Nikmat Hatractor 248.88.
(photo credit: Roi Berkovitz)
There's obviously more to Nikmat Hatractor (The Tractor's Revenge) than initially meets the eye, or the ear. Over the last 20 or so years the veteran rock outfit has built up a solid following for its earthy sound, the odd rough balladic offering notwithstanding, and is best known for tracks like "Mis'hak Shel Dmaot" (The Crying Game), from its eponymous 1990 debut album. However, although it may not be immediately apparent, the in-your-face stuff is heavily laced with some ethnic chestnuts.
Nikmat Hatractor frontman Avi Balili is delighted to have the opportunity to delve into the writings of 11th century rabbi and poet Moshe Ibn Ezra, a relative of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra and one of the literary giants of the Golden Age in Spain. Balili and the rest of the band, with sonar and visual enhancement from oud player Eliyahu Dagmi and video artist Shira Misanik, will present their own eminently contemporary take on Ibn Ezra texts at the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday, as the opening slot of this year's Jerusalem International Oud Festival.
In fact, Balili and ethnic and liturgical material are old pals. "We put selihot (penitential poems) to music 20 years ago, and we also recorded Ibn Ezra's 'El Nora Alila' back then. I've been into his writings for a long time. We're marking the band's 20th anniversary and the Oud Festival is 10 years old, so it's nice to come full circle musically as well."
The 46 year old vocalist-bassist fed off a rich and varied musical pallet from the word go. "My family has Greek roots and my dad came from Egypt," he explains. "We also heard a lot of Italian pop at home, guys like Marino Marini, but my first musical love was [legendary Egyptian singer] Oum Kalthoum. My mother told me thatâ€š when I was very small, I'd fall asleep listening to music on an Arab radio station."
THERE WAS ALSO a wide spectrum of sounds of the day in the teenaged Balili's playlist. "I was into British rock and pop - bands like Mott the Hoople, Shirley Bassey and Led Zeppelin." The latter fit snugly into Balili's commercial-ethnic music arc. "Think about [Led Zeppelin] numbers like 'Kashmirâ€š' or 'Friends.' They were into Arabic music and eastern scales and maqamat [Arabic modal structures]. The Led Zep stuff is just as spiritual as the roots music."
Balili admits to have harbored some concerns when the Confederation House and Oud Festival artistic director Effi Benaya approached him with the idea of performing at the festival. "I didn't want to do this just because so many rockers are 'rediscovering their roots'" he says. "But, on second thought, I realized there couldn't be anything more natural for us to do. The Ibn Ezra project brings me back to when I was 11 or 12, when I heard selihot and piyutim (liturgical poetry) at the synagogue. And Nikmat Hatractor used to play them at clubs 20 years ago. People were intrigued by them and drawn by their spirituality. We brought a sort of religious trance music to the scene long before people discovered trance and techno. In that respect, we were way ahead of our time."
Once convinced of the virtues of Benaya's proposition, Balili and the rest of the band set about the task with the utmost seriousness. "We've been rehearsing for over six months," he says. "I don't think we've ever worked so hard on a project before. There's so much to Ibn Ezra's writing. He looks at human suffering and longing, but he never gives up on love and life. There's also lots of sex appeal to his work. He was always searching, and very creative - he was a genius."
Nikmat Hatractor will perform Ehad Mi Yode'a - A Tribute to Ibn Ezra at the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday November 12 at 9 p.m. For more information about the Oud Festival call 02-6245206 or visit www.confederationhouse.org.