Israel to showcase top musical talent at International Showcase Festival

This year’s roster features a broad sweep of bands and artists

THE ADDIS KEN Project: We all listen and we come up with suggestions, but it’s always a collective thing. (photo credit: YOEL LEVY)
THE ADDIS KEN Project: We all listen and we come up with suggestions, but it’s always a collective thing.
(photo credit: YOEL LEVY)
This year’s International Showcase Festival – the 11th edition thereof and the first online – is almost upon us, with three days of shows scheduled for online viewing December 8-10.
The forthcoming program, like all its forerunners, is designed to proffer the cream of our most artistically entrepreneurial and entertaining acts to festival artistic directors and other industry figures who work in jazz, jazz-oriented and world music spheres around the globe. The hope, as always, is that professionals abroad will be taken by what they see and hear at the festival (which is sponsored in part by the Foreign Ministry, the Culture Ministry, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Foundation) and will be moved to invite some of our gifted bunch to take part in their event.
That should also help to spread the word about the bands in question, and about what this little Middle Eastern country has to offer the world across a dizzyingly eclectic swath of styles, subgenres, cultural content and intent.
This year’s roster, which for the first time is not being overseen by founder Barak Weiss, features a broad sweep of bands and artists, including blues-rock outfit Full Trunk, heavy rock threesome The Great Machine, internationally acclaimed jazz pianist Shai Maestro, 11-piece groove-Afrofunk ensemble Hoodna Orchestra, multicultural foursome El-Khat and highly successful indie-pop duo Lola Marsh.
The Showcase palette will take on a much groovier and bluesier complexion when the Addis Ken Project weighs in on December 10. The quartet’s name comes from the Amharic expression meaning “a new day,” and there is something surprisingly fresh and refreshing about the group’s output. Considering that their mode of presentation covers ostensibly tried and tested ground that runs the gamut of straight-ahead jazz to the blues, liturgical vocals to rock & roll, and all frequently liberally laced with some sumptuous groove, on the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be too much to shake up an audience.
Then again, if you caught the group’s gig at the 2018 Jerusalem Jazz Festival, or at various junctures at the Levontin 7 basement joint in Tel Aviv in the year or so before everything went belly-up with the dreaded virus, you would surely have been gripped, grabbed, moved or even swept away by the compelling seamless mix of leader Ethiopian-born saxophonist-vocalist Abate Berihun’s heart-on-sleeve delivery, complemented by the crisp, earnest and gleeful instrumental backing of pianist Roy Mor, bassist David Michaeli and drummer Nitzan Birnbaum. In short, they are a joy to behold and should draw the attention of many an artistic director watching in from foreign climes during the festival.
BERIHUN, AS unassuming a character offstage as he is driven and animated at his gigs, does not entirely go along with the idea of his running the show.
“Each member of the band brings something to what we do,” he says. “It doesn’t make any difference if we are performing piyutim [liturgical songs], blues, bebop, rock & roll or Middle Eastern groove. Everyone contributes something.”
The saxophonist does take care of the majority of the writing duties, although he makes sure everyone has his say about what eventually pans out.
“We are a group,” he notes. “There’s no ego with us. We work together.”
That applies equally to the quartet’s performances and offstage work.
“Someone brings an idea and no one says no,” Berihun explains. “We all listen and we come up with suggestions, but it’s always a collective thing. We always end up with something everyone is happy with.”
That patently comes across in their live work, and should come through in the group’s new album, which is currently in the works, and which Berihun believes – hopes – will come out in the first half of next year. The record was originally slated for an earlier release, but as with so much of our lives, and certainly in the cultural arena, the global health scare slung a hefty spanner in the scheduling works.
Berihun feels the COVID-19 fallout has not been all bad. I have had discussions with quite a few musicians and artists from other disciplines over the past pandemic-stricken nine or so months, and – alongside the perfectly understandable gripes about not being able to perform for live audiences, or get together, physically, with their colleagues for precious rehearsal time – they have all talked about the rewards they have garnered from the downtime and the rare opportunity to look inward.
“You have time to think about experiences you have had and to reflect on things,” says Berihun. “You can go off in a new direction. I wrote the music for the new album in a new way. It’s a new way of thinking.”
Now in his early fifties, Berihun is close to taking on elder statesman status in the Israeli jazz-oriented community. And his accrued life and artistic experience, and ever-spreading musical interests, come through in his work. His singing has improved, become richer and more nuanced.
He first wowed audiences here, a couple of decades or so ago, with his powerfully emotive bluesy liturgical Ethiopian vocal delivery, alongside, among others, now Australian-based Jerusalem-born composer and pianist Yitzhak Yedid, as the Duo Ras Deshen. He retains those beguiling sonic qualities but seems to have added new layers and textures to his vocal arsenal. It makes for captivating listening, together with the thrillingly upbeat vibes of the rest of the gang.
I suggest that, given the silky skills of all the players, in fact, Addis Ken is something of a supergroup.
“I’d go along with that,” Berihun concurs. “They are all such great musicians,” he says, adding that the chemistry between them was evident from the off.
He hooked up with Mor after jamming with him at a birthday party of Mor’s famed younger sibling, pianist Omri, renowned across the globe for his enticing mix of jazz and Andalusian music.
“We clicked straightaway,” says Berihun. “We felt that and still do.”
Michaeli and Birnbaum joined Berihun’s musical and personal world after he guested with them and their trio leader, internationally feted jazz pianist Anat Fort. And the rest is ongoing, fun-filled, polished lick-suffused, groove-saturated inventive musical history.
All Berihun and co. need now is for the pandemic to subside, and they can begin packing their suitcases and instruments, and hit the road.
For more information about the International Showcase Festival: