Footloose and fancy free

A year after it opened, Ha-Mazkeka is fulfilling its dream of offering high-quality alternative entertainment at a low price.

Artists perform at Ha-Mazkeka (photo credit: Courtesy)
Artists perform at Ha-Mazkeka
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a neat Hebrew saying that posits that if you offer tasty food, it will generate an appetite. In the context of the Ha-Mazkeka music venue on Shoshan Street, the jury is still out on that.
It is not that the fledgling, but fast maturing, downtown music venue does not do its bit for the music scene – it manages that with aplomb – it is only a matter of clarifying the chicken-and-egg chronology conundrum.
On July 7-9, the Ha-Mazkeka (“Distillery” in Hebrew) will mark its first anniversary with a three-day shebang of free gigs that cull from a suitably diverse range of genres and areas of creative endeavor. “It is going to be interesting,” says 30-something Ha-Mazkeka founder and manager Mikael Berkowitsch.
“The first band in the program, Orvim, play Eastern music that they compose themselves, and they sing in Hebrew. I really like them.”
The rest of the first day features a varied spread of jazz offerings, including melodic threesome Shalosh, and an intriguing confluence of Andalusian-seasoned jazz pianist Omri Mor and Ethiopian-born jazz-blues saxophonist and vocalist Abate.
“After that things will get loud,” warns Berkowitsch with a smile. “There’ll be electronic stuff and plenty of alternative music.”
Frontier-flexing acts account for a significant chunk of the Ha-Mazkeka lineup, and Gili Levy – a.k.a. DJ Gili Da Kid – is more than grateful for Berkowitsch and his one-year-old-and-counting baby.
Levy fronts a regular event that showcases artists from the Raash Hour Internet radio station and record label stable.
“Ha-Mazkeka has changed the whole scene in Jerusalem, in so many ways,” Levy declares. “It manages to marry independent music that is created here by local artists with professionalism; for me, that’s the perfect combination.”
For starters, the fact that an artist who might be more used to proffering the fruits of his or her creative labors in locations that could do with a lick of paint or two, to limited audiences, get to strut their stuff on an actual stage at a bona-fide and respected music venue is a definitive paradigm shifter.
“Performing at Ha-Mazkeka means you have to be on the ball,” asserts Levy, adding that Berkowitsch’s approach and the mind-set of everyone around him means that if you are going to play there, you have to do the business. “You have a really top-grade sound system there. The equipment is excellent, and you can make quality recordings.
“Before Ha-Mazkeka, you didn’t really find that in the experimental music, in the searching music field. There, you have an interface between music that comes from the streets and high-standard [technical] support.”
Levy categorizes what Berkowitsch et al. have done as nothing short of revolutionary. “They have changed the entire playing field for experimental music artists. I see there is now a new generation of people with technical [sound] skills who really care. Suddenly there is excellent equipment available, and the technical personnel understand how to set up a performance.”
That attitude, relates Levy, rolls down smoothly from the top. “Mikael cares so much about the place. He’s always upgrading and tweaking things, and trying to improve the place. He’s really crazy – in the best way possible.”
Berkowitsch admits to assembling a team around him with a premeditated professional approach to making Ha- Mazkeka as good as it possibly can be, for audiences and artists alike. “Everyone who works here loves and understands music.
All the soundmen are musicians. They are all performing artists too, which gives them an advantage in understanding how to help people set up for their gigs here. Two of our three soundmen will also perform at next week’s festival.”
More than anything, Berkowitsch wants the artists to feel welcome. “It is very important for me to nurture a homey ambiance, along with the professionalism. They are not mutually exclusive.”
Berkowitsch invests plenty of blood and sweat – if not tears – and long hours in the venture, the inspiration for which came from the decade-long New York experimental music space The Stone, run by radical new Jewish and avant-garde music pioneer John Zorn. “When I came out of The Stone, it suddenly clicked with me that Jerusalem needed a place like that, too,” recalls Berkowitsch. “I realized that Jerusalem needed somewhere, for underground and other music, that was a conventional performance space.”
After searching high and low, the Swissraised Jerusalemite eventually happened upon the Shoshan Street premises. It also took Berkowitsch a while to track down the owners, get the requisite funds together – Ha-Mazkeka operates as a nonprofit – and lick the place into decent physical shape.
Having served as a garage for over 20 years, the cavernous spot required a serious cleanup and makeover operation.
The aesthetic fine-tuning is an ongoing thing, with Berkowitsch recently holding the gigs in abeyance for four days to embellish the drinks-dispensing area.
“I added to the bar,” he says matter-offactly.
“Luckily I am an experienced carpenter, so I could manage the work.”
Albert Beger is another artist who is grateful for Berkowitsch’s efforts to provide him, and other similarly minded musicians, to get their ideas out there.
“Ha-Mazkeka is one of the few places in Israel where you can play any kind of music, and it will be lovingly embraced,” he enthuses.
The 55-year-old saxophonist is one of the longest-serving members of the avant-garde side of the local jazz community, and says the Jerusalem venue allows him to freely express his musical credo. “There are no dictates there. Ha-Mazkeka opened up a door for me, and my truth comes out there. Everyone who works there is great and supportive.”
Beger feels that the same goes for the paying public as well, low admission rates notwithstanding. “There are other places, like Shablul and Ozen Bar [in Tel Aviv], but there the audience doesn’t always stay until the end of the gig. That never happens at Ha-Mazkeka. It accommodates all kinds of unfettered music – jazz, free improv, indie, rock, electronica, you name it. You can play what you like, and what you believe in.”
This week, indie rock musician Hila Ruach performed a launch gig for her new CD, Rofa Bama’arav (Doctor in the West), at Ha-Mazkeka. The Tel Aviv-based artist is similarly enamored with the place. “I have played there several times, and it just seems natural to have a music venue like that in Jerusalem. There is a great vibe there, and the staff are really good. There are quite a few artists who have made Ha-Mazkeka a permanent fixture on their gig schedules. The sound quality is great; you know, these days it’s rare to perform somewhere which has two guitar monitors. Mikael and everyone there are doing a great job.”
For now, Ha-Mazkeka keeps its head above water with the proceeds of its highly affordable admission, the bar takings and support from various benefactors, including the Jerusalem Foundation, although the Jerusalem Municipality is not yet on board.
Ha-Mazkeka has certainly made strides in its first year. Later this summer it will host the annual Hahahazit alternative music festival for the second year running, and the Jerusalem Film Festival party has opted to hold its closing event there later this month.
As far as Berkowitsch is concerned, he will keep on putting in his daily 17-hour stint as long as he is enjoying himself, and he has carte blanche. “I want this place to remain intimate and professional,” he says. “I can’t ask for much more than that.” 
For more information about Ha-Mazkeka and the festival: