Just two weeks after the lights were switched off for the last time over the original Jerusalem branch of Haoman 17, the legendary nightclub's Tel Aviv namesake revolved its colorful lightshow over the dance floor for the first in a series of major productions marking the Tel Aviv club's second birthday. The March 22 timing was symbolic. The Jerusalem venue closed as a nightclub on March 9 and is slated to reopen as a mega-bar after Pessah. In the meantime, the owners of Haoman 17 Tel Aviv are endeavoring to carry on the celebrated name. Metro caught up with Ruben Lublin, owner-in-chief of Haoman 17, in the club's outer courtyard as the first birthday party hosting French techno DJ Ivan Smagghe was warming up. "I want this club to go on and hope this year we'll reach the hype we've always had," he said. "We're going to put our hearts into it."
The local pub: Where everybody knows your name
Lublin needs to make up for some lost time. Only six months after opening the Tel Aviv branch, Lublin and his original partners were sentenced to prison for tax evasion. Over the following year he continued to run both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv clubs via telephone, but while the techno and house beats continued to pump in his absence, the heart of the club skipped a few beats.
"It was difficult," explains publicist Udi Appelboim of the period during which the owners spent time in jail. Appelboim has been the DJ booker for Haoman 17 for the past seven years, and was responsible for importing some of the biggest names in the DJ world. "I didn't know what to expect the club to be - they took the heart of the club."
Now, he says, the Haoman management has put the tax debacle behind them and will focus on passing the torch to Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem's Haoman 17 reached its peak and international fame in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when clubbers from Tel Aviv would travel to Jerusalem for a powerful clubbing experience made possible by the sounds of the super-DJs, whirling lights, beautiful faces and bodies, and inimitable anything-goes energy. Haoman 17 was at the forefront of the country's nightclub scene as a subculture committed to electronic music and hard-core partying developed nationwide.
After his release from prison in the summer of 2006, Lublin split his energies between the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv clubs, but decided against redundancy. "Jerusalem was stable for two to three years, but we couldn't bring our DJs to both cities at the same time, and to compete with ourselves is stupid. So we decided to have a different concept in Jerusalem," he explained.
By 2002 the Jerusalem nightclub began to function more as a neighborhood club instead of the glamorous, exclusive mega-club it used to be. Lublin attributes the downturn in Jerusalem hype and traffic more to the outbreak of the intifada and less to his run-in with the law. "The economic situation of the middle class has declined. People can't afford the costs of big clubs. We bring big performers and charge a lot at the entrance."
He believes that revelers in the more affluent Tel Aviv area are willing to pay the cover charge, which can reach NIS 100 for the heavily invested Haoman productions. As the only mega-club in the center of the country functioning on a regular weekly basis, Haoman is without major competition in the metropolis.
The decline in nightclubs and rise in mega-bars and dance bars has affected Tel Aviv even before it hit Jerusalem. Around the time Haoman Tel Aviv opened in 2005, the TLV nightclub - which had been the epicenter of the city's nightlife scene for five years - faced a fate similar to that of Haoman 17 Jerusalem. The owners invested less on the nightclub concept and founded two bars, Whiskey A Go-Go and Rivendell, on a section of the nightclub's grounds in the Tel Aviv port.
"They sensed that the scene is changing, that's why they opened Rivendell and Whiskey," says Omer Gershon, director of marketing and PR for the two bars. He describes the current club scene as "deadish," adding that "the bar scene came and people figured out it cost much less to get sex." However, the timing of the closing of TLV was curiously close to the opening of Haoman 17, suggesting that the metropolis couldn't service two mega-clubs. "I think they're doing a great job there," says Gershon of Haoman 17. "I think it's the only club [left]. TLV is operating, but only monthly with a Thursday night production for over-twenties clubbers. People still love clubs, but not as much as before."
The nightlife buzz in Tel Aviv currently surrounds the mini-clubs, which combine both a bar and intimate dance floor, such as the Breakfast Club on Sderot Rothschild, Dada on Rehov Harakevet, Barzilay on Rehov Harechev and Layla on Rehov Ben Yehuda. With a focus on the DJs who spin the most current electro music, these venues generally attract a 27+, discerning, Tel Aviv crowd but their facilities cannot compare in size and investment to Haoman 17.
"The age of the mega-clubs is over," says Oren Samyonov, publicist for the Layla dance bar, among other Tel Aviv bars. "Small, intimate clubs have been the trend for the past years. If it's Dada, Breakfast Club or Layla, the whole thing is going back to small, intimate places."
While some nightlife insiders are already eulogizing the nightclub scene, Lublin and his partners, as is their pioneering way, are forging through the resistance. "We believe that after this party, the scene will change - it will be bigger," said Appelboim at the Ivan Smagghe bash.
To get the disco ball rolling, Haoman will spare no resources to celebrate their second birthday. For the month of April, the club's marquee will feature some of the planet's most illustrious DJ names. On April 8, the seventh night of Pessah, internationally-renowned DJ-producer Victor Calderone will spin at the club, followed by French DJ Laurent Garnier's first gig in Israel on April 20. Haoman's traditional Independence Day "after party" on April 24 will close the celebrations with American DJ Steve Lawler.
As Lublin put it, "We're going to put our hearts into it."
What the clubbers say
An informal and admittedly unscientific poll of clubbers at Haoman's Ivan Smagghe party revealed mixed feelings about the city's club scene.
Tamar, a 40-year-old single businesswoman from Tel Aviv who comes to Haoman every week, was quick to praise the club: "It's the most amazing place in the Middle East, with an incredible atmosphere. The design and music of this place creates something very special."
Tamar thinks that mega-bars could never provide what a mega-club like Haoman provides. Single, she says that she doesn't come to Haoman looking for a boyfriend. Sipping her vodka-Red Bull, overlooking the dance floor, she adds: "It's a different world. I don't like to go to bars. It's all about alcohol and posing for people who look at you. Here, anything goes."
Ofer, a 35 year-old Tel Avivian, laments the demise of the clubbing scene. "Haoman is the only place that [still] holds it. If it were five years ago, the place would look totally different. There would be more branja (the 'in' crowd)."
The clubbers at Haoman these days, he notes, are common folk who simply come to enjoy the clubbing experience. Tamar, who somehow overheard the conversation over the throbbing music, was quick to argue back: "The scene didn't die!" she yells.
Shai, 37, from Bat Yam says the kind of party experience Haoman offers is an addiction for some clubbers who will always come to get their fix. "Techno music is something high - it lets the mind work," he says.
"Let the mind work," agrees Yigal, a veteran Israeli DJ, only under intoxication. He is not impressed with the nature of partying at Haoman, which he considers sleazier than the parties he used to remember. "This music brought disgusting things, such as drugs and alcohol. People who come for 80s music are good people," he adds.
Yigal used to spin pop music at clubs throughout Tel Aviv in the 80s and 90s. He points to a woman wearing a white sports bra dancing on the stage a bit mindlessly, waving her beer bottle. "Everyone is wasted," he points out.
Anat, 28, a partier in Tel Aviv who mingles with the branja, affirms the waning popularity of mega-clubs. She partied at Haoman 17 Tel Aviv only once, but the atmosphere wasn't appealing enough to draw her back on a regular basis. She didn't attend the birthday party and instead went to a new bar nearby. "You definitely feel nightclubs are on hold," she said. "They don't really work, people are not really going. It seems like owners can only fill big places with young people and arsim (punks), and they can't really find good people and an older crowd. It's a shame because there is nothing like a big party at a big, good club. The dance clubs are really good - that's the new trend in Tel Aviv."
An American tourist named Rina, who came to the club with a friend, commented, simply: "It's cheesy." She prefers the sexy, hip-hop playing lounge bars she frequented in New York.
An attractive Jerusalem clubber named Orly, 34, who went down to the Tel Aviv party, prefers, after all, the Jerusalem Haoman experience where it all began. "In Jerusalem I had the guts to come alone. The vibe was more authentic, intimate and enjoyable."
She notes how men in the Tel Aviv club were more aggressive in their advances. "In Jerusalem they start with you in a pleasant, friendly way. Here the naggers don't have limits. It's a different nation here."
Comment: Bring back pop
For techno lovers, the party at Haoman 17 with Ivan Smagghe was a musical paradise. The music was hard and energetic, calibrated perfectly to grab the hearts of the clubbers. Standing from behind the DJ booth, it was obvious how passionately and sensitively Smagghe worked the vinyls and mixer to maximize the dizzying frequencies of each track. The scene on the dance floor represented the apex of Haoman glory: hundreds of Israelis bouncing up and down in abandon and unity.
Such electronic music experiences are Haoman's specialty, but as a former Haoman Jerusalem regular, the denouement of Haoman's glory began in 2001, not only because of the intifada, but because the club relegated pop and dance music to the trash bin of club music.
Once upon a time, Haoman 17 in Jerusalem invested energies into pumping its small hall with the best MTV-style hits that easily drew an American, tourist and student crowd who didn't find their greatest high in the ethereal, synthetic sounds and strong beats of electronic music genres. The small hall eventually closed, or opened really late, and fellow clubbers who came specifically for the "music with words" simply stopped coming. "Britney Spears" became a swear word.
I often expressed my disappointment to the owners, DJs and managers for closing the "small room," but my complaints usually fell on deaf ears, except for some DJs who said they agreed with me but had no influence. I became used to being called "old-fashioned" and "primitive." Instrumental electronic music was the avant-garde, the clubbing music par-excellence, the "higher" music. And it's true that certain apocalyptic experiences could be found more in the electronic music genres, and they deserve their place in the main hall - but they don't always appeal to the tastes of down-to-earth, clean-cut clubbers who'll be happy with a beer and a Beyonce hit or new Christina Aguilera number.
When Haoman Tel Aviv opened, it was clear that pop and hip-hop wouldn't be given a shot in the club. Tel Aviv was more "musically" educated, trendier, cooler. Justin Timberlake just didn't fit in the underground music scene of Tel Aviv. The small room, instead, hosted other electronic genres, particularly trance music. At the Ivan Smagghe party, the DJ in the small room spun fast-tempo trance music, but the dance floor barely succeeded in drawing more than 20 people. I wager that quality (emphasis on quality) pop and hip hop would have attracted more people.
Today mega-bars understand that people are looking for an easy-going, fun night on the town. They are not coming to be educated musically or to intoxicate themselves into the cyclical sounds of house and techno. They want to throw back some beers, dance and have plain ol' fun. "Music with words" attracts a crowd that places more importance in, well, words. Perhaps that is why, at the recent Haoman 17 party, I didn't really feel like engaging in conversation with too many of the people there. The crowd seemed less educated, less refined, less grounded than the crowd I remembered dancing with in my Jerusalem clubbing years.
Quality pop music spun by good DJs is often more flirtatious, more choreographed, more this-worldly than the electronic club music genres, and they attract a complementary crowd. I'm not confident that Haoman 17 will make this musical adjustment. Pop music has been given a bad rap by local musical gurus. Those who long for that kind of music, particularly fun-loving tourists and Anglo immigrants, will take their party to the bars where there is less musical snobbery and ideology.
All we are saying is give pop a chance!