‘U’ is for unique and upbeat

The Uganda music venue is celebrating its 6th birthday – not something to be taken for granted in this neck of the woods.

Uganda music festival Jerusalem_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Uganda music festival Jerusalem_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the main areas of life in which the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv divide is most noticeable is the entertainment business. While watering holes and music joints in the latter metropolis do brisk business until the wee hours, in the capital there is but a handful of bars providing good cheer to thirsty patrons. That’s without even mentioning enterprises that attempt to alleviate some of the after-hours urban gloom with some rousing musical entertainment.
Then again, there is Uganda, a unique bar, café, music venue, purveyor of CDs, LPs, comic books and other alternative literature and, it must be said, a decent offering in the humous department. Tucked away on narrow Rehov Aristobolus off the Russian Compound, Uganda is run by Itamar Weiner and Uri Crystal and is celebrating its sixth birthday. That’s possibly not a milestone to shout about in Manhattan or the West End of London, but in this political and economic neck of the woods, any business – let alone an alternative cultural-entertainment endeavor – is happy just to see out its first year or two.
Weiner, 32, who also performs electronic music, says that the idea behind Uganda was, first and foremost, to provide him and Crystal and with a place to do their own artistic thing and, if possible, keep the wolf at bay in the process. And, unlike many of their contemporaries, Weiner and Crystal wanted to do it here.
“We are Jerusalemites; we had no interest in doing this anywhere else,” says Weiner. “We wanted to open a place that would enable us to do what we love. We wanted to open a store with CDs, records, comics, coffee and beer.”
As a local, Weiner knew what he was taking on, but he also had an unshakable belief that the enterprise would be able to stand on its own two feet. “We knew it would be a challenge, but we were also confident that it would be a success.”
Judging by the several dozen 20- and 30-somethings getting into generous portions of humous, pints of beer and espressos or just milling around outside last Friday afternoon, there is a demand for what Uganda has to offer.
There is an old expression that goes something like “The appetite comes with the eating.” That was part of Crystal and Weiner’s thinking behind setting up Uganda. “We thought we’d generate the demand by opening up the place,” observes Weiner, adding that it is not just the locals who dig the Uganda take on entertainment. “A lot of people come over from Tel Aviv to see shows. This is a nice, intimate venue, and the audience sits close to the band; there’s no gap. I think both the public and the musicians appreciate that.”
Indeed, Uganda offers a comfortable berth for musicians of various non-mainstream stripes to do their own thing in the room adjoining the bar. “We started with just one room, and then took on the next-door space,” continues Weiner. “There are a lot of artists who can’t play anywhere else. They won’t fill a venue of 200 seats, but here they can perform for 30 or 40 people and feel good about it.”
Improvisational Jerusalemite guitarist Ido Bukelman certainly enjoys his gigs at Uganda. “I really feel at home there,” says the 29-year-old whose CDs are on sale in the bar. “You can just go with the flow without any constraints. That is a rare joy in Israel.”
Perusal of a rundown of artists who have performed at Uganda recently reveals an eclectic range including the likes of Bukelman, folk-based experimental guitarist Yair Yona, electro-soul duo Phototaxis and folkrocker Omri Vitis.
“Uganda has style, and they bring really good acts, including people from abroad,” says Bukelman. “There, artists feel respect for what they are doing; it’s not just background music. I played there recently with Yair Yona, and we played very quiet acoustic music. Not only was the audience quiet and attentive, but Itamar even turned the air conditioner off so the noise wouldn’t disturb us.”
Weiner and Crystal are also doing their best to offer Jerusalemites the chance to get a taste of stuff happening elsewhere.
“We bring in artists from other places in Israel and also from abroad. If we hear of some band or artist, something interesting, in Tel Aviv or Haifa or on some kibbutz, we’ll bring them here. Of course it’s important to offer locals a stage, and that gives a sense of community, but I think it is also important to educate the public and to bring them things they aren’t familiar with, to offer them the chance to broaden their mind.”
Naturally, Weiner would be happy if there were more Ugandas around in the city, but says there are fundamental issues that need to be addressed first before like-minded locals can start thinking about providing viable entertainment.
“Young Jerusalemites finish their studies and they try to make a go of it here. But after a few months of looking for work, they leave for Tel Aviv or other places. It’s very important to have places like Uganda that offer some cultural interest and entertainment, but the bottom line is people need to be able to make a living in Jerusalem. When that happens, things will be better all round.”
Uganda is an independent enterprise and doesn’t enjoy the support of the municipality.
“I don’t buy the notion that there’s money for culture here,” says Weiner. “You can see that in all sorts of activities and events the municipality supports, but that’s for different sectors of the public, not for us and the people who come to Uganda.”
Weiner doesn’t hold out much hope of getting too much assistance from the authorities. “I’m not going to humiliate myself by filling out all kinds of forms just to get a few pennies.”
Weiner is delighted to have made it to Uganda’s sixth anniversary and says he and Crystal are planning for the long term.
“As long as they let us do our thing here without bothering us too much – we get some grief from the police – we’ll carry on. The authorities don’t like to see young people displaying too much joie de vivre outdoors. They’d prefer us to be happy in our own homes. But we’re here to have fun,” he says.
Uganda is located at Rehov Aristobolus 4 and is open from Sunday to Friday from 12 noon to 3 a.m. and on Saturday from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. For more information, 623-6087 and www.uganda.co.il.