A gentle rhythm king

Musical focusing on African refugees in Israel debuts this mont

A gentle rhythm king (photo credit: YOAV ETIEL)
A gentle rhythm king
(photo credit: YOAV ETIEL)
America had Hamilton. Israel has Gently, a new musical with a nearly all minority cast. Out of 12 actors on stage, just three are not of African decent.
Bringing in drums, tears and laughter, the Haifa-born production tackles racism, classism and questions humanity. Writer Shiree Nadav-Naor brings the story of a married couple from Nigeria who take refuge in Israel: the husband a street musician and wife a maid for a famous Israeli writer and TV personality. The show has a few twists – the first being the birth of a white baby to the two black African parents.
A cast of African-Israeli soul and hip hop artists work to show what happens next – in a discriminatory and xenophobic climate. Elisee Akowendo, who hails from the Ivory Coast, is one of the show’s stars. Gently’s director calls him the rhythm king of the production.
Akowendo goes by FineBoy on stage and likely knows the struggle of being foreign. Akowendo made his way to Israel in his mid-twenties when he was spotted by a messianic pastor who saw his talent while he was singing his heart out in a church in his home nation – the Ivory Coast. A music fan since the age of seven, Akowendo settled in Tel Aviv by 2006 when he began creating his own Afro-Gospel band called the Groove Ambassadors. Just 10 years later, he was out on his own, signed by a label and making music his full-time work in the Holy Land. He’s worked with all of Israel’s top stars including Tamir Muskat and Ori Kaplan of Balkan Beat Box in addition to Gilad Segev and Gil Ron Shama – just to name a few. Akowendo forged his own genre of music while in Israel, calling it Tradi Trap – which mixes Afro and ethnic beats with folk sounds, rap and gospel.
While he has been in the music scene for more than two decades, Akowendo told The Jerusalem Post he never imagined himself being a part of a musical performance.
“They were looking for someone who knows how to drum and someone who knows how to perform and how to act,”Akowendo said. “Everyone directed them, to me.”
Akowendo reports the show is full of dancing, singing and a heck of a lot of drumming. In addition, he was ecstatic the show’s cast is nearly entirely black, reminiscent of the excitement following the production of Black Panther, a film in the US lauded for its abundance of people of color on screen, as well as behind the scenes.
“What they did is amazing. They just got together all the amazing black performers in Israel. The best visionaries, the best singers and performers – all together in one team,” Akowendo swooned.
After years of research, writer and actress Nadav-Naor said she was able to finally put her drama therapy experiences with refugees into something that could change the way thousands of people view them. Nadav-Naor took her work to husband and director Moshe Naor, who she says is the perfect man for the job. And that meant starting the show in the Haifa Theater, where Naor works full time.
“It’s hard to jump to into something like this if the person doesn’t have sensitivity and know the stories of refugees,” Nadav-Naor explained. “It’s not just about refugees, it’s about feeling part of something. You have a wife and kid and someone takes everything from you. Everyone in Israel has parents or grandparents who [experienced] a knock that came in the middle of the night.”
Nadav-Naor said much of her inspiration and motivation to write came from the refugee crisis in the US where kids are separated from their parents and placed into big shelters.
“It will be emotional but one day after, the words and the lyrics of the songs will get down and drop into their souls, it will penetrate them,” the writer said. “They will cherish what they have and be more empathetic to other people who don’t have it and I hope they will do something that will start to change themselves.”
Speaking for himself, Naor told the Post he intends for this show to improve Israeli theater, calling on artists from the country to make productions more inclusive.
“We hope that following the show, some dam will break, and the Israeli theater will go a step further and open its doors to more advanced casting where darker-skinned actors will have more place, and their contribution to the Israeli culture will be more significant and maybe help them integrate into Israeli society.”
The drumming begins in Haifa on January 9, where 8:30 p.m. performances will continue through March. Then, three shows will come to Tel Aviv’s Beit Hachayal Theater in late January.