The accordion has pride of place in the history of this still young state. The iconic image of groups of kibbutznikim, or other hale and hearty pioneering characters, sitting around a campfire while a squeezebox operator – preferably wearing a kova tembel, as the inverted basin-shaped hat was affectionately known – played some stirring singalong tunes, has pride of place in Israeli folklore.
Over the years, however, the accordion has spread its genre and stylistic wings in the consciousness of the general public and, when 40-year-old New York resident Uri Sharlin performs at this year’s winter version of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (February 13, 5:45 p.m.), the audience at the Royal Garden Hotel will get a rich brew of “jazz spiced up with Balkan, Brazilian and Arab scents,” as the festival blurb has it.
Actually, there are even more strands to Sharlin’s cross-cultural musical baggage, with Irish rhythms and Klezmer melodies also making their way into his output.
Sharlin has put together a suitably multipronged act to help him pump out the requisite textures and energies, and he will be joined by the other mostly New Yorkbased four members of his DogCat Ensemble which features flutist Itai Kriss, guitarist Jonathan Albalak, bassist Daniel Ori and drummer Dan Aran.
Sharlin took his first infant steps into the wonderland of music at the age of seven.
Naturally, the accordion was a bit hefty for such a young lad.
“I started in piano,” he says. “I tried the accordion at the age of 13 – I remember that because I played something on accordion at my bar mitzva – but I dropped it after about six months.” It was initially sibling rivalry that led the youngster in the direction of the stomach Steinway. “My brother also played piano and I decided it was too much for both of us to play the same instrument,” explains Sharlin. “He was very good too.”
He eventually got back to the accordion after crossing the pond in 1998 and it was some fellow newcomers that reintroduced him to the instrument.
“I went to City College [in Harlem, New York] and there I started to play with Columbian musicians who taught me about their music, and the accordion is an important part of Columbian music.
When they heard I’d played the accordion as a kid they tried to convince me to take it up again.”
Thankfully, Sharlin’s new South American pals held sway, and his path back to the squeezebox was well and truly paved.
“They asked me to play in a show with them,” he recalls, adding that he refreshed his memory as he went along. “I got back into playing the accordion and I got better with each performance. The show ran for a couple of months or so. After the run ended – there were about 30 shows – I really knew how to play the accordion.”
Sounds like the definitive “university of the streets” approach.
Had Sharlin stayed in Israel it is more than likely that he would have continued to chart his course in music on piano.
When he was a youngster, the accordion was still almost exclusively associated with the musical expression of Zionist fervor, and was not considered the most “sexy” of instruments.
“When I was 13 I got called names like Yatzek,” says Sharlin, referring to the accordion- playing kova tembel-clad pioneer character played by Shlomo Baraba in long running TV comedy series Zehu Zeh. “Being called Yatzek wasn’t too cool, but when I got to New York, and I saw the Columbians and the Dominicans playing accordion I thought that was great.”
The accordion has gained a pretty high profile in jazz over the past couple of decades or so, thanks to the virtuosic efforts of the likes of French jazz player Richard Galliano. In fact, it is a popular instrument in all sorts of cultures, and Sharlin has had plenty of avenues to pursue since he returned to the accordion.
“The accordion is an important instrument all over the world,” he notes. “As soon as I got back to the accordion I got involved in all sports of projects – folk, jazz and a lot of modern Western styles. I started playing with Moroccan bands and Brazilian bands, and I have played in Brazil quite a few times.”
Much of that eclectic spread finds its way into Sharlin’s current performance vehicle.
“It’s a sort of strange mix of classical music and jazz, and a lot of Brazilian music and a lot of Macedonian and Bulgarian stuff. All sorts.”
In a nutshell, it is the sum of all the parts of Sharlin’s wide-ranging musical education to date.
“At a certain age you realize that everything is a part of everything, and everything complements everything else. Things are very dynamic. At the end of the day it’s all music, it’s all sound. You just have to find your own sound. It’s not easy.”
Sharlin says he can do all of that with the DogCat Ensemble.
“I play the music I love with this band. I love playing classical music, and if I could spend all day playing classical music at home that would be fantastic. But, with classical music, there is a kind of pressure on the musician to be very precise in his playing. Jazz is much freer.”
Jazz, and all the manifold musical lines that Sharlin and the rest of the gang will string out in Eilat on Saturday.
For more information about the Red Sea Jazz Festival: http://redseajazz.co.il.