A soft spot for Celtic music

Black Velvet bandleader Ehud Nathan talks about his first encounter with Emerald Isle songs.

April 22, 2010 12:41
3 minute read.
Black Velvet Celtic Music

Black Velvet Celtic Music311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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If persistence and love of his craft are anything to go by, Ehud Nathan should be one of the most acclaimed and wealthiest artists in the world. In fact, although the fiftysomething Tivon resident keeps a very busy performance schedule, he has put a lot of elbow grease into attaining his current relatively lofty status.

Nathan has been at the helm of Black Velvet, the country’s longest running Irish band, for over three decades. The group has appeared, and continues to perform, at clubs and festivals all over the country, with a forthcoming mini-tour taking in Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine (April 24), The Zappa club in Herzliya on the morrow and Rishon Lezion’s Culture Hall on May 5.

The concerts will provide Nathan and the other five members of the band with the opportunity to introduce the public to material which will be included in the new Black Velvet CD due to be released in a couple months’ time.

The fact that it has been a full decade since the band’s debut release says as much about the state of the music industry here as it does for Nathan’s punishing gig schedule – the latter being compounded by the accompanying logistics.

“The lineup has changed so many times over the years,” says Nathan, who also plays bouzouki. “Basically, I am a one-man operation, so administration and other stuff takes up a lot of my time. And, of course, there are the rehearsals. Really, all I want to is play music.”

In between the paperwork, travel arrangements and other day-to-day headaches, Nathan actually manages to get a lot of performing in too. He has a regular three-day-a-week berth at Tel Aviv’s Molly Bloom’s pub, together with various Black Velvet members, and there are shows up and down the country. A recent non-Black Velvet jaunt, to play with longtime collaborator veteran rocker Izhar Ashdot, took him all the way to Moshav Hatseva in the Arava.

CONSIDERING HIS Celtic endeavors, Nathan’s musical beginnings were remarkably mundane. He grew up with the Beatles and progressive rock – “back then we called it underground rock” – but his entire musical outlook changed radically after listening to a Chieftains record when he lived on Moshav Yodfat in the Galilee, in 1975. “Before that I played guitar and listened to British rock bands, like Jethro Tull, but I was drawn into Irish music from the very first bars of that Chieftains LP,” Nathan recalls.

A trip to the Emerald Isle beckoned. “About three years later I spent time in Britain, and about a month in Ireland, and I was lucky enough to catch a weekend festival at a place called Ballisodare, in County Sligo. The best Irish bands and musicians were there. I just sat there with my mouth open. I’d never experienced anything like that before.”

Back in Yodfat, Nathan immediately got down to the business of obtaining the necessary equipment. He bought a mandola, bodhran (frame drum) and various whistles, and began playing what he heard from the Chieftains and other records. He was soon a regular fixture at the Jacob’s Ladder Festival, which started out around that time, and maintained a feverish quest to discover new Celtic sounds and dig deeper into the fabric of the music.

Back then, however, the Irish music scene was
still in its diaper stage. “I had no idea what a tin whistle was,” says Nathan. “I remember running after this guy who played Irish music at Jacob’s Ladder to ask him about tin whistles, but he couldn’t help me, either.”

Eventually, though, Israel caught on, and in the late ’90s there was an explosion of interest in the genre. An Irish Festival ran for several years at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and Black Velvet was in high demand.

Over the years, Nathan and the band have fused Celtic music with other ethnic elements including Balkan music and Middle Eastern material, and Nathan says the new CD will also contain non-Celtic numbers.

“The new album will include a song we used to sing when I was growing up in Kiryat Haim. It’s perfectly natural for me to do something like that. After all, it’s where I’m from.”

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