Going for the Gold

Red Hot Chili Peppers fans at Hayarkon may be surprised to hear Hebrew songs played by opening act Fool’s Gold.

By
September 5, 2012 22:05
Fool's Gold (Luke Top is second from left)

Fool's Gold Luke Top 390. (photo credit: Courtesy)

When he got the note from the Red Hot Chili Peppers asking his band to fly from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv next week to open up their show in Hayarkon Park, Luke Top wasn’t about to say no.

Top, the co-founder of L.A. Afro-Hebrew-pop collective Fool’s Gold, had been hoping to bring the band to Israel many times over the last five years, not the least reason being that the 30-year-old bassist and singer was born – and spent his first three years – in Tel Aviv “It’s extremely special for me – and for the whole band – to be going to Israel. We’ve had it in our plans since we started doing this, and I thought it would happen a lot earlier, but we just hadn’t been able to get over there,” said Top last week from his Los Angeles home. “So when this opportunity came up, we grabbed it. It has a lot of meaning for me personally, and I have literally 100 family members who are hoping to come to the show. Luckily, nobody in my band has any guests, and I think the Chili Peppers will be pretty cool about adding some names to my guest list,” he laughed.

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Because Top’s father worked for El Al for more than 20 years, his family was able to visit Israel almost every summer while he was growing up, resulting in a dual identity for the youngster, whose given name is Nativ.

“As a child, I always felt different; and even though English was basically my native language, I didn’t feel really integrated,” said Top. “That’s why when I was eight, I went to my parents and told them I was changing my name. I was tired of the kids calling me ‘Native.’ I was subconsciously or maybe consciously assimilating to the world around me. I’ve always felt this sort of duality, and it’s always been a bit of a struggle to figure out where I am in the culture of the world. But that’s probably something that even people born in L.A. feel." Top gravitated toward music as a means to find a place to fit in, eventually meeting like-minded guitarist Lewis Pesacov and beginning to explore their shared love of African music together. As opposed to forming a band to play the songs, they sit in jam sessions.

“Our affinity for world music led us to establish these really informal jam sessions and invite whoever was around to come and play, mainly in an attempt to forge a communal experience in L.A., which is very difficult,” Top said. “We were just doing this thing as a side project and playing at parties or parks, or wherever, just experimenting.”

However, that experimentation led to a formal band – Fool’s Gold – with an informal lineup of more than a dozen musicians, and to the band’s first album in 2009, featuring songs mainly sung in Hebrew by Top, such as “Hayom Lo Mosech” and “Ha’dvash.”

For Top, the decision to write and sing in Hebrew, the language of his early childhood, was one that enabled him to reconnect with a part of himself he thought was lost.

“In listening to so much world music, specifically Ethiopian music, I was struck by the ways Amharic sounds vaguely like Hebrew,” he said. “I think at the beginning, I wrote in Hebrew not so much as a choice but as a casual attempt to do something different.”

However, the process of reintroducing Hebrew to his life ended up not just being a musical exercise but had a profound effect on Top.

“It completely changed the way I think and perform, opening me up and loosening me up.

There’s something about singing in Hebrew, and the style your voice takes on is kind of magical,” he said. “I now have this new connection to Hebrew that I didn’t have before, completely on my own terms; and it’s changed the way I see myself.”

On Fool’s Gold’s latest album, Leave No Trace, which saw them downsize to a more conventional five-piece lineup, Top chose to write and perform mostly in English, another decision dictated by musical considerations. However, Top’s Hebrew remains an open book that’s unfolding new chapters.

“I’m still on that journey of exploring and exposing my roots and maybe contextualizing who I am as a person within the music. But it had definitely already given me a connection to Hebrew, Israel and Judaism in a way I hadn’t experienced before,” he said.

BEING PERHAPS the only American indie band to perform songs in Hebrew isn’t what brought Fool’s Gold to the attention of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, though. It was Top’s longtime friendship with Josh Klinghoffer, the young Los Angeles guitarist who replaced John Frusciante in the Chili Peppers in 2010.

“We’ve known each other most of our lives, and we were in the same musical scene in L.A. since we were teenagers,” said Top of Klinghoffer. “The current conversation started when the Chili Peppers went out on a 12-date UK tour last year and Josh asked us to be the opening act. We became friends with the whole band and had a great time. During that tour, they casually said, ‘Hey, you guys have to come play with us in Tel Aviv’ – it’s the kind of thing you can never rely on, a conversation in the middle of the night. But a couple of months later, we got the official request in an e-mail, and it was like, ‘Aha, we’re actually going to do this!’” Fool’s Gold not only share a genre-busting approach to music with the Chili Peppers, but their energetic live show – combining African and Ethiopian-inspired polyrhythms, 1980s dance music and a free-form jamming style – sets the stage for and complements the adrenalin rush and over-the-top antics provided by the headliners’ showmen Anthony Kiedis and Flea.

“It’s always a challenge to open for a band as big as the Chili Peppers and their loyal audience, but we did a pretty good job under those circumstances,” said Top. “It didn’t even cross our minds to be nervous, even though we were playing for 25,000 people who came to see somebody else.

We got people engaged and did our job well.

We’re not your average studio musicians – we’re actually excited to be in front of people,” he said.

“Josh would come out at some shows and play with us, and as soon as he came onstage, it broke any barrier that there was and gave us credibility in case we needed it.”

At Hayarkon Park on Monday night, they’ll probably have the crowd on their side, especially when they break into one of their Hebrew songs.

Still, the band is largely unknown here, and part of the reason Fool’s Gold is coming is to make some inroads and test the Israeli waters. To that end, they’ll be staying on and performing their own headlining show the following night, September 11, at the Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv.

“It’s kind of crazy to go halfway around the world for two shows, but it demonstrates how meaningful this trip is for us,” said Top. “A lot of bands wouldn’t do it, but for us it’s about more than money. The whole band is excited, and I’m excited to show them the country, and they’re going to learn a little about where I come from.”


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