Distilling Jerusalem sounds

Hamazkeka has been transformed from a grungy old garage to an avant-garde entertainment venue.

Michael Berkovitch: ‘I worked on the renovations 16 hours a day for four months.’ (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Michael Berkovitch: ‘I worked on the renovations 16 hours a day for four months.’
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Whisper it. There is a buzz in Jerusalem, an artistic, highly inventive buzz that seems to be gathering momentum. Although most Tel Avivians may not be aware of what’s going down at the other end of Highway 1, all manner of alternative, definitively envelope- pushing endeavor is in full flow in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Season of Culture certainly helped get the word out, although this year’s program was severely curtailed by the hostilities down south. But at least the Hahazit alternative music festival went ahead last month.
It was originally meant to take place at the architecturally resplendent Hansen House but was relocated to two of the city’s leading underground arts venues – Uganda and Hamazkeka.
Uganda has been around for a nine years, but Hamazkeka (“distillery” in Hebrew), located on Shoshan Street in downtown Jerusalem, is the new and highly energized kid on the block. In fact, it has been up and running for just a couple of months. Hamazkeka is open six days a week.
The soul, heart and hard-working hands behind the new cultural venture is Michael Berkovitch, who appears to be on a mission to offer alternatively minded Jerusalemites, and others from farther afield, a place to get into some quality vibes.
Considering the state in which he found the premises, Berkovitch’s conversion efforts are nothing short of miraculous.
“It was a shambles,” says the 30-something Jerusalemite. “There was a garage here for 20 years, and the place was filthy. The walls and floor were full of grease, and there was junk all over the place.”
Sitting with Berkovitch in the elementally charming bar, where the garage did its business, it is hard to believe the place was ever anything but neat and well tended.
But photos Berkovitch took when he started out on the cultural escapade provide ample evidence of the task he took on himself. The room behind the bar area, which is now used as the performance space, was formerly a cistern complete with arched ceiling.
Berkovitch has done a great job with the makeover. He was clearly not into eradicating all remnants of the former life of the premises and has deftly preserved parts of the original aesthetics.
“It would have been much easier just to paint over this,” he says, indicating a wall of the performance area, which is a fetching mixture of plaster, bricks and traces of paint.
“There was filthy white paint here. I worked on that part for three hours, and eventually it came out clean,” he says.
Sounds like the work of someone who was highly driven to whip the place into shape. But would a sane person take on such a seemingly impossible task? And in Jerusalem? There may be plenty of creative stuff going on in these parts, but financially, Tel Aviv, with its more dynamic nightlife, would seem to be a safer bet.
“I am a doer,” declares Berkovitch. “I have always been like that. I get an idea, and I just go for it.”
But why Jerusalem? “I don’t really know. I was born in Jerusalem, although I grew up in Switzerland,” he notes. “I am also very impulsive.”
Yes, but getting an impulse to do something normally translates into some, possibly, short-lived madcap adventure. Hamazkeka is a full-blown entertainment venue and watering hole that keeps Berkovitch busy for long hours, day and night.
“I worked on the renovations 16 hours a day for four months,” he says. “This is the first time I have had a grand idea and really went for it.”
The seeds for Hamazkeka, which is run as a nonprofit organization, were sown a couple of years back when Berkovitch came across the New York avant-garde music venue The Stone, run by radical new Jewish and avantgarde music pioneer John Zorn.
“When I came out of The Stone, it suddenly clicked with me that Jerusalem needed a place like that, too. I realized that Jerusalem needed somewhere that was an unconventional performance space,” he says.
But Hamazkeka is not the only alternative music venue in the capital. There is Hahazit sibling berth Uganda and the cozily appointed Barbur in Nahlaot.
“Yes, but in terms of facilities, they are very limited spaces,” Berkovitch points out. “I wanted to see in Jerusalem the quality you generally find in large auditoriums, but in small and intimate venues.”
The facilities in question, as far as Berkovitch is concerned, also take in the sound quality and the ability to document performances.
“The acoustics are very important, and also to record performances. I realized there is a lot of wonderful stuff going on in Jerusalem and no one is documenting it, which is a great shame. All you have, really, are stories about all kinds of shows, but no one has recorded them,” he explains.
Judging by Hamazkeka’s lineup to date, Berkovitch is determined to provide artists across a wide swath of disciplines, genres and styles with a quality place to strut their stuff to the public. This month, for instance, the Hamazkeka roster includes the Ilian Fansansui Tropical Orchestra alternative outfit, voice artist Victoria Hana and Jerusalem reedman Steve Horenstein and bassist Jean- Claude Jones, as well as a workshop by multidisciplinary artist Yaniv Scheinfeld, where they teach participants how to distort and make the most of visual and audio digital information.
Berkovitch says he wants to offer the public the real deal, no frills attached, but without compromising on the standard of the end product.
“I felt that Jerusalem needed somewhere alternative that looked simple, is not glitzy and modernlooking but that behind all the basic aesthetics has a quality infrastructure that enables musicians to perform and do rehearsals and record,” he elaborates.
Berkovitch is doing a great job. Hamazkeka has indeed created the sought-after buzz. A recent gig that featured a double header of reedman Yoni Silver together with New York drummer Eran Elisha, which followed guitarist Ido Buckelman and bassist Nadav Meisel, attracted a mixed audience of 20-somethings to a couple of 50-plus men, while others caught the vibes from the bar, and more still preferred to hang out in the cool Jerusalem air.
Elisha, who spends his summers in Israel and performs at places like Uganda and Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv, says he is delighted with the addition to the local experimental music scene and believes it can help to generate greater interest in the field.
“It is such an impressive project and physical space acoustically, aesthetically and in principle. It is essential to have a venue like this in Jerusalem, presenting new, avant-garde, cutting-edge music of variety and scope to a developing audience here. There are some deep listeners in this city, and they and the musicians coming up on the scene deserve a place with the heart and quality of Hamazkeka,” he says. 
For more information about Hamazkeka: www.mazkeka.com