Music: Sounds in the sand

The Tzlilim Bamidbar festival takes place in Sde Boker.

December 23, 2016 13:18
The Tzlilim Bamidbar festival

The Tzlilim Bamidbar festival. (photo credit: ALON SIGOY)

For the past 18 years in December, Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev has been rocking, waltzing and just plain listening to an eclectic range of sounds and rhythms emitted by musicians on the Tzlilim Bamidbar festival roster.

Since its inception, the event content has been compiled and supervised by Prof. Michael Wolpe, a composer, conductor and educator who takes a definitively all-composing approach to musical endeavor. The 19th edition, which will take place December 28 to 31, is no different.

The bill takes in such varied acts as the Meitar Ensemble, which performs a broad range of contemporary classical material and will join forces with pop singer Carolina. The cross-genre Revolution Orchestra is also in the mix, as are father and son ethnic music duo Piris and Mark Eliyahu; the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra; and the long-running Oy Elias Elias! comedy show, based on a number of Hanoch Levin skits and inimitably presented by the acclaimed actorcomedian threesome of Moni Moshonov, Lillian Baretto and Dror Keren. Add to that a host of junioraudience- oriented fare, with the likes of The Hazelnuts female vocalist trio, seasoned singer Ofer Callaf and popular comedian Avi Grainik, and the festival’s perennial universal entertainment picture once again becomes crystal clear.

Gilad Ephrat is a shoo-in for the lineup. The 38-year-old double bass player has been putting out a wide swathe of music up and down the country and overseas for some time now. Patrons of the Jacob’s Ladder Festival up north may have caught his act there on several occasions, putting out folksy and Celtic-spiced numbers.

And there is plenty more to the Ephrat musical spectrum. His jazz continuum was sparked by a fortuitous confluence, when he was 15.

“There was a girl in my class who played saxophone, and she told me about a jazz ensemble at Kibbutz Mizra [in the Jezreel Valley near when Ephrat lived at the time] that was looking for a double bass player,” recalls Ephrat. “I thought that was a great idea, and I went over there. The director of the ensemble was Albert Beger.”

The latter is a saxophonist and has been one of the leading lights of the Israeli avant-garde jazz for nigh on three decades.

“Albert has been an inspiration for me for a long time,” says Ephrat. “He has added so much to my understanding and love of jazz, and music in general.”

Jazz duly became central to Ephrat’s mindset, although he was initially enticed into the business of music making by an artist in a very different neck of the creative woods.

“I got into music because of [British guitarist-vocalist] Mark Knopfler,” he says. “I really loved [Knopfler-led rock group] Dire Straits when I was a kid.”

Suitably fired up, Ephrat took up the guitar, followed by the bass guitar version and, eventually, by the much larger upright acoustic model. The youngster made good progress and attained a good enough standard to qualify for an IDF band, which allowed him to maintain his evolutionary instrumental path.

At some stage, classical music entered Ephrat’s consciousness radar and the textural and rhythmic possibilities afforded by arco techniques.

“I started using a bow and playing pizzicato all my life, and I discovered that you could play a sound that has continuity to it, that you could sustain the same note and even play around with the volume. I encountered this magic, and that pushed me in the direction of classical music,” the bassist recalls. “You could move seamlessly onto the next note. There were so many possibilities.”

That epiphany was followed by a stint with the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which only lasted a year.

“It was good, but playing in such a large ensemble, I didn’t find the chemistry between players that you can only really get in a smaller group. I need that,” he says.

Ephrat has followed a continuous quest for new musical and technique-based frontiers and has expanded his sonic range appreciably by adding a fifth string to his double bass. That, he says, has helped to solve one of the challenges inherent to the large instrument – that of simply making yourself heard. As we know, high-pitched sounds generally travel farther than the lower register ones. Thus when a jazz double bass player plays a solo spot, he or she often tends towards the upper extremities of the instrument’s note range, and that frequently means ending up with a less robust sound. The extra string on Ephrat’s bass helps circumvent that problem.

“That gives me another octave which I can play far more easily than before,” he notes. “In effect, that just draws me closer to the music, closer to a place where I can play more melodies and be more of a soloist.”

Ephrat paid his dues in all sorts of lineups over the years before getting to his current position as leader of the quartet he will front at Sde Boker at his December 30 (5:30 p.m.) Flowing River concert. The topnotch band comprises violinist Keren Tennenbaum, who doubles as vocalist, cellist Hila Epstein and mandolin player Shmuel Elbaz. Together they will perform a varied repertoire that will take in ethnic music, classical sensibilities and jazz numbers.

Ephrat was the bass player with veteran Celtic band Kachol for many years and has imbibed expansive cultural and sonic influences. That comes across in a work Ephrat calls “Stockholm,” which is also the bass player’s birthplace. His father was on a three-year professional foray to Sweden when Ephrat was born.

He may not remember too much of the Swedish chapter of his life, but something in the music of the place and its language found its way into his cognizance and stuck there. “Stockholm” is testimony to that infancy influence.

“I started looking into Swedish music, to sort of explore my roots,” he says. “I’d define Swedish music as something like an interface between Celtic and Balkan music.”

As Ephrat is pretty much steeped in both those disciplines, “Stockholm” was a natural end result.

That, and plenty more, will be on offer down in the desert, including a tribute to Israel Prize laureate composer and beloved educator Andre Hajdu; the free From Beethoven to Yoni Richter slot with Wolpe on the conductor’s podium; and the free festival closer, which will offer a multi-hued program of sounds and rhythms from tropical climes, Gypsy music and Mediterranean numbers.

For tickets and more information: (08) 646-4115; and

Related Content

Israel's politicians go to vote
September 17, 2019
Israel's politicians cast their votes - In photos