievement Award--thank you very much.

"I am the grandson of Aryeh and Sara Zilber, of blessed memory, who were among the founders of Tel Aviv, in the distant past. I am the son of Bracha Tzifra, of blessed memory, who was influential in defining Israeli music, and Ben Ami Zilber, a violinist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. I am from here, from this land, and am thankful for that fact every day. I am like a lone pine tree [a reference to one of his most popular songs--ed.], standing against fire and water, expressing my feelings through notes.

"All of this divisiveness is not easy for me. I am against boycotts and in favor of allowing a person to express their opinion. I am a proud Jew and Israeli. Let's remain connected to one another through [the prism of] our childhood memories.(Those are not my words, but the words of Yuval Nissenboim, my producer.)

". . . Alongside the feelings of happiness and love--'Love thy neighbor as thy love thyself'--I feel that I have been made the punching bag for groups with agendas and frustrated artists who are constantly trying to reinvent my 'extremism.'

"Now, in my own words, I'd like to say--the members of the ACUM directorate have trampled the right of the artist to express their own opinion, they have divorced the songs from the artist. . . . They told me (they were rewarding me for) songs from a long time ago. But don't the songs I have written recently count? Songs born of all sorts of thoughts I have, (for example) a song about a shark and sardines [a reference to a protest song he released in 2008], does that count, or just those songs that are meaningless? I'd like to know if that was their intent. . . . What can you do? There is a person behind the songs. You missed a golden opportunity to be an example of unity in the nation and the freedom of opinion that we so need.

"I would return the prize, but I cannot turn my back on the outpouring of love and support I have received over the last few days. . . .

"At first I thought it was only the directorate, but then I found out that Yurik Ben David said that he doesn't see anything wrong with disqualifying someone because of his political views.

I would (like to) shut down ACUM (as it is today) and build a new ACUM, one that said there is room for every opinion in this nation; like in the Talmud, where every person has at least 10 different opinions, and everyone (freely) expresses all those opinions. And ACUM (today) is not fulfilling its mission. . . .

"That's what I have to say. I am an Israeli and a Jew, one of you. I stand here as a strong pine tree in the eye of the storm. (ACUM,) Get down off the tree. . . ."

 After the ceremony, Zilber told reporters, "I will not let these leftists destroy my life."

A Well-Deserved Prize and a Shameful Snub

"It's a very important thing to learn to talk to people you disagree with."
- Pete Seeger

A couple of weeks ago, ACUM, the Israeli organization that licenses and collects royalties for creators'/artists' works, announced that it would be giving its coveted 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award to songwriter/artist Ariel Zilber. ACUM's statement upon announcing the prize was, "Zilber's work stands out in its originality and its freshness, with its fusion of ethnic and modern music styles. We recognize that Zilber has redefined the musical mainstream [in Israel--ed.] by bringing fringe music to the center." (My loose translation.)

Although Zilber's career started as a songwriter for artists in France and Israel in the late '60s/early '70s, he became well-known in Israel in the mid-'70s, as a member of the successful band Tammuz, along with Shalom Chanoch. After Tammuz, Zilber launched a very successful solo career that spanned the mid-'70s through the end of the '80s. After a break of several years, Zilber returned to the public eye with strong right-wing statements that the press and many of his contemporaries branded controversial. (He has since publicly apologized for the most controversial and hurtful of those statements.) As a result, many famous Israeli musicians refused to appear with him, and he was pushed to the edges of the Israeli musical scene. During the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Gush Katif and the Gaza Strip, Zilber moved his home to one the Northern Gaza communities and was a vocal opponent of the plan, writing and performing strong protest songs about the politics of the day. At that time he also started becoming religiously observant. When he released his 2008 album, Politically Correct (an album full of right-wing protest songs), none of Israel's music distributors would put it in the stores and he was forced to sell it independently. It took him until 2011 to find a national distributor to put the album on the shelves and make it available to the general public.


When Zilber's Lifetime Achievement Award was announced, another prominent prize winner for this year's ACUM ceremony, Achinoam Nini (Noa), announced that she would not accept her prize nor appear at the ceremony, as she refuses to share the stage with Zilber. Nini is well known for her radical left-wing views, views that are as far to the left as Zilber's are right (if not farther). Nini's very public opposition to Zilber receiving the prize made headlines across the Israeli press, and resulted in vocal support of rescinding the award from ACUM director Dalia Rabin (the late prime minister's daughter). Ultimately, ACUM decided yesterday to reduce the prize to a "Prize for Contribution to Music"--a watered-down prize (with a much smaller monetary award attached to it). Despite this slap in the face, Zilber has announced he will attend the ceremony and accept the prize as well as speak at the event.

Pete Seeger, who passed away last week, was considered the "father" of the protest song. His protest came with a well-formed and strong left-wing socialist/(non-Soviet) communist agenda, but I have no doubt he would have been more than willing to sit down with Zilber and discuss their very different world views and political approaches over a few cups of coffee and a good meal.

 Music is a powerful communication tool. If you use it to express your opinion while being open to hearing opposing viewpoints, like Seeger did, you use it wisely and for good. If you use your music and popularity to boycott and spread hate, you are abusing the power of music. Nini has used her popularity and the power of her music to boycott and quash all possible discussion and discourse. If you don't agree with her politics, you are persona non-grata, not worthy of even being in the same room as her, not to mention engaging in a civil and meaningful discussion about your opposing views. Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Nini, who ahs a long history of this sort of behavior. Zilber, at least, is using this opportunity for communication, and despite the politically-motivated snub, is not boycotting and not reacting with anger or hate.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, whether your worldview is close to his or far from it, Ariel Zilber's music and songs have had a lasting impact on the Israeli music scene, and he deserves recognition for his career and his important body of work. More power to you, Ariel Zilber; even if ACUM won't award you a Lifetime Achievement Award, we do (with no monetary compensation attached, unfortunately). More power to you.