The Israeli reggae man

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Tony Ray spent his teenage years in Bristol. Unexpectedly, he has spent the rest of his life in Israel.

 PROMOTING SINGLE ‘Goodbye to Wars,’ at Rasta Club, Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: Elimor Levy)
PROMOTING SINGLE ‘Goodbye to Wars,’ at Rasta Club, Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: Elimor Levy)

When Jamaican-Israeli reggae musician Tony Ray came to Tel Aviv for the very first time in 1969 at age 19 for a three-week tour with his band, he didn’t even know it was Israel.  But the hummus hooked him.

“If I had known I would not have come here,” Ray,  who went on to establish the Israeli reggae scene, shares in an interview with the Magazine

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1949, as a child Ray moved with his mother to Bristol, England, where he spent his teenage years. Unexpectedly, he has spent the rest of his life in Israel – where he is considered “the father of the country’s reggae scene.” 

In 1981 Ray recorded his first reggae album I Feel Like Reggae, which was also the first full-length album of this genre in Israel. As we speak, he is hard at work on his 10th album, Adayin Kan (“Still here”). He sings in English and Hebrew, and one of the songs, “Saba” (“Grandfather”), is dedicated to his Israeli grandchildren.

Apart from recording and playing live shows, for the last 25 years he has also run Tel Aviv’s Rasta club while mentoring and teaching other musicians. Israeli TV viewers may also recognize his work in commercials. 

 PERFORMING IN Yaakov Bodo’s comedy show. (credit: Courtesy Tony Ray)
PERFORMING IN Yaakov Bodo’s comedy show. (credit: Courtesy Tony Ray)

Diversity of course plays a part: Both the continent of Africa and the Star of David are painted on Rasta’s walls. At his concerts Ray, along with the crowd from Israel, Sudan, and Eritrea, sings in Hebrew: “I love being Black.” He tells me that in Israel there is a lot of discrimination, but at the same time, he adds, it is a very tolerant place. 

We will talk about music, but first I must ask you if it is true that when you came to Tel Aviv for the very first time, you didn’t know it was in Israel. 

Yes. It was November 1969, I came with a tour. And this is true. We went to audition for Haim Saban [producer and impressario] with my band of that time called the Lurks [later Saban changed the name to The Cocktails]. I was playing bass, not singing, but I was the leader of the band. At the audition, there were about 25 bands; Saban told me that he would like us to play in Tel Aviv. I did not know it was Israel. If I had known it was Israel, I would have never come.


Because at the time, each night on the news in England, there was something about the war with Arabs. 

So what did you think Tel Aviv was?

I thought Tel Aviv was somewhere in the desert and we would sing to some people wearing clothes like Jesus, and sandals, and there would be camels. That was my image. But in Bristol, where I lived, someone told me it was Israel and that I was crazy to go there. But I had already agreed to come.

And when you arrived, what was 1969 Tel Aviv like?

We came out of the boat in Haifa, and we were terrified. We saw soldiers carrying guns everywhere. On the first night, we played in Jerusalem, and later at the Sunny Club in Tel Aviv. People were shouting, so loud, and waving their hands, I was scared.

But was it happy shouting?

I was 19 years old. We came from England, we had concerts just before in Switzerland, and we didn’t understand the language [in Israel]. We were afraid. It was seven of us: four from Jamaica, one from Guyana, and two white people in the band. We told ourselves: “If there will be a problem, we can defend ourselves” (he laughs). After the three-week tour, we did not like it here.

But one day, a Yemenite Israeli guy sitting at the Wimpy Bar in Tel Aviv asked me: What do you think of Israel? I answered I didn’t like it here. The people are always shouting. He told me that this was nothing serious! In the band, we also hated local food, but this guy took us to his house, where there was BBQ and whisky – an old Israeli brand – and we tried his hummus and tehina. And since then we could not resist Israel.

Because of a serving of good hummus? That changed it all?

Yes! We stayed for another month in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and for the fourth month, we went to Eilat. We played at the place called Half Past Midnight. But because we didn’t intend to sing in Hebrew, and Europe seemed like a better chance to be famous, we went back to Switzerland – where we had toured before – for six months, and we did well.

You were all teenagers, but already having international concert tours! When did your relationship with music begin?

In 1966. In England.

So what happened in 1966? Why did you want to be a musician?

There was a drum set at the church, so I played on it. Then I made a bass guitar.

You actually made a guitar?

Yes, I was selling guitars when I was 15. And I started to make sounds. Boom. And that’s how I started with music.

Were your parents musicians, too?

No, but my mother used to sing in church.

You first performed soul music. When did you discover reggae?

I knew reggae because my mother and her new husband ran a record shop in England, so I was familiar with this music, but I really discovered it in Israel.

How come?

I was singing here in Tel Aviv at the Dan Hotel, in 1979; I was singing musical standards. One day a man approached me and asked me: “How come you are Jamaican and you are not singing Bob Marley and reggae?” He gave me a cassette, Exodus [by Bob Marley]. I took it home, and after listening to it I asked myself how come I was not involved in this music or lyrics. So when I came back two days later to the Dan Hotel, in my suit and my tie, I looked around and I [understood] I didn’t belong there. And I started to sing reggae hits by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. People were shocked. A month later they kicked me out of the hotel.

There is a gap in your story between your first visit to Israel in 1969 with your band, and when you worked in Tel Aviv in 1979. What happened during those 10 years?

[In 1969] we went back to Switzerland. But when we started to look in supermarkets for Israeli avocado and hummus, we realized we were missing Israel, to our surprise. So I called Haim Saban and shortly after we were on a boat back to Israel. It was 1970. And I am in Israel since. Five years later I met the mother of my future children, we got together, and since then I started to really work here. Years later when my daughter went to the army and they [the state] wanted to expel me because I was not anymore with my Israeli partner, I went to a human rights lawyer and luckily the judge recognized me from TV commercials I did in Israel, and a movie I had participated in. And he said that I had brought the reggae culture to Israel. They helped me stay here permanently [attaining official status in 2003].

A long way! Speaking of bringing reggae here, in 1981 you released your first reggae album and it was also the first full album of this genre in Israel.  

On this first album, I did some Israeli standards which I turned into reggae, the rest of the songs were my own compositions. And I actually made some money on this album! Later on, with my next albums, I was performing and selling cassettes at the concerts, so it went very well. I was selling them like selling pitot [pita bread], and I was having a good time.

And since this first album you have recorded nine, and you are now working on your 10th. You sing about basic life problems, like shopping on Friday mornings or eating couscous, but also about stopping wars, and being proud of your black skin color. When I saw your concert at Rasta, your club in south Tel Aviv, I felt that both Israelis and refugees from African countries felt very comfortable over there. And you seemed to be their common voice.

Yes, people from Jamaica, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia – Rasta is their home, they come here on Thursdays and Fridays, and sometimes also on Saturdays if they have money left. They live there. Before Rasta, I had a club called Jamaica (1991-1998), and then in 1998, I opened Rasta. This place is about all kinds of Black music, not just reggae.

You sang your song from your previous album: “I am proud to be black” – “Me love me black skin,” and of course, everyone sang along with you.

Yes, it is in Jamaican.

Why did you feel a need to write the song about being proud of your skin color?

Israel is a nice country, but it is also racist. And a lot of these refugees [from Sudan and Eritrea] – or even Ethiopians, who are Jewish – are having a hard time, being discriminated against. And I wanted to give them pride. We are Black, but still, we are proud to be Black. Normally when I sing this song, people tip me for this song, give me money. 

Do you experience discrimination in Israel yourself?

People know me and they respect me for what I did in music, but sometimes there are ignorant people. But I don’t pay attention to them. 

Having live in Israel for over 50 years, what is harder for you, being Black or not being Jewish?

My Jewish friends accept me for who I am. They accept me as me. I don’t feel any discrimination.

You recorded your version of “Ose shalom” (“He who makes peace”), did you want to show your connection with Jewish people?

I recorded it on my third album, and also a different version, a dance version, for the 10th album, now; not because I felt a connection, I just liked the song. 

In 2013 you released the Children of the World album. When I heard it, I thought of the song “We Are The World” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and performed together by many acclaimed artists in 1985, in support of Africa. Was there any reference to that song?

Not really, I wrote a song about the Ethiopians in Israel, and how they are mistreated. So I called it “Children of the World.” But I said also in this song that you should go to schools and get an education, and I sent [this song] to Jamaica.

So you are saying that there is a lot of discrimination in Israel, but your entire adult life you’ve lived in Israel.

I have been here for 54 years. It is a great place, it is a great country. It is very tolerant.

At the same time?

Yes, at the same time. Even though, there is this religious [aspect] it is still a very tolerant place. And I have friends here who love me for who I am. I can live my life here. I cannot imagine living back in England. But I can go visit there with the concerts. As a Jamaican-Israeli artist.

You were born in Jamaica, but you spent only 12 years of your life there. Do you feel at home there, when you go visit?

No. But I am still proud of my heritage, that’s why I cannot ever leave Jamaica in my heart. My band is called AMJAH, the people of Jah. Jah, in Jamaican, is God.

Are you a religious man?

No. With the musicians I used to play, we looked for the name and we came up with AMJAH. And it is my heritage. When I was eight years old, my mom moved to England. Together with my brother and my little sister, we were supposed to join her. But my father didn’t want to leave Jamaica. So eventually, after a few years, my mom divorced him, and we joined her without my father. During those years we lived in the countryside with my grandparents. I was raised at St. Ann, the same parish, from which Bob Marley came. He was only five years older than me. (I never met him, but I love and worship him, I play a lot of his music.) We moved to Bristol, I didn’t like it there, it was cold and foggy, after beautiful hot Jamaica.

So you long for Jamaica. But the lyrics of your songs are also deeply rooted in everyday Israeli reality. For example, one of your older songs is about the Shuk Hacarmel (Carmel Market in Tel Aviv); we are now sitting about 500 meters from there. The song talks about shopping at the market; basically, you sing about a shopping list.

Why did you record it? 

I think it was 1986, on my third album. I wanted the song to be very simple. I had other people writing for me, and the words were too sophisticated. When I started writing, I am not so strong in Hebrew, but I wanted this song to be very simple. I wanted to portray Friday at the shuk. And I succeeded.

How do you work? What does your creative process look like, if you don’t mind sharing some secrets?

When I work, I sing the songs, and Amit – the recording engineer I have been working with for many years – records the songs and we start to add things to this. And when the rhythm section is ready, I sing it again with instruments; it gives a different feel.

So you start composing from singing?

Yes, but I always come to the studio ready. I know what I want.

Do you write notes?

No. But I explain well and Amit interprets me. We have just worked one hour today and everything I asked for I got. We record first the vocals and then dress them with different instruments.

What is reggae music?

Reggae music is like a language for people to express themselves.

Can’t you say it about any music?

Yes, but especially reggae. Reggae musicians used to give a message in their songs; back in the days in Jamaica, what kind of life were you living? It was passing messages to the people, at the beginning.

And what is reggae music, today? It has evolved over the decades.

Reggae music today has a lot of “dancehall,” which is like the rap of reggae. But there is not a lot of a message in it today. It is more now about what are you going to do to girls and about violence.

Violence, really? When I think of reggae it is sunny and happy.

Some of it yes. But nowadays there is a lot about murder and stuff.

But not in your songs. What will be the main message of your coming 10th album Adayin Kan?

That we must survive. After all we went through during COVID-19, we must survive. But also I wrote a song “Saba” [grandfather], because this is also my role now.  