The fun of the Irish, and more

Ehud Nathan’s Black Velvet brings its Celtic jams, horas and polkas to Jerusalem in mid-May.

Although the popularity of Celtic music here is past its peak, Black Velvet keeps on doing its thing. (photo credit: MOSHIKO HORESH))
Although the popularity of Celtic music here is past its peak, Black Velvet keeps on doing its thing.
(photo credit: MOSHIKO HORESH))
Ehud Nathan has been doing his Celtic thing here for a long time. Now in his late 50s, the mandolin and bouzouki player is the doyen of the Irish music scene in this country, and will bring his Black Velvet band to Confederation House on May 15 (8:30 p.m.).
Ten or 15 years ago, Celtic music was really rocking here. There was an annual music festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque that drew large crowds, and the Irish gospel just kept on spreading and spreading. Black Velvet was a regular feature of the “Four Days in Ireland” program at the cinematheque, and collaborated with many visiting stars from abroad, including uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan and flutist-whistler Emer Mayock.
The Irish music surge spawned a plethora of local musical acts, such as Evergreen and Kachol, and internationally acclaimed leading artists such as Mexican-born percussionist Abe Doron, who was one of the mainstays of the globetrotting Riverdance troupe for several years, and helped stoke the Emerald Isle coals in these parts. The local Celtic cause is also helped by the genre-related items in the ever-popular Jacob’s Ladder Festival program. The Irish dance workshop there is always well-attended, and the many Irish songs performed at the Kinneret-side festival are always accompanied by members of the audience shaking a cultured leg or two – not to mention the abundance of impromptu Irish jam sessions that spring up all over the Nof Ginossar site at any time of the day or night.
While the Irish musical appears to be well past its crest, Nathan and his bunch of willing cohorts just carry on doing their thing, up and down the country. Black Velvet started out in 1980 and was a fixture at some of the early Jacob’s Ladder Festival bashes, when the event was still held at its original location of Kibbutz Mahanayim in the Upper Galilee. Over the past three decades-plus the band’s personnel has changed umpteen times, although Nathan has remained through thick and thin. He maintains a busy performance schedule, with and without the band, and has weekly gigs at the Molly Bloom’s Irish pub in Tel Aviv, in addition to some more rock-oriented forays with singer Yizhar Ashdot.
Black Velvet has released two albums over the years – Ashdot guested at last year’s Black Velvet II launch show – and both the self-titled debut album, released in 2000, and the recent sophomore CD amply reflects Nathan’s, and the band’s, increasingly expansive cultural and genre reach. The names of the tracks on the first album, such as “Middle Eastern Polkas,” “The Road to Galicia” and “A Balkan Feast,” get the multicultural message across loud and clear.
“We will be introducing a new number, for us, at the Confederation House concert,” says Nathan. “It is a song by [singer-songwriter] Ronit Shahar called “Kefafat Zechuchit” (Glass Glove). If the words weren’t in Hebrew you wouldn’t know that it doesn’t come from Ireland.” Eti Abramovitz, who also plays flute, melodica and percussion, will be entrusted with the vocal role in Jerusalem.
Nathan has weathered many personnel turnovers over the years and is delighted to have had a settled lineup for a while. In addition to Abramovitz, the Black Velvet gang includes flute and whistle player Philip Khripkov, Yaron Eigenstein on keyboard, melodica and vocals, and Nadav Rogel on bodhrán and various percussion instruments. Past members include renowned classical violinist Jonathan Keren and flutist Hagit Rosmarin.
“We have had the same people in the band for the last year and a half,” he says.
“That makes life a little easier.” It also allows Nathan to tweak the band’s playlists without too much in the way of learning-curve upheavals.
“We would like to add more songs, because we almost exclusively perform instrumental pieces,” he continues. “‘Kefafat Zechuchit’ is the third song in our program, and we are constantly looking to introduce new ones.”
Black Velvet fans, over the years, have become accustomed to hearing the band intersperse jigs and reels with material from disparate cultures. Balkan music has long formed part of the group’s output, and there are horas, polkas and even Swedish pieces betwixt numbers that hail from right across the Celtic musical world, from Ireland to Brittany, from Spain to Scotland and even Canada.
In fact, Nathan embraces a wide spread of musical influences, and that comes through in the original compositions that appear on the band’s two albums to date, and in its live shows. “You can definitely call music I write folk music, but it is difficult to know where it comes from,” he observes.
“You can’t identify it with any particular origin.”
Nathan sounded upbeat ahead of the Jerusalem date, part of which can be attributed to the new addition to his instrumental family. A short while ago he returned from Portugal with a brand-new bouzouki, tailor-made for him by celebrated Britishborn luthier Andy Manson. Manson’s client list also includes Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame, and Mike Oldfield.
“It is a wonderful instrument,” Nathan enthuses.
“It looks great and it sounds fantastic. I’ve had my old bouzouki for 29 years, so if the new one lasts that long I will be doing all right. I am really looking forward to playing the new bouzouki in Jerusalem.”
• For tickets and more information: (02) 624-5206.