Fortuna Records - The forgotten sounds of the Middle East

Fortuna's founders have an ear for discovering music from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and beyond, from artists that were doing something different from the mainstream.

THE MEMBERS of Fortuna Records (left to right): Ariel Tagar, Zach Bar, Maor Anava and Yoav Magriso (photo credit: ARIEL A. EFRON)
THE MEMBERS of Fortuna Records (left to right): Ariel Tagar, Zach Bar, Maor Anava and Yoav Magriso
(photo credit: ARIEL A. EFRON)
Fortuna is the Roman goddess of fortune and luck. So when the four members of Fortuna Records were looking for a name, they decided on Fortuna, since it was the name of one of their Turkish grandmothers, and in the business they’re in, they need a lot of luck.
Fortuna is a record label and DJ crew based out of Tel Aviv that specializes in the forgotten sounds of the Middle East. They are made up of four friends: Maor Anava, Zach Bar, Yoav Magriso and Ariel Tagar. The four have an ear for discovering music from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and beyond, from artists that were doing something different from the mainstream. Through music, Fortuna has also been telling the story of how people in Israel connect to the countries they came from. From Yemen to Greece, North Africa and Turkey, and how the melting pot in Israel created different combinations of sounds.
In the last decade, they have reissued music from artists including Aris San, Grazia and Raviv Gazit to name a few. They’ve released their own productions, started a radio show on London’s NTS and thrown many late-night parties.
In 2008, Anava and Tagar began a record label that focused on Jamaican reggae music and an early dub from the 1970s. They released a few records, but realized most of the records and people they were dealing with were hard to locate, unless they had the right contacts.
“We really loved the idea of what we were doing,” says Anava. “All four of us, we’re friends, and we all share a deep love for music. We always had in mind the local music we know. Obviously, we loved a lot of 1960s, ’70s and ’80s music and the sounds from Jamaica, Trinidad, Lebanon and Israel. It all seemed very appealing to us, sound-wise.”   
AROUND 2012, an opportunity came through one of their friends, Ofer Tal. Tal is a DJ, producer known as ‘Schoolmaster’ and part of the duo Radio Trip, with a history in the Israeli music scene as part of The Apples and other groups. Anava refers to him as the guru of Fortuna. Tal introduced them to a 7” record, “Soul of The East” by Tsvia Abarbanel.
“We used to hear a lot of stuff from him,” says Anava. “That one just blew our mind. We said okay, that was the cue we’ve been waiting for. It was like he was looking for someone to start reissuing.”
Tal remembers, “The Fortuna DJ’s, they were playing Jamaican, American music, funk, techno, and they were coming to me and Uri [Wertheim] and said, ‘What is this, is this from Israel?’ We said, ‘Yeah.’”
   
From there, the crew had the task of locating Tsvia [Abarbanel] to speak with her about her music. Anava recalls, “finding her, now I can say, a few years after, was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. Opening the yellow pages, looking for Tsvia Abarbanel, finding someone randomly that had a very similar last name. I said, ‘Okay, maybe she changed her name.” It was Bar Abarbanel that I found. Gave her a call and she was so ready for it. She was basically sitting next to her phone from the 70s waiting for someone to call regarding those recordings and she was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ Two days later, we met her; three days later, we were at the studio with the original tapes. From that point in, it was like, ‘Okay, we’re doing it.’ We didn’t have a plan for it, it was just ‘Let’s just do the first one and see what’s up.’”
While working on the Tsvia Abarbanel record, Fortuna received another tip from a source that told them he had a recording of someone else that came out in the same year as Tsvia. Anava says, “He said, ‘Here are the tapes.’ I got it covered when it comes to licensing.” This turned out to be Greek singer Nino Nikolaidis and his “Turkish Hits” EP, which is another 7” record that was reissued in the same month as Tsvia’s.
From there, the buzz started to build around Fortuna worldwide. BBC6 Radio named “Soul of the East” one of their top 10 reissues of the year. They were invited to London by renowned DJ Gilles Peterson and their music began to spread.
THE FORTUNA Records crew hold up an insert from a record in their collection. (Photo: Ariel Efron)THE FORTUNA Records crew hold up an insert from a record in their collection. (Photo: Ariel Efron)
Over the next few years, Fortuna began reissuing a wide range of music: Aris San’s hit “Boumpam / Dam Dam,” originally released in 1967 on Koliphone Records; the Jazz Workshop’s Mezare Israel Yekabtzenu album from 1971; a group headed by Albert Piamenta that bridged Israeli jazz with what was going on in America.
Grazia’s self-titled album Grazia from 1978, also released on Koliphone, has become a classic in its own right; unique in the way Grazia, a 16-year old singer who sang in Turkish, used synthesizers and psychedelic influences, something totally different at the time. The album sold almost nothing then, but has left a lasting impact.
“We realized with Grazia why we do what we do,” says Anava in an interview from Radio Eshkolot. “We just love to take those things that almost disappeared from the world and say, ‘Hey, look at that.’”
IN THE early 1950s, immigrants were arriving in Israel from North Africa, Yemen and other Arabic countries, and began to make music with each other. The oud, darbuka, tin drum and bouzouki joined with guitars, and became known as Mizrachi.
“The music had to find its way in another form,” says Tal.
“It was not broadcast on the radio and didn’t have orthodox ways of distribution. This was a good place for independent labels and private pressings, so all this music is very rare now. They didn’t save it. Grazia is not of Turkish origins, Grazia is from Moroccan origins and she is a part of the craze. Her father wanted her to be a nightclub singer, and the Turkish scene was very popular in the 70s. Not by Turkish people who enjoyed it but by everyone who enjoyed it. If I’m talking to a guy from Greece, he doesn’t think the Turkish and Greek scene are together Why would they be together? It was together because in the same nightclub, a singer not from Turkish or Greek origins, was singing Turkish and Greek hits to people from Yemen and from Poland and from Germany. This was the scene in Jaffa and south of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other places around Israel. This is unique to Israel.”
Fortuna’s members originate from different places around the Middle East and Europe. Anava’s mother is from Marrakesh, and his father from Damascus, they met in Israel as teenagers. Tagar’s family is from Serbia and Bulgaria. Bar and Magriso, from Greece and Turkey.
“We’ve changed a lot because now we’re in a different state of mind,” says Anava, “releasing contemporary stuff. In the beginning, we thought to only release traditional, very Middle Eastern stuff. Then we heard The Jazz Workshop, which was made by the guy [Albert Piamenta] who produced Tsvia’s music. Now we could hear a record and say that would be Fortuna material, no matter if it’s old or new. This jazz album made us realize we represent something of the music from our own backyard.”
Fortuna has continued to expand its catalogue. Recently, they’ve had releases from keyboard player Raviv Gazit and his super interesting LP Ze from 1985, made on a synthesizer in the basement of Tel Aviv University. Jacky McKayten’s Black Magic, an album of Bollywood soundtracks redone in a Yemenite style, the funky and mysterious Moontribe, and Fortuna’s Kalbata, who collaborated with the band Tigris on the Afro-Caribbean, electronic-influenced Vanrock.
The next records up are another traditional Middle Eastern Greek record, and a cult Israeli 1980s track by the band Minimal Compact, which comes with nine-minute extended and instrumental versions. “They are not putting out anything that’s not a full masterpiece,” says Tal. “Up till now, every one of the releases is a standout. Everything Fortuna does, it’s not from a historic perspective, to document the past. The Fortuna vibes is only to do with what people like today.”
In addition to his involvement in the record label, Anava is a working club DJ in Tel Aviv, going by the name DJ Hectik. It is a balance that he says he enjoys and that keeps him young.
“I’m really liking that on one side I can do the Fortuna stuff, and have the excuse to listen to old stuff, organic music and to enjoy it,” he says. “At the same time, I’m known as a DJ that plays house, techno music and breakbeat and stuff like that, being a resident at The Breakfast Club, so I’m really liking it. I met all the Fortuna guys through nightlife. We’re all DJs, party promoters, etc.”
THE FORTUNA crew members also throw their own parties, which can go from traditional folkloric music to Israeli and Turkish disco, and proto-house from Morocco.
“We make sure to have at least one session a month when it comes to playing the Fortuna kind of stuff and we mix it,” says Anava. “We always start organic and groovy, and we eventually end up in stuff that’s contemporary, new school stuff that’s still related sound-wise to what we are doing. Since we started in 2012, we have done at least 50 to 60 parties, and it has become a thing now.”
“Eight years after we started it, it’s more like a romantic thing to us, not a business,” says Anava. “It’s a real company, but we don’t do it for the money. We never took money from it, we just use it to keep the machine going. Even if we don’t release anything in 2020, in Tel Aviv it’s a trademark of obscure, interesting sounds from all over the world.
“When we started as a reissuing label from the Middle East focusing on obscure, weird music, no one really released that kind of music. Then you have some guys like Habibi Funk, now a label like BBE Music, which is an English record label, they released compilations. Everyone is in that sound now, so we said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to always be ahead of everyone, so we’re going different places.’ We’re trying to create this thing that is based on sound, and not necessarily on a year or a region.”
“We have the same idea about playing the records, what is reissue material,” says Tal, who is also the manager of Nuweiba Records in the Romano Teder complex. “We were also friends. They went through my [record] crates and they always ask, ‘Give us more.’ I’m saying to them there is a limit to the Israeli catalogue. It’s small, but still there is lots of great stuff.”
There are many steps in the reissuing process. You must find out who owns the music and rights, make agreements with the artist, edit the sound quality, and so on.
“It’s a lot of work, a lot of pain sometimes, dealing with a lot of people that don’t understand what you’re doing,” says Anava. “Or, they think you’re going to be rich over their back. To get to the point you actually reissue, it takes a lot of moves. A lot of phone calls, a lot of emails, a lot of money to do it. This thing of reissuing, is not that big. Now, if we have a track we want to reissue, let’s find the original master, let’s remix it, do some editing, a few versions, let’s do it more interesting. Basically, what you’re doing is for your romance, and the fun of it.”