Jazz is still alive in Mitzpe Ramon

“Yes, the music and music-making are so important, for musicians, school kids, and for the country as a whole, but there is something so special here."

ICI FOUNDER and bassist Ehud Ettun joins forces with Polish vocalist Bogna Kacinska at the jazz club. (photo credit: COURTESY ICI)
ICI FOUNDER and bassist Ehud Ettun joins forces with Polish vocalist Bogna Kacinska at the jazz club.
(photo credit: COURTESY ICI)
 There’s a lot to be said for creating when the personal chips are down, from a state of pain and even suffering. Well, at least that’s what the cliché holds. Then again, you could try finding yourself a veritable oasis of calm, tranquility and – why not? – acres of wide open spaces in which to further your craft, and weave some artistic magic.
That is part of the ethos that fuels the Internal Compass Institute (ICI) and, hence, also the Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club. The two institutions have enjoyed a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship for close to six years, with students and music fans alike reaping the substantial creative and entertainment rewards. But now that delightful state of affairs is under threat.
The club recently launched a Headstart campaign to, hopefully, raise the funds that will enable it to make the necessary structural changes, pay some other associated bills and allow it to resume business after a long pandemic constraint-induced furlough.
The jazz venue has actually served a plethora of interests since it first opened its doors to an eager public back in March 2007. The brains and beating heart behind the venture is Gady Lybrock who “fled” the then still trendy, somewhat subculture-oriented Sheinkin Street scene in Tel Aviv for pastures more arid but definitely more peaceful.
It did not take him long to get the club up and running, housed in a hangar-like structure in the Mitzpe Ramon industrial area near the entrance to the Negev town. It is a special place in more senses than one.
MUSIC STUDENTS in Mitzpe Ramon get to work in the wide-open spaces overlooking the Ramon Crater. (Photo Credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)MUSIC STUDENTS in Mitzpe Ramon get to work in the wide-open spaces overlooking the Ramon Crater. (Photo Credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
WHEN I first caught a jazz gig there some years back – featuring internationally renowned pianist Anat Fort and Jerusalem-born New York-based singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb – I felt almost as if I’d stumbled onto a Fellini film set. There were around 20-30 people in the audience, encompassing what appeared to be the full breadth of the Israeli ethnic-cultural mosaic. There were some Mitzpe veterans, more recently arrived residents, an oddball backpacker from Argentina and various other jazz lovers who’d meandered their way to the Negev for the weekend.
The textural backdrop to the human demographic was an enormous red velvet curtain that would not have looked out of place at a film shoot by the aforementioned illustrious Italian director, while the upright piano looked like it had known much better times many years previously. Still, Fort did an almost superhuman job, eking some hardly credible textures and harmonics out of the weather-beaten instrument.
That has, thankfully, since been replaced by a bona fide grand piano, which has been put to good use by the dozens of local and foreign ivory ticklers who have played at the club over the years, including students of the ICI. The school was opened going on six years ago now by thirty-something bassist-educator Ehud Ettun who returned to these shores after honing his craft at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and accruing some precious hands-on training at jazz spots around New York and elsewhere, with a bunch of A-listers such as pianist Fred Hersch, saxophonist-clarinetist Anat Cohen and saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
“Everyone should know that the most important jazz centers in the world are Mitzpe Ramon and New York,” Ettun says, only half-jokingly. OK, so the Big Apple is “somewhat” a bigger urban center and has a “slightly” more developed cultural and jazz scene than the town that is home to just over 5,000 hardy residents perched on the edge of the enormous Ramon Crater.
But Mitzpe does have a few things going for it. 
“I think this place has a rare combination of factors, which drew me to the school in the first place,” Ettun notes. “On the one hand this is remote enough, but it is also near enough, and not necessarily to Tel Aviv,” he adds a little mysteriously. “For a while there were really cheap flights to Ovda (airport near Eilat), and it cost less to bring a star artist from Berlin than from Tel Aviv.” 
There have indeed been some stellar acts brought in from abroad over the years, including the likes of Polish vocalist Bogna Kacinska and Serbian flutist Milena Jancuric. The out-of-towners have presented workshops for ICI students, taken part in jam sessions and played gigs at the club with Ettun and other professionals.
AND NOW all that – and the potential for maintaining the club as a stage for students to gain some invaluable performance experience – is hanging by a thread. The Headstart target is a cool NIS 150,000, which, says Ettun, will go to installing certain mandatory safety and security features, but also help to upgrade the club’s hospitality and professional musical offerings.
That should be good news, not only for the budding jazz musicians who attend the ICI, but also for music lovers across the country. Over the past decade or two the tourism scene at Mitzpe has developed in leaps and bounds. People looking to give their jeeps a decent spin across some demanding terrain flock to the gigantic Ramon Crater, which stares up at the town. Then there are mountain bikers, road cyclists and others who are just looking get away from it all, and catch some soothing vibes.
Many of the above used to drop by the jazz club in pre-corona times. 
“The club certainly brings people in,” says Lybrock, the man who had the vision to do what most would have probably considered to be a crazy move. “The place has certainly looked up since Ehud came here, and brought his students in too. That has drawn audiences and also helped the club to bond with the locals.”
One thing is for sure. The people who go to Lybrock’s jazz club are there for the music. 
“You get great audiences here,” says Ettun. “That’s one of the reasons why musicians love playing here. People really listen to them.”
While there seems to be little in the way of local authority financial support – the Mitzpe Ramon municipal authority has taken a budget knock over the past year, like the rest of the municipal and regional councils across the country – Neder Noam, manager of the local community center, under whose auspices the club operates, expresses great enthusiasm for the efforts of Lybrock, Ettun et al. 
“I used to be a regular there,” he says, adding that there are financial benefits to be gained too. “Gady’s jazz club brings a lot of people to Mitzpe Ramon. Many visitors check out the club program on the Internet and then decide when to come to the area. The club is a substantial feature of the local cultural scene, and tourism.”
There are meaningful educational advantages to be had as well. Prior to the pandemic, students of all ages from local schools used to attend workshops and classes there, enlightening the youngsters about the wonders of a wide range of musical disciplines, including classical music. Prof. Michael Wolpe, an internationally acclaimed composer, conductor and educator who lives down the road on Kibbutz Sde Boker, has put in a shift or two at the club over the years.
IF TZUF AVIV LESSEK is anything to go by, the local jazz scene, and probably the national arena, stands to take on some serious musician collateral in the years to come. Lessek is in her second year of the three-year ICI program, and says she is delighted she took the decision to move south. 
“I started out on clarinet when I was 21, after the army,” she says. “I was more into classical music, but then I began getting into jazz here.”
She says she feels she has made significant progress over the past 18 months or so, on various fronts. 
“I am full of admiration for my teachers. I’d like to reach their level, if possible.” 
The club has also provided her with a professional springboard. 
“Every Wednesday in my first year at the school, we, the students, put on our show at the club. And we have learned about the technical side – recording, sound and that sort of thing. It’s all excellent experience and training.”
The 26-year-old says there are also advantages to living and studying in an out-of-the-way place like Mitzpe Ramon.
“There is quiet here, and space. You can sit on the grass outside the school building and just play. You don’t feel you have to fight to find your own space here as opposed, for example, to studying in a school in Tel Aviv. The room you can find here is important.”
That was amply demonstrated on a Friday evening I spent down there a couple of weeks or so ago with some friends. As the week wound down and Shabbat approached, we made our way to the edge of the crater, not far from the Visitors’ Center. As the seemingly infinite expanse of the Ramon Crater, with its exquisitely complex geological shapes and almost psychedelic array of color sand and stones came into view, we heard the sound of a clarinet, guitar and a double bass wafting towards us from the west. As we drew closer we saw a bunch of ICI students going through their jamming paces, trying out some melodic line or other, improvising and bouncing lyrical ideas off each other as the sun dipped ever lower. It was a magical moment, and conveyed to us much of what Mitzpe and the musical school are about.
There is a wonderful sense of laissez faire, and that it’s just fine to do anything your heart desires there. That unhurried feeling of freedom, says Lessek, carries over into the music student’s life there. 
“This is a small school so, if, say, a rehearsal room is occupied you can find somewhere else to play. There is a lot of space here.”
RONI OFFENBACH is one of the movers and shakers behind the current fundraiser venture. 
“I moved here a couple of years ago and I can tell you that the jazz club is the beating heart of Mitzpe.” 
She says the new local authority requirements, which she hopes will be covered by the fruits of the Headstart, presented all parties involved with quite a challenge. 
“Suddenly the club had to take out a business license. Not just the club, all the restaurants and other businesses around here. That meant we have to make all these changes, which cost a lot of money. It’s crazy.”
As far as Offenbach is concerned, should the unthinkable happen and the Headstart does not bring the kosher bacon home, it is not just jazz fans who will suffer. 
“This club is a gathering place for so many people,” she declares. “Yes, the music and music making are so important, for musicians, school kids and for the country as a whole, but there is something so special here. If the club closed, Mitzpe would lose a lot of its magnetism. Everyone here would lose out.”
Jackie Fay relocated to the Negev six years ago. The Seattle-born cellist has been on the ICI teaching staff since day one. Having done the rounds of North America before making aliyah 10 years ago, Fay is in a good position to size up the role played by the jazz club and the school in the local, national and even international music making community. 
“In a way, you can’t separate the school from the jazz club. It is not bureaucratic in any shape or form. It is hands-down the home of the school. That is a lot down to Gady, because it was clear to him that there should be that relationship between the club and the school.”
And music consumers from up and down the country have reaped the delicious rewards of that symbiotic bond, while the club has gained something of a reputation abroad too, enabling it to bring in top artists from as far afield as Brazil and the United States. 
“The club is pretty phenomenal, how much culture this place has generated, and for the whole of Mitzpe, bringing in tourists. It’s hard to imagine Mitzpe without the club.”
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
For more information about the Headstart: headstart.co.il/project/59680