Imagine some group coming over here to show us how to play Israeli folk music. OK, so we owe a lot to the Russians for the melodies and rhythms that permeate that ostensibly so-rootsy local song and dance material, but you get my drift.
Sticking with the coals to Newcastle theme, Israeli threesome SOBO recently popped over to the States to take part in the 2017 International Blues Challenge, in Memphis, Tennessee. And, by all accounts, the boys from the Middle East did us proud.
“We went to America to pay our respect [to the blues],” says bass player-vocalist Assaf Gantzman. “We did not come to American to teach anyone how to play the blues, but you know the blues is a feeling, and people across the Atlantic have feelings as well. Today the blues is an international music – passion, love, art form, whatever you want to call it.”
SOBO has been around for some time, honing its craft at all kinds of spots around the country, with frequent forays to foreign climes, such as Russia and the US. The band burst into bluesy life back in 1995, when Gantzman got together with guitarist Daniel Kriman and they began strutting their stuff at the Mike’s Place watering hole in Jerusalem.
That was a convenient place to kick off from, considering Gantzman was co-owner of the joint, which has grown into a chain, with branches in Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Eilat. The trio also includes powerhouse drummer Eden Bahar and, together, the three Israelis put on several fine performances in Memphis and made it through to the final of the competition, making friends and gaining fans along the way.
Gantzman got an early start to his musical road, and spent his formative years in the right part of the world.
“I grew up in the States,” he says, “and the blues has been in all the bands I listened to growing up – in the [Rolling] Stones, [Eric] Clapton, Peter Green – it’s all been there.”
Stateside childhood and teenage years notwithstanding, Gantzman had to come home to roost before he got his mojo working.
“I honestly really only got into the blues in Jerusalem,” he says when we meet up at the seafront Tel Aviv Mike’s Place outlet. “It was through our guitar player, Daniel.”
Despite imbibing the musical vibes that permeated New York and Nashville in his early twenties – after an Israeli hiatus, to do his army service – Gantzman needed a friendly shove in the right direction from Russian-born Kriman.
“I was into rock,” the bassman recalls. “It had a lot of passion. I liked that. I came back to Israel, starting hanging out at Mike’s Place [in Jerusalem], hanging out with this guy [Kriman] who was younger than me, this 19-yearold Russian kid. I was 25. He’d play slide guitar, without a slide. Every night he’d buy a bottle of Goldstar [beer], break it and use the neck. He slowly got me into the blues.”
Growing up on classic rock, Gantzman had a learning curve to traverse, putting into practice the licks he heard from the some of the greats of the art form.
“We formed a band – with [now Channel 2 reporter] Ilan Lukach on bass – and we were playing. The first thing we did as a band was learn the whole Muddy & The Wolf album.”
That references the 1974 record fronted by blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, with a whole host of stellar British rock sidemen in tow, such as Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Rolling Stones drummer and bass guitarist Charlie Watts and Billy Wyman, and American harmonica player Paul Butterfield.
“That was a shortened version of Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions. To this day that’s a big part of our set.”
Gantzman was well and truly sold on the blues.
“I was into it big time. It was the raw form of everything I had always liked. I liked grunge. The stuff appealed to me, but it wasn’t the music so much but the rawness of it.
Then you bring this blues, which is the rawness of all the classic rock that I grew up on. I knew right away, I liked the blues.”
And, so, SOBO was born. Actually, not SOBO but Southbound Train.
“Yeah, that was the original name of the band, but I guess it was a bit of a mouthful for people to manage,” says Gantzman. “People starting shouting out SOBO at our shows, so that became our name.”
So, what was it like for a bunch of Israelis – albeit with plenty of Russian and American personal baggage mixed in there – to go to Memphis, one of the cradles of the art form, and play the blues? As Gantzman noted, the band didn’t enter the contest looking to show the Americans how to play their own roots music.
“We bring our own stuff into it,” says the bassman.
“I grew up in the States, but I am an Israeli. And Daniel comes with his Russian things, and Eden is just an amazing drummer. He’s the talented one in the band. He’s classically trained.
Still, this is the blues we’re talking about. So it’s not just technical skills that are going to get the audience going, you gotta put some heart and soul, and some down-anddirty guts, into it too.
“Daniel’s an amazing guitar player, but he does what he does,” Gantzman adds. “He does it amazing but he’s not like an amazing guitar player who can pick up the guitar in any style. He does what he does because he feels it, so well, and plays that so well – better than many others.
When we were in Memphis, people were blown away by how well he plays. And we’re talking about Americans from Mississippi!” It was not just the audiences that took SOBO to their hearts. The judges were also suitably impressed by the trio, which made it all the way to the final. Not bad for three Israeli dudes.