You could argue that Koby Israelite has no business appearing in the lineup of this year’s Eilat Chamber Music Festival. I mean, he’s hardly a classical musician, and he doesn’t even read music. Then again, the festival, which will take place at the Dan Hotel February 6-9, has always tended toward the boundary-flexing side.
In addition to the expected slots – such as young Dutch piano playing siblings Lucas and Arthur Jussen, French violinist David Grimal and the London-based Busch Piano Trio, in a refreshingly youthful lineup – there are a handful of shows that are clearly designed to attract the extra-classical crowd. Israelite’s confluence with vocalist Lucy Randell – better known as Annique – on February 8 (11 p.m.) certainly pertains to the non-classical side of the festival tracks. Annique and Israelite, who will play piano, accordion and ukulele, will be joined in Eilat by Roni Zur on keyboards, Rene Meyer on bass and guitarist Yariv Grands.
Tel Aviv-born Israelite has been living in London for three decades now, and spreading his talents across a wide range of disciplinary and stylistic spheres, performing across the globe and putting out eight albums under his own name, and contributing to many more.
He is a highly dynamic performer, pumping out kilowatts of energy on stage as he flits between accordion, drums, piano, guitar and a slew of wind instruments, leaping genre demarcations with gay and irreverent abandon.
His broad palette of projects over the past 30 or so years includes a number of intriguing synergies with genre-bending Jewish American record label owner, producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist John Zorn, who established his experimental music Tzadik label in 1995. Israelite says he never set out to blur category definitions, and that it was just a matter of going with his personal flow. “It just happened like that. I like many styles, and that probably shows with my work. I was very lucky to release my early work with the Tzadik label. There were no boundaries. Johnny Zorn allowed me to have a total freedom and to record whatever I feel. I’ll never forget that.”
As a largely self-taught artist, Israelite comes across as something of an anti-establishment musician with little regard for “the rules of the game.” Pigeonhole-defying ethos notwithstanding, Israelite begs to differ. “I’m not sure if there are any rules,” he posits. “I don’t think in those terms. I think that my music is always very melodic and not anti-anything, in the sense that, in every piece, I wrote there is a part that even my mother would like. I think that is what subconsciously guides me.”
REALLY? ANYONE who has caught Israelite live, or even listened to some of his recorded oeuvre, might struggle to equate that take with the sonic bottom line. Israelite eventually owns up to harboring some less genteel intent. “Having said that, I like to go mental sometime and to show my middle finger to those who don’t like middle fingers that much. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think much about what I do.”
Even with all the manifold areas of expression into which Israelite is constantly dipping, he says, at heart, he remain very much Israeli. “I can definitely recognize the Israeli influences in my music. I think it is unavoidable. When I grew up, Israel was, and still is, a melting pot. I was exposed to so many styles of music. I can definitely say that some of it remained in me – Sasha Argov, for example,” he adds, referencing the Israel Prize-laureate songster.
There were more “age-compatible” influences in his formative years, too. “[Seminal 1970s rock band] Kaveret definitely. And I was a big fun of [new-wave rock band] HaClique,” he laughs. “Maybe that was the rebellious side of me.” Israelite was a regular at HaClique shows and became close to powerhouse drummer Jean-Jacques Goldberg. “That was the time I started playing drums. Later on, I got into heavy rock and metal. It’s still fun [to listen to that] these days. Led Zeppelin was also a massive influence.”
Western classical music, particularly of a romantic nature, also comes into the Israelite musical impact fray. “I am a big fan,” he notes. “Chopin is my favorite composer ever! I also love Ravel, Debussy and Bach. Big fan. Two big inspirations for me are Itzhak Perlman and Leonard Bernstein. I think Bernstein was not only a great composer, but also an amazing mentor and educator of music. I am not so much into atonal music – more the romantic era.”
As he has been creating and performing with Annique for 10 years now, one might have thought they struck common musical ground from the get-go. Typically, Israelite was drawn to working with her by the possibilities offered by an oxymoronic mix. He says they share “almost nothing” musically. “That’s what is so great about us working together. We are making a musical soup. I bring the meat, and she brings the vegetables.”
Whatever your dietary desires, the Israelite-Annique show in Eilat should proffer the audience some titillating tasty musical tidbits.