One wouldn’t normally associate Arad with musical endeavor on a grand scale, particularly of the more mass appeal ilk. True, the annual Arad Festival is a mainstream entertainment affair that attracts some of the biggest names in the local industry, but over the years there has been little room for locally based talent in the artist lineup – until now.
This year, from August 19 to 22, Arad and its environs will host an impressive number of crowd-pulling Israeli rock, pop and ethnic music acts, such as Shlomo Gronich, Sarit Hadad and a team of polished entertainers from the Israeli TV talent show The Voice – Eric Berman, Asaf Amdurski and Micha Shitrit, to note but a few. One name that is unlikely to ring too many bells among the festival patrons is that of Negba, a young rock quartet based, yes, in Arad.
Considering that the band was just established last year, works from a town that is considered by most to be way off the cultural beaten track and has only two numbers available for viewing and listening pleasure on YouTube – although a debut CD is in the works – that is hardly surprising. But, by all accounts, Negba appears to be a pretty accomplished outfit. The principal songwriters are vocalist Idan Shahori and guitarist Mordechai (Mordy) Ben-Hemo, with bassist Max Malakov and drummer Techelet Ben-Yehuda completing the lineup.
Judging by the two Negba songs released to date – “Yissurim” (Agony) and “Katzeh” (Edge) – there is far more than pure rock sentiments coursing through the musicians’ veins and minds. Ben- Hemo is a multicultural, cross-genre case in point. The 39-year-old guitarist was born in Algeria in the town of Ghardaia on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
“I have been told I am probably the last Jew to have been born in Algeria, and that might very well be true,” he says, his accent laced with an appealing mix of soft Gallic and guttural Arabic brogues.
While he grew up speaking Arabic, his family followed a short-lived aliya attempt in the 1980s with several years in Paris. The guitarist came back here to live eight years ago.
In between geographical transitions, Ben-Hemo’s musical evolution followed a meandering path as well.
“I grew up with Algerian music, but everything changed when I heard Michael Jackson when I was 10,” he recalls. “In [Jackson’s megahit] ‘Beat It,’ there is this amazing guitar solo by [Eddie] Van Halen. When I heard it I said, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do with my life – to play rock guitar.’” At that time, the Ben-Hemo family had taken up residence in Paris, and the youngster pursued his newfound musical dream with relentless determination.
“I drove everyone crazy, and eventually I was registered at the local music conservatory in the 11th arondissement of Paris, where we lived,” says Ben-Hemo. But his delight at being offered the opportunity to embark on some serious musical education was soon tempered. “They told me I had to learn theory for a year or two and, of course, would not be allowed to lay a finger on a guitar during that time, and then I’d play Bach on classical guitar. It sounded like a nightmare scenario to me.”
However, serendipity soon pointed the teenager back in his desired direction.
“I lost my way in the academy one day, and when I passed by one of the rooms, I heard someone playing an electric guitar. He was playing jazz. At the time I didn’t particularly like jazz. I was completely into Van Halen back then. Neighbors of mine made me a cassette of his stuff, and I listened to it thousands of times,” he recounts. “There I was, this little Eastern kid listening to Van Halen from morning till night. I bet that was a strange thing for some people.”
Ben-Hemo feels that he benefited from the low-tech format he had at his disposal.
“There was no Internet, no YouTube in those days, so I’d imagine how Van Halen looked when he played the music I listened to on that tape. That helped me develop my imagination,” he explains.
Jazz was also incorporated into the youngster’s musical learning curve but, surprisingly, only as a means to quite a different artistic end.
“I learned jazz because for me, it was a way of progressing to rock. Rock comes from jazz. Jazz led to the blues, and the blues to rock music,” he says.
In fact, historically, the blues preceded jazz and forms the basis of jazz, but Ben-Hemo evidently followed a different stylistic continuum.
While he took in more and more of the intricacies of instrumental music, Ben-Hemo’s traditionally minded parents insisted that he secure himself a solid career.
“They said that music was not a serious profession,” recalls the guitarist, “so I enrolled at the Sorbonne to study psychology and sociology.”
Meanwhile, Ben-Hemo’s musical trajectory was really taking off and, once again, he found himself in the right place at the right time.
“Near the university, in the 9th district, there were all these musical instrument stores, and I used to go there and play guitars for hours.
One day a producer who was looking for a guitarist came into the store and he hired me. I began connecting with all sorts of well- known singers and instrumentalists and I did really well really quickly,” he recalls One of the popular stars in France at the time with whom Ben-Hemo hooked up was Israeli-born singer Rika Zarai.
Musical success notwithstanding, Ben-Hemo stuck with his academic studies and completed a PhD in psychology and sociology.
“I teach a bit at the University of Haifa and at Jezreel Valley College, just to maintain my cerebral capabilities,” he laughs, “but I have always been a musician.”
Ben-Hemo relocated to Arad a couple of years ago, after having his fill of the traffic jams and noise pollution of Tel Aviv, and now resides in a large house with his own studio. The guitarist says the move was a good one on all levels.
“There is clean air and peace and quiet in Arad. And I met up with Idan, and we clicked immediately,” he says. “Even though Idan and I write the material, we run the band as a democratic unit, and everyone has their say about what we do.”
Ben-Hemo says he has received plenty of support from the local municipality in the form of financial assistance for the video clips they have made and also from Arad Festival artistic director Marina Glazer.
“Arad is a wonderful place to create in, and Marina and everyone else have been so supportive. I don’t agree with all those Tel Aviv-based musicians who say you have to be there physically.
Tel Aviv is an hour and half’s drive from Arad. No big deal,” he says.
In addition to the musical entertainment, the Arad Festival agenda includes street parties, community singing, poetry readings, an abundance of child- oriented shows and activities, and trips to some of the local scenic sports.
For more information: (08) 995- 4160 and www.arad.muni.co.il