black velvet 88.
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rish music being performed in Israel may appear incongruous but, according to leading musician Michael Greilsammer, there are more similarities than differences between the two cultures.
"Both countries have been through periods of continuous war and depression, and thus the positive, upbeat effect that Irish music has fits perfectly in Israel," says Greilsammer.
A classically trained violinist, Greilsammer plays in two bands - Fionola, a sextet that perform at festivals and venues across the country, and Black Velvet, a similar ensemble that has been together since the late 1990s.
At a recent performance at The Lab, Fionola entertained a packed room with its unique blend of musical influences. Combining Irish and Arabic music, as well as rock and reggae, Fionola's music went down a treat with the young, post-army crowd in attendance.
"They talk about life, but with a smile," comments Akiva Lawson - one of the many present who has followed Fionola since its early days.
"There are around five other Irish bands in the country at present," Greilsammer estimates, "and there appears to be a large market for the genre. Ever since Lord of the Dance hit the scene, there has been a wave of interest in Irish music in Israel, and we are still riding on the back of that."
Greilsammer's second band, Black Velvet, has already recorded one album, and he counts founding member Ehud Natan as one of the main proponents of the field in Israel.
"I believe that [Irish music] is here to stay in Israel - it has a big impact on people, and now [the challenge] is to create more fusion between Irish music and other areas of influence," he explains. "For example, there is a big correlation between the beats and positive vibes of Irish music and that of reggae. It is our intention to blend all the sources to create a 'commune of music' with our band."
He was more sanguine about the opportunities available within Israel to turn successful tours into record contracts. "It is very difficult in this country to find support for all of the arts, and music is no different," says Greilsammer. "After one album [is released] it is easier to find someone willing to invest in the group, but until that point it is a struggle."
He and his fellow band members, who are all full-time students, sometimes find it hard to make time to rehearse and perform. However, the pride and pleasure they take from the opportunity to take the music to the masses makes it worthwhile.
"We play at Temuna, in south Tel Aviv, as well as Molly Bloom's, and everyone who comes to hear is very positive about the music," says Greilsammer, adding that the intention of the performances is to counter the mood of war that often engulfs the country.
At The Lab, the positivity of the music certainly seems to have filtered through to the audience. Reluctant to let the Fionola members leave the stage without several encores, the crowd were on their feet dancing throughout the 90-minute set. The chrome-and-wood lined room was engulfed in smoke - partly down to enthusiastic puffing in the audience, the rest of it pumped in intentionally by the band's stagehands.
The warm-up act, Ronen Goldman - a friend of the Fionola members - was equally well received, with his upbeat guitar playing and self-penned English lyrics.
Although Greilsammer maintained that the group's typical audience comprised "all sorts of Israelis," the crowd at The Lab were a fairly homogeneous group - long hair de rigueur for both sexes; colorful, flowing clothes and jewelry and the average age in the mid-20s.
At the concert, Rachel Sklan of Jaffa described Greilsammer as "one of Israel's finest violinists" after watching him perform various solos. His talent runs in the family - his older brother is a pianist at the highest level, and it was he who originally introduced Michael to Black Velvet.
"I joined in 2001, and we have been performing regularly ever since," says Greilsammer, speaking from his Tel Aviv home. "As with all fashions, Irish music hit a peak and then receded somewhat, but it has found a solid base and its appeal is not going to go away any time soon."