Down and dirty in Jerusalem

"If you’re looking for in-your-face entertainment, and possibly a better handle on what makes the Jerusalem street tick, Frontline is the place to be."

Russian-born musician Mickael Meresse. (photo credit: TAL FOGEL)
Russian-born musician Mickael Meresse.
(photo credit: TAL FOGEL)
Gilli Levy (a.k.a. Gilli Tha Kid) wants us to take a good hard look at Jerusalem. He wants us to peer beneath the glossy brochure images of the Old City, its history-laden walls and the golden Dome of the Rock. But also wants us to see beyond the media-fueled images of shock- and horror-inducing incidents, and take in a lungful or two of genuine Jerusalem air.
Levy is artistic director of the Frontline music program in this year’s Jerusalem’s Season of Culture. The program, which bears the illuminating subheading of “Five Days of Off-Stream Music from Jerusalem,” will run August 17-21 at venues including Beit Hansen, HaMazkeka, Uganda, the First Station and the Khan Theater. Many of the shows are free.
And who better to oversee such a left-field musical venture than Levy? For starters, he is a proud Jerusalemite through and through. He is also an acclaimed DJ and a champion of the capital’s underground music scene, primarily through his Raash Hour Internet-based radio station. For the third year running, he is presenting a side of primarily Jerusalemite artistic expression that we don’t normally get to see or hear. There are also several acts from abroad, including from the United States, France and the United Kingdom.
To get a clear whiff of where he and the Frontline spirit are flowing, all you have to do is check out the “60 Reebo: Anarchy and Visions from the Holy Ark of Judaism” slot.
This act, which takes place at Beit Hansen at 10 p.m. on August 17, consists of two Russian-born musicians who began pushing the boundaries of sound, music and political correctness as teenagers back in the 1990s. Having let off some adolescent steam, music producer Mickael Meresse and bassist Sergey Engle – now in their 30s – parted ways for quite a few years. When their paths crossed again, both had become religious, and both had maintained their artistic explorations.
Today, the two hone their skills in a rehearsal studio that is about as underground as you can get: five stories beneath an office building alongside Jerusalem’s central bus station. Their artistic output is best described as a sonically anarchic offering that feeds off talmudic and Torah texts.
Levy is pretty pleased with the way the program has gone so far. Its inaugural run took place in the cozy confines of the old Bezalel School of Art, with one stage and an Internet radio broadcasting position. Last year, it was touch and go whether Frontline would happen at all, as the guns roared on a different front line in Gaza. However, in the end, the full program materialized at HaMazkeka and a neighboring site in downtown Jerusalem.
This year, the Frontline purview has increased significantly in terms of venues, genres and the number of acts lined up over the five days.
“The festival has grown physically and conceptually,” Levy notes. “The first year was a sort of exposition. It joined the dots. The second year was a kind of representative sample. About 95 percent of what is happening in the Jerusalem independent music scene was in there.
There were about 30-40 shows on two stages, running in parallel.”
Emboldened by the success of the first two runs, he has broadened the scope of the program by several degrees.
“We expanded the approach to independent music.
Until now, we more or less focused on the Pargod [Theater] scene and how that continues to resonate in the music of today.”
The aforementioned venue operated on the corner of Bezalel Street and Nissim Bechar Street for over 30 years, and provided highly fertile ground for scores of new groups and artists in the jazz, rock and ethnic domains to get their act together and hone their skills.
“Then we decided to shuffle the [Frontline] pack, and to look at the whole thing from a broader perspective – a Jerusalem perspective, due to the natural conditions that exist in Jerusalem,” Levy continues.
This, he says, reflects the (admittedly cliché) ethos of hardship as a breeding ground for creative endeavor.
“Here you have conflict and pain, and you can’t have a [music] industry when you have all that mess,” he observes. “When there’s an absence of industry, and without all the hype that goes with it, creativity can come through unfettered.”
Among the festival venues is Zedekiah’s Cave beneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, which will host a free show by the Al-Quds 2999 collective on August 17. The event’s description is neatly rhymed as “A night below ground with Jerusalem’s Experimental Sound.” The show is not for the faint of heart, and much of what Levy calls “Jerusalem balagan” (chaos) will no doubt come across loud and clear as performers Derech 12, Muhammad Cheetah, the Terror Ensemble (made up of Amir Bolzman and Ariel Armoni), Tomer Damsky, and Maxim Turbo churn out the decibels and the angst.
Levy has taken a largely proactive approach to the third edition of Frontline, with many of the concerts featuring productions specially devised for the festival. The August 19 midnight slot at HaMazkeka, for example, features Na’arei Ha’otzar (Treasury Youth) with attorney Barak Cohen front and center. Over the years, Cohen has stirred up quite a few hornets’ nests, pursuing justice on a wide swathe of sociopolitical fronts. The Na’arei Ha’otzar program includes what it terms “songs from an imprisoned reality,” with Cohen joining forces with punk group Sartan Hashad member Morris, oud player Guy Cohen, percussionist Elad Kimchi, qanun player Sarel Cohen and guitarist Gil Shapira. Together they will unveil the “Morris and the Azbestones” show, with original scores that flit between Turkish and Egyptian makams.
Levy himself will do his DJ thing at the First Station on August 20, with other Frontline standouts such as pioneering British electronica artist and producer Luke Vibert; Palestinian musician Jowan Safadi and his “Poor Infidels” show, described as a mix of “experiential western rock, Palestinian folk and influences from just about everywhere”; the debuting electronic label Confused Machines, including Uganda venue owner Itamar Weiner; and electronic whiz Adi Gelbart. There will also be a chance to catch a rare foray by the San Diego-based Drumetrics Collective.
If you’re looking for in-your-face entertainment, and possibly a better handle on what makes the Jerusalem street tick, Frontline is the place to be.
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