The inaugural 360 Degree Piano Festival kicked off at the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, March 30. As befitting the now almost veteran basement joint – it is due to celebrate its bar mitzvah this summer – the program covers all sorts of musical and stylistic bases.
Over 11 days through April 9, the Levontin faithful will be able to see and hear some of the leading lights of the local pop scene, including the likes of Daniella Spector, Noam Rotem, Einav Jackson Cohen, and some of the “grizzlies” of the scene, such as keyboardist and trumpeter Adi Rennert, and eternal enfant terrible Ze’ev Tenneh.
To call Tenneh unapologetic would be close to damning with faint praise. Then again, the main doesn’t set out to ruffle feathers, he just wants to speak his piece. Perhaps shout his piece would be a little more accurate.
Now 72, Tenneh did not explode onto the Israeli music scene as a know-it-all angry young man. He waited until he was 40 before putting out his whimsically entitled debut album, Tenneh VeHaze’ev. Ze’ev means “wolf” in Hebrew. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of the Galgalatz radio station, easy-on-the-ear playlist. Tenneh had accumulated a bellyful and he was just about ripe to let it rip. Tenneh VeHaze’ev featured such bare knuckled offerings as Kaftoo Ottee (“They Tied Me Up”), Sarah VeDavid, and two versions of a song called Aya, in Hebrew and Polish. The latter stems from the fact that Tenneh was born in Poland, shortly after the end of World War Two. Both his parents were Holocaust survivors, but an older sister perished.
The Levontin 7 gig – April 3, 10:30 p.m. – promises to be as down and dirty as most of Tenneh’s work. He will join forces with pianist Udi Bonnen and, together, they will unfurl some of Tenneh’s accrued life wisdom, and no doubt, plenty of in-your-face insight.
Tenneh earns a living as a food engineer, and says he puts out his musical wares primarily as a form of self-therapy. “At the end of the day, music is something which helps me get through life,” he intones, “that they should be easier to handle. That’s all.”
In a nutshell, probably every artist, regardless of their chosen discipline, would come out with a similar statement. But judging by Tenneh’s abrasive sonic textures and edges, he probably has more to spill than most. “For me music’s role is to push me through life, in a way I can understand.” There’s no gift-wrapping with Tenneh. He is not looking to pleasantly entertain his audience. Basically, he just wants to have his say. And why not? He may not be easy on the ear, but the man doesn’t beat about the bush. You know exactly where you stand with him.
Listening to some of his pretty voluminous oeuvre – he made up for lost time by putting out over a dozen albums to date, with several more in the pipeline – you wonder where he got his inspiration from? Punk-rock certainly comes into it, and possibly, if one were to take things a little further in a textual sense, you might even get a sense of something a little Bob Dylanesque in his writing.
It transpires that none of the above were relevant to Tenneh in his formative years. As surprising as it seems, he simply wasn’t into music at all in his teens and early twenties, when most of us were getting into pop and rock wax, cassettes and later CDs. “I was a late bloomer,” he notes. “I made aliyah from Poland at the age of three. At school, I wasn’t in a stream that had anything to do with music. Then I was in the army, and after that I went to the Technion to study food engineering.”
IT WAS only after relocating to a bachelor pad in Tel Aviv that Tenneh began to get some wholesome musical nutrition. “A friend came over and I mentioned the [Eric] Clapton album that had just come out, [461 Ocean] Boulevard,” he recalls. In fact, the album had already been out for a few years, before Tenneh discovered it. “My friend said, hey, that’s old stuff.”
So, Tenneh missed out, as it were, on immersing himself in the sixties and seventies when the magic was being created, and grooving to it with youthful insouciance, and the totality that comes with youth. Then again, when he did eventually get around to hearing it, he did so with more mature ears, and with the mind of someone who had done a little of being there and doing that. “Critics, when they heard my records, used to write that I must have inspired by this or that band. That’s just not true. I wasn’t inspired by anyone, because I hadn’t listened to anyone.”
He did, however, get some pointers along the way from his counterparts who had grown up, musically, “the right way.” “Someone would say to me, for example, you have to listen to [American singer-songwriter] Tom Waits. So I listened to his stuff, and I thought, ‘Yeah I like this.’ There’d be all these people telling me, you have to listen to this band or this artist. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I went for it.”
He is still moving along his educational continuum. “The other day I was with [Army Radio show presenter] Eran Sabag. I was a guest on his program, and he and my guitarist were trading stories about Bob Dylan. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I went home with another list of albums to listen to,” he laughs.
To put it daintily, Tenneh’s vocal powers are not exactly in the operatic realms, nor are they too lyrical. But then, Dylan has done alright with his less than mellifluous delivery for the past 60 or so years, and Leonard Cohen also did well for himself over a similar duration.
While Dylan and Cohen might generally be said to tend to the folkie side of the entertainment business, Tenneh could be most readily associated with punk rock. Tenneh’s bow, in lyric writing quarters, was Effoh Ta’eenu – “Where Did We Go Wrong,” which he wrote in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. Lines likes: “We always followed you, through fire and water. We stifled a tear and clenched our teeth. We knew that the days would come. Now some aren’t so sure.”
“I have always needed to express myself, to say what I think and feel,” he declares. “Otherwise I would have never have gotten into all this.” Tenneh adds that he drew inspiration from some of the leading lyricists of the past half century or so. “I went to see [British punk rock, new wave singer-songwriter] Ian Dury at the Dan Cinema [in Tel Aviv]. That was the first gig I ever went to. It was great. And I like the words of Randy Newman, Neil Young and [Elton John lyricist] Bernie Taupin. I even translated some of the lyrics into Hebrew, so I could really get what they were talking about.”
So, Tenneh was not blessed with a jaw-dropper of a voice, and his attempt to learn to play the guitar, way back, failed miserably. What he does have to offer his audiences is an unfailing faith in himself and his own truth, “That’s all I want to do. To get it out there,” he says. “I have my own way. It took me a while to understand that. [Preeminent pop and rock radio show presenter, and all round maven] Yoav Kutner wrote, at the time, that my first record was avant-garde. I had no idea what he meant. But, over the years, I understood what he said. I just follow my own road.”
For tickets and more information about the 360 Degree Piano Festival: 03-560-5084 and levontin7.com.
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