Underground sounds

Take note! Jerusalem’s alternative music scene is making itself heard.

Alternative music in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alternative music in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
By definition, there is nothing alternative about the Jerusalem music scene – at least, if one goes by the learned opinion of Gili Levi, a.k.a. DJ Gili De Kid.
“There is no mainstream in Jerusalem, so there can’t be any left-field stuff by comparison, can there?” says Levi, whose Internet-based Raash Hour radio station features many of the artists on the alternative side of the Jerusalem musical domain.
Still, most people with an ear for contemporary sounds would likely affix the “alternative” label to the material Levi produces, as well as that of fellow artists Markey Funk, Eli Shargo – a.k.a. DJ E – and members of the No Coast collective such as keyboardist Amir Bolzman.
That material featured earlier this month at the Hahazit (Frontline) event, which took place in the yard of the Bezalel Department of Architecture building on Shmuel Hanagid Street, as part of this year’s Jerusalem Season of Culture.
Hahazit was an eye- and ear-opener both for the alternative music consumer and for the artists themselves.
“I have been in Jerusalem for 14 years, ever since I made aliya with my family from Ukraine,” says 30-year-old Markey Funk, who works as a DJ, generally playing – as his professional moniker suggests – funk music. “All this time, I have been performing to more or less the same people. The audiences have often been small, and many of the people in the audience are other artists from the same scene. But deep down, I had this feeling there must be a larger audience for what I do.”
Hahazit proved him right.
“There were 400, 500 or 600 people there,” he says.
“It was amazing! You see, there is an audience for this kind of music. What we need to do now is to keep the momentum going.”
But momentum is probably the crux of the Jerusalem alternative music scene’s predicament. As Markey notes, there is something almost incestuous about the arena. That, coupled with the lack of revenue such a limited market generates, has its advantages and disadvantages.
“If you perform for small audiences, you know you are not going to make millions, so there is no danger of drifting into becoming commercialized,” explains Markey. “On the other hand, some people can tend to unwittingly become a bit lazy, because they know they are not risking a bad reaction from the audience if they are not absolutely on the ball.”
One important element in the equation is the ongoing rivalry between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. While most consider the coastal metropolis the epicenter of cultural endeavor in this country, some on the arts scene view the creative goings-on in Jerusalem as streets ahead of anything Tel Aviv has to offer.
Just a few weeks ago, a Tel Aviv-based painter told this reporter that she makes weekly trips up Route 1 because, as she put it, “the really interesting things in the arts are happening in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv.”
Then again, there has been a continual artistic brain drain to the west: Almost all the Jerusalem-born members of hip-hop sextet Hadag Nahash now reside in Tel Aviv, as does rocker Asaf Eden, a.k.a. Ryskinder, who performed at Hahazit.
Shargo belongs to the camp that considers the Jerusalem scene the more interesting of the two, and he should know. The 46-year-old Jerusalemite has a long and rich personal and professional history with the capital, beginning with his pivotal role in the local alternative music scene as sound man of the legendary – and now sadly defunct – Pargod venue (Pargod ran from the late ’80s to the mid-’90s). In the interim, he spent some time abroad, and also lived in Tel Aviv for 15 years. Some might consider the latter a heinous crime for a Jerusalemite, but Shargo says he maintained his street cred throughout.
“I moved to Tel Aviv for one reason only,” he explains. “I wanted to get a recording contract, and I got one. I also performed, as a DJ, for crowds of 700 and 800. I was a great success, but I never stopped being a Jerusalemite.” He is now back in the capital and, in addition to his DJing, runs the city’s Sira pub, a bastion of non-mainstream music that grew out of the ashes of the former Diwan music venue.
“Pargod was one of the first places to offer alternative entertainment in Jerusalem,” he recalls.
“There was a theater there, run by Aryeh Mark, and it gradually began to get into music, too. A strong jazz scene developed for a while, with all sorts of Russian musicians, like [saxophonist] Boris Gammer, [saxophonist and flutist] Roman Kunzman and the great [pianist] Slava Ganelin.”
Ganelin had just made aliya, and was already one of the leading lights of the global avant-garde scene.
For some reason, the Pargod jazz scene dissipated after a couple of years or so, and the ’90s saw the emergence of several envelope-pushing local rock outfits. Nosei Hamigba’at – which had been doing its thing at various small venues, including Pargod, for five or six years – suddenly burst onto the national scene. And there was punk rock band Sartan Hashad, which addressed a wide range of socially sensitive areas in a typically unequivocal manner – to say nothing of its provocative name, which means “breast cancer” and had quite a few people up in arms.
SARTAN HASHAD started out in 1990 and managed to keep going for a full 15 years. In its latter stages, it was fronted by a veteran of the Jerusalem alternative music community, a singer who goes by the name of Maurice. The now-sexagenarian is clear about where he stands on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv divide.
“There is this local Jerusalem patriotism,” he notes.
“We are the capital city. There is this hatred here for Tel Aviv, which is usurping our standing as the city that generates culture.”
Maurice says Jerusalem has a unique take on art in general and music in particular, and he puts that down largely to the historical, social, religious and political challenges with which the city’s residents constantly contend.
“There is something really tough about Jerusalem,” he says. “There are all those harsh stones, the holiness, the political tension, and all the religious and interethnic stuff. It is really hard here.”
In that vein, he believes there is some truth to the old cliché about artists having to suffer in order to deliver the goods.
“The artists in Jerusalem want to show how tough it is to live and work here, and that they won’t allow the conditions to beat them,” he says. “We will create here, we will lash out and we will do our thing regardless.”
Maurice supports his view by citing Jewish Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler. “Koestler was in Jerusalem in the 1920s, and he wrote [autobiographical tome] Arrow in the Blue, in which he talks about how a sense of sorrow always descends on you in Jerusalem. He said that everything here was sacred, and that everything created tension. There is nothing easygoing about this place, and that comes across in the music people make here, too. Jerusalem has produced lots of great bands and artists, including those who moved to Tel Aviv. Life is too open and comfortable in Tel Aviv. You don’t find creative musicians there.”
Thirty-four-year-old Rocky B certainly paid his dues in the capital before relocating to the coast. He worked here as a rapper, opened and ran the Bass club on Hahistadrut Street for several years, and even spearheaded a short-lived foray by mainstream record company NMC into a left-field Israeli musical endeavor, in the form of the Audio Collage alternative label.
Rocky is a walking, talking, rapping encyclopedia of the Jerusalem alternative music scene. “I used to go to everything in Jerusalem,” he declares. “That includes bars that were frequented by students and all sorts of lowlifes. But there were the special places, like the Rosa bar, which was a stronghold of alternative music, and they sometimes broadcast on Periscope radio station.”
Periscope was a pirate enterprise that ran from 1998 to 2000, operated by alternative music artists Emmanuel Gandelman, Avi S. Goldberger and Yossef Elyashiv as a sort of collective. The station limped from one financial crisis to another, and had to up-anchor several times during its two-year life. Long before the Internet made it possible to get one’s message out around the globe, the Periscope gang often had to make do with broadcasting to a limited listening hinterland that was sometimes confined to the immediate neighborhood. Still, it acted as a mouthpiece for local acts that would otherwise have had no listeners.
Rocky recalls that he and his like-minded cohorts often had to employ great resourcefulness to hold musical events to their liking. “We’d set up at all sorts of abandoned sites, like the old Foreign Ministry after it had been abandoned, and get a techno party going. I remember Dan from Mea Meter [the 100 Meters Under the Ground collective] drilling into the ceiling there to put lighting up. These were serious people, with generators and equipment. We’d get closed down by the police, so we’d just pick up and move on to the next site.”
Though it likely got a little wearying to keep having to battle the authorities, Rocky remembers the good times. “Once a month we’d have these parties, with video equipment and fantastic sound systems, and it really worked well.”
TALKING TO the likes of Rocky, Markey, Levi and Shargo, one gets the sense that the alternative music scene in Jerusalem consists of people determined to strut their stuff come what may, often in the face of seemingly impossible odds. They are, by choice, nonmainstream, which means they are not going to make much of a living, if any, from their artistic efforts. That necessitates certain sacrifices to keep their musical avenues open; most have day jobs or still live with their parents. But while one may think the artists in this community are purely motivated by the desire to keep their creative juices flowing, Rocky counters that idea.
“No one has pure motives,” he states unequivocally. “An artist does what he does because he has no choice. An artist wants recognition, and he is affected by his social milieu.”
Few up-and-coming artists have life easy, but Rocky says he went through the mill a few dozen times in Jerusalem.
“I sometimes performed two or three times a week,” he recalls. “If I look back on the shows I did after I put out my first CD, in 2003, I see that I produced all of them, I did all the PR, called all the musicians and gave out the flyers. That’s just the way it was. It’s tough for any artist when they are starting out, but it’s tougher in Jerusalem, and it gets tiring.”
Two years after moving to Tel Aviv, he is about to take his talent to pastures foreign.
“I am planning on moving to Berlin soon,” he says. “I just want to make music.
We’ll see how that goes there.”
One of the linchpins of the experimental music scene in Jerusalem back when Rocky was starting out was the Fact record label, which Yoram Elyakim operated out of a basement apartment on Aza Road. The label ran from 1999 to 2003 and released albums by Ariel Caine, Dan Zimmerman, Gelbart and Yuppies with Jeeps.
Yuppies with Jeeps performed at Hahazit earlier this month, with other live sets featuring Australian-born, UK-based singersongwriter Amy McKnight, and ’90s Jerusalem industrial rock band Die Welt, which got together for a one-off show. Meanwhile, Guy Hajaj and Roy Regev broadcast their Hamapatz radio program with live slots by rapper Adi Olmanski and electronic music singer Noam Helper, a.k.a. Noamiko.
ITAMAR WEINER also knows a thing or two about the musical fringes of Jerusalem. For the past eight years, he has run the Uganda bar, café and music venue in the center of town, and maintains a highly varied artistic offering. This month, for example, Uganda hosted DJ Yaniv Hayehudon, guitarist-vocalist Albert Sofer, Italian grindcore act and the EFT avant-garde jazz trio. According to its website, Uganda aims “to create something not yet to be found in Israel: a combination of bar, café and live music venue, and a specialist record and comics store.”
Weiner says he and co-owner Uri Crystal came up with the idea out of necessity. “We are both musicians and we wanted a place to perform in. I had a record label back then, called Ak Duck, and I was connected with record stores here, so I knew the scene.”
The term “record stores” sounds like a blast from the past.
Around 10 to 15 years ago, there were several such spots dotted around Jerusalem, including Balance, which served as a meeting place for artists and music fans alike.
“Uri was into comics, too, and we wanted to channel all these areas under one roof,” continues Weiner, adding that part of that was to provide a home for things going on in Jerusalem.
“I believe that even if you work in esoteric art, you can make a go of it if you are prepared to work hard at it,” he says. “But there is some kind of special nuance to what artists in Jerusalem create. Jerusalemites who create here are fueled by the desire to get away from the heaviness of this city, with its history, religion and politics, [but] also feed off the same heaviness.”
Meanwhile, according to Yonatan Strier, who works in the Jerusalem Municipality’s Young Adults Authority, the powers that be are keeping tabs on experimental musical developments here.
“There is amazing alternative music stuff going on in Jerusalem,” he says. “It operates separately from the municipality, but we are very much aware of what is going on, and [the municipality] tries to help as much as it can.”
The No Coast collective, for instance, recently enjoyed some valuable studio recording time for its latest compilation, which includes contributions by McKnight, Ryskinder and Daniel Slabosky, courtesy of the municipality.
“It doesn’t have to be underground music,” Strier continues. “It can be Persian music, or any kind of indie music. It doesn’t have to be what I call ‘sexy indie music.’ It can be things you might see at [bar and venue] Mike’s Place, or even stuff that doesn’t make it there.”
Strier cites the Indie City Festival, which took place at the First Station compound last month, as a municipality-supported non-mainstream musical event. He also believes there is a unique strand of Jerusalemite music.
“There are lots of artists who address Jerusalem,” he notes.
“That is something you don’t find in many places in Israel. There are some wonderful things going on in this city.”