Original Festival in the Golan lives up to its name

The festival organizers say the event “is designed to promote and encourage original creation.

July 1, 2019 01:17
Nature Reserve Tel Hazeka in the Golan Heights

Nature Reserve Tel Hazeka in the Golan Heights . (photo credit: NATURE AND PARKS AUTHORITY)

As we get older, we might increasingly display a tendency to slip into pipe-and-slippers mode. That may limit our sense of adventure in various walks of life, such as our cultural consumerism. Indeed, it stands to reason that if, say, we grew up on dance band music or the Beatles or New Wave or grunge, we will keep on harking back to the sounds we heard in our early formative years. That’s perfectly natural.

Then again, where would the Beatles – the most popular rock-pop group in history – have been, had the public in the late fifties-early sixties stuck to what they already knew? On the painting front, the Impressionists were given a hard time by the French establishment in the late 19th century, and couldn’t get a foot in the door of the Salon.

All of which makes one of the main themes of the aptly named Original Festival, which will take place at the Golan Amphitheater, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, on July 3-4, a praiseworthy and attractive event.

As the title suggests, a large part of the two-day program is devoted to acts, of various vintages, that proffer self-created works rather than performing cover versions of popular nuggets. The roster features some long-serving headliners, such as vocalist Mika Karni, American-born bluesman Lazer Lloyd and seasoned singer-songwriter Dan Toren. But there are plenty of up-and-comers in the lineup, which takes in a packed agenda of 18 shows, with the two-day shebang winding up in the wee hours of Thursday.

The festival organizers say the event “is designed to promote and encourage original creation, and to generate an encounter of artists at the beginning of [their] professional road with a quality audience, that will come to listen and get to know the next generation of Israeli artists.”

That is an admirable credo and one which, for the likes of pop-folk singer Tevel Levy, folk-bluegrass foursome Red Okra, Mizrahi rockers Malka VeHanesichim and psychedelic rock band Saga Véliz, could offer a neat springboard for accessing a wider listener hinterland.


GIL HILLMAN is certainly ready to grab the opportunity with both capable hands. Hillman serves as lead guitarist and singer of Saga Véliz, which also includes sibling drummer-vocalist Amir, bassist Itay Kamil and keyboardist Yahel Hammer.

“We also have Maya Tal, our sound engineer, and Mor Bisk does our liquid light show,” Hillman adds with alacrity. “They are a very important part of our shows.”

Judging by the video clips I watched, Tal and Bisk do a pretty good job, and help to induce a sense of the halcyon mood-changing substance flower power days of the Swinging Sixties.

Hillman feels perfectly comfortable with the “psychedelic indie band” peg, although he says he, brother Amir and Kamil started out in a slightly more conventional venture. “We had an earlier band called Brigada. It was a sort of party rock music group.”

Over time, some of Hillman’s earliest sources of inspiration began to kick in, and to channel his way of musical thinking. “I was drawn to psychedelia, and I listened to all sorts of bands from that genre, like Grateful Dead.”

Some might argue, with some justification, against associating the iconic American band solely with that particular area of sonic exploration. Over their 30-year reign of what might be called the counterculture approach to life and society in general, the Californian troupe dipped into a broad canvas of styles, seasoned their legendary live shows with rock, folk, country, bluegrass, blues, gospel and psychedelia, and even a little jazz.

Hillman says that eclectic mind-set sits well with him. “Yeah, what I liked about the Grateful Dead was the freedom they allowed themselves with the music. That is the thing. I aspire to that, too.”

Other acts found their way into Hillman’s evolving musical consciousness. “I like Genesis – but only up to 1975,” he adds with a laugh. “And Camel and Yes and, of course, Jethro Tull and also Black Sabbath.” And there were some softer-sounding influences, such as close harmony folk-rock group Crosby Stills and Nash.

While the hirsute Saga Véliz frontman takes care of most of the vocal output, he says his brother and Kamil also add dulcet tones to the proceedings, and occasionally follow the CSN line. But the singing side generally comes second.

“Our songs almost always start out from the instruments,” he explains. “The vocal and other textural stuff comes later.”

There is plenty of “textural stuff” on the band’s new album, Canis, which came out recently. It is a pretty widely roaming affair, dipping into good old rough-edged rock, folk, bluesy passages and – yes – there is a definite psychedelic feel to it.

Hillman didn’t start out too early on his hands-on musical path. He first picked up a guitar at the age of 12, spurred by boredom, but also inspired by a couple of family members.

“I guess I was sort of looking for a hobby, something to keep me busy. My brother, Amir, already played drums, and I had a cousin who played guitar,” Hillman recalls. “I can still remember my cousin playing [anthemic Led Zeppelin number] ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ That really impressed me. I loved [Led Zeppelin] lead guitarist Jimmy Page and also Jimi Hendrix.  And there was also Queen and the Beatles, and that kind of stuff.”

Canis was a while in the making.

“The band, in its current lineup, has been around for a little over two years,” Hillman notes, adding that he and his cohorts were not dead set on the process culminating in a tangible CD from the outset. “We started recording before [keyboardist] Yahel [Hammer] joined the band. When we started recording we didn’t know it would end up being a disc. We, basically, wanted to get things down, to document the music, and to get some experience.”

The experiment began to gather momentum.

“We met flutist Danielle Sasi, who plays on four of the tracks, and we just played the stuff at gigs and sort of let things spin out,” says Hillman. “I like that process. You know, you start jamming and things come up. Then you run with an idea, which you may eventually drop or develop into something else. That happened with [opening track] ‘Grass’ which changed completely over the course of time.”

It also took a while for Hillman to slip smoothly into singing in English. “It didn’t feel too natural to begin with, but it is a natural fit with the music.”

The Golan Ampitheater audience on Wednesday – Saga Véliz is due to take the stage at 10:30 p.m. – will get more than a taste of Canis, plus some newer material.

Hillman says he and the rest of the band like to keep things as open as possible. “We enjoy having the freedom to come up with something spontaneous. We like to come up with things on stage, to improvise, to jam.”

With that in mind it comes as no surprise that Hillman cites a bunch of jazz icons in his influence roster. “I take things from [trumpeter] Miles Davis, and [bassist-pianist Charles] Mingus, and also from Israeli jazz musicians.”

He’s not the only member of Saga Véliz with at least one ear cocked toward jazzy endeavor. “Amir and Yahel are our real jazz guys. They met when they played in the jazz ensemble of the Technion. So, jazz is a part of the way we approach the music. I don’t like definitions. I like to keep things open.”

That spontaneity also impacted on the band’s moniker.

“My parents have two dogs, one called Saga and one called Liz,” Hillman explains. The “Ve” is “and” in Hebrew. Liz even gets a credit in the Canis liner notes, for providing barking on a number called “Wolf.”

“I’m happy people don’t get that straightway,” Hillman laughs. “It’s nice to keep people guessing a bit.”

If the name fits, take it.

For tickets and more information: (054) 219-3101 and  bit.ly/ORNFest

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