The music scene is Israel has been quietly simmering away in the Middle Eastern sun for a few years now, but as of late it really has been bringing out some great bands, with the likes of Balkan Beat Box, Geva Alon, Yemen Blues, Asaf Avidan, The Apples and Riff Cohen making waves internationally as new music makers. One band that has been drawing some attention in the capitals of Europe is a five-piece groove-based outfit from Jerusalem called Coolooloosh. Pretty much any scenester in Israel will extol the virtues of this band, whose original take on funk and dancefloor styles has been steadily winning fans at home and abroad.
The Jerusalem Post caught up with Joel Covington (MC), Yuval Gerstein (guitar and vocals), Ori Winokur (bass and vocals), Yogev Shitrit (drums) and Ongy Zisling (saxophone) in London’s Brick Lane for a bagel and a breakdown of the boogie that packed out the Bedroom Bar in East London just the night before.
What many have asked, of course, is where the name of the band originated, with its blend of English and Hebrew slang terminology. And furthermore, what it means “It’s a slang word from Jerusalem,” explains Gerstein. “It’s something that kids playing in the street say when they throw stuff in the air. They shout ‘Coolooloosh!’” It was around 2003 that the group was first formed from a loose affiliation of music students in the streets and the bars and clubs of Jerusalem.
“I came to Israel in 1999,” says Covington, aka Rebel Sun, who hails from Baltimore, Maryland. “At first I was planning just to come on a trip, but I ended up staying. I hooked up with the guys after seeing them gig about the city, but it was at one of the local spots, The Diwan, where we first met properly.”
The band cut its teeth on the Jerusalem scene, but after a few years, like so many other acts before them, the gravity pull of the Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv became greater than the stones of Jerusalem’s Old City.
“We had established ourselves as a band, but we felt that we needed to develop – and developing musically in Israel means moving to Tel Aviv. It was easier once we got settled there, as the whole industry is based in Tel Aviv,” explains Gerstein.
From the hills to the desert to the coast, there is quite an established funk scene in Tel Aviv, with bands like The Apples and Funk’N’Stein and producers like Kutiman and Idan K (Anikuku).
“I think that it’s happening in Israel because although there is a lot of fun going on in Israel, there is also something heavy going on,” says Winokur.
“So art is always there – not as an escape from reality but to alternate it, to make it something that they can enjoy. Groove is something that can really relate to the Middle East because it is something that is close to Africa.”
As in any city the world over, for a groove-based band, getting typecast is often a pitfall of the passion. But this band doesn’t cut a straight funk chop. It’s not a funk classics cover band or a James Brown tribute act. There is something less curated, more alive and fluid in the music that Coolooloosh makes.
Covington illuminates: “Our former sax player, Arik, was really into hassidic and African music, and he brought his color to it. Now we have Ongy, and he brings a whole different color to it with old-school, heavy soul and funk. So we are now combining jazz and rock with Middle Eastern sounds and styles and colors.”
As well as fusing styles, the band has been taking in some surprising collaborations, including 1990s superstar dance vocalist Daniel Bedingfield.
“It happened so randomly,” says Winokur. “We jammed in a club in Tel Aviv, and he just jumped on stage and we played. Its was great. The place was really hot – smoking! A few days later, Yuvi popped out to get pizza mid-recording session and met him randomly on the street corner and invited him up to listen.
He liked it and just turned on and said, ‘I want to do this now.’ We worked for four hours straight to get the take, and we nailed it.”
The band has also been working with trumpeter Avishai Cohen and French vocalist Leslie Philipps, who joined them recently on stage at a sold-out festival at the Jerusalem Theatre. From there, the band went to London to play a few shows in the UK before flying to Germany to join Geva Alon and Sharron Levy for the Invasion tour. Upon its return, the band is set to throw itself into more music-making.
In this time of a fragmented music industry, it looks like Coolooloosh, which comprises so many talented musicians who have embraced their passions, is destined for great things. It just goes to show that if you work hard and hone your art, you will reap the rewards.With a heavy touring schedule and a recent record deal with a German record label, the rewards look set to be theirs.