Sunny side up

There is a sunny dynamic to the music and the band’s presentation, which seems to obviate political intent.

Apo and the Apostles keep the feel-good factor riding high. (photo credit: APO AND THE APOSTLES)
Apo and the Apostles keep the feel-good factor riding high.
(photo credit: APO AND THE APOSTLES)
The annual Sacred Music Festival is back for a seventh time. Since its inception, the event has gained a solid following and a growing reputation for offering intriguing and sometimes left-field cultural items.
This year’s program is packed with an eclectic range of arts events, at all sorts of venues around Jerusalem, including quite a few in the Old City, aimed at bringing people together to share an hour or two of fun and, possibly, have an enriching and uplifting experience.
The music section constitutes the closing week of the monthlong Mekudeshet program, which artistic directors Itay Mautner, Gil Karniel and Gil Ron Shema say celebrates “sacred music from across the globe” and offers “a universal message of unity and inclusivity.”
That is a stirring message indeed and one that Apo Sahagian happily embraces. It also goes some way to explaining why he and his rock band, which goes by the funky and somewhat alliterative name of Apo and the Apostles, perform the majority of their material in English.
“It gives us a linguistic affordability to access all of the market and everybody, and go to everybody,” says Sahagian in excellent English. Clearly, the language in which he largely sings comes naturally to him.
He points out that opting for the world’s lingua franca also helps to sidestep potential political minefields.
“It ‘de-triggers’ any predisposition or impressions that people might have connected to linguistics,” says 27-year-old Sahagian, who lives in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. His Christian bandmates come from Bethlehem. “If you see a page in Arabic [about a show], you’ll be programmed, somehow, into believing that, no, I’m not going to buy tickets for this, just because it’s in Arabic.” The vocalist-guitarist says it works both ways. “And if it’s in Hebrew, you might say, ‘Oh I’m not invited.’ We do our thing in English. Anyone who comes to our door can have a beer and enjoy the music.”
Anyone, indeed, can dig the high-energy rock and pop grooves the quartet belts out, although one probably won’t understand all the lyrics.
“We also do songs in Arabic and French and, nowadays, Armenian a lot,” Sahagian adds. “And there’s Spanish and also Italian. We get a lot of Italians.”
But the core means of verbal communication is oriented toward the widest common denominator. “We are multilingual, but all of our activities are in English, because we believe it’s the best way to reach out and really get to people.”
Apo et al. are clearly managing that on the offshore stage, too. Their performance schedule to date has taken in gigs in France and the Netherlands, and the Mekudeshet date follows a UK tour.
Not that the international ride is entirely devoid of bumps. On his way out of Israel to Britain a couple of weeks ago, Sahagian had his guitar confiscated by security personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport. Luckily, the British Armenian community managed to rustle up a replacement instrument so the tour could go ahead.
Even if you don’t understand the lyrics of the band’s Arabic numbers, such as “Lina” and catchy signature number “Baji Wenak,” the vibe comes across in spades.
The video for the former shows characters walking past the Palestinian side of the security barrier which sports “Make Hummus Not War” graffiti.
There is a sunny dynamic to the music and the band’s presentation, which seems to obviate political intent. “Everyone else is doing politics, so why should we?” notes Sahagian. “It’s not like we have to fill a vacuum.”
The bandleader says it is more about feeding off dayto- day life than about addressing concepts on a grander scale. “It is a Jerusalemite-Bethlehemite band, so we based our material on the locale that we come from.”
Sahagian observes that the intercity confluence has a political precedent. “The UN Partition Plan of 1947 had Jerusalem and Bethlehem joined together as one international city. So that works for us. There is continuity between this city and Bethlehem. But we don’t really think about these things. It is subconscious. But there is a foundation [for cooperation] that we are not aware of. We try to just represent our locale – what we experience.”
It is not that the band members are unaware of the conflict stuff going on in their “locale,” but they prefer to stick to the sunny side of the Middle Eastern street.
“We live in a bubble,” says Sahagian. “People ask us what we play. We play bubble music.”
So is it a matter of putting out them positive vibes in the hope of the audience responding in kind?
“We do,” comes the uncomplicated rejoinder. “You give people sababa [cool], they give you sababa,” says Sahagian, although noting that it’s not all roses. “Our life is not that easy. It’s a slightly higher rung than shitty, depending on which ladder you’re on. I’m from Jerusalem. I have more freedom of movement. The other guys in the band are from Bethlehem. They have less freedom. One of the guys lives right next to the wall, so whenever there’s trouble, he gets a lot of that – soldiers on the roof and all of that.”
Challenges notwithstanding, Sahagian says he and his cohorts maintain a stiff yet smiling upper lip. “He [the aforementioned Bethlehem resident, trumpeter Firas Harb] has the audacity, the chutzpah, to keep some semblance of sababa.” That is indicative of all the members’ approach to living in this part of the world, and keeping their mojo running smoothly. “We have the audacity just to carry on playing music. Once we go out through that door [of their homes], it’s not the most hospitable place for us.”
Sahagian started out on his personal musical road at the age of 13, although his choice of instrument was more a matter of default than anything else.
“I had a friend who played guitar, and I thought I’d learn bass so we could jam together,” he recalls.
The teenager was determined to set out on the right foot, and found himself a music teacher, Hila Weiss, who lived on Hebron Road.
“I went to her and told her I wanted to learn bass guitar,” Sahagian says, “but she said I don’t have a bass, you’ll have to play the guitar.” And that was that.
Weiss was clearly an advocate of deep-end learning. “She threw the guitar at me. The first thing she taught me was the solo from Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe.’” Not a bad starter. “She taught me the importance of composing, and not imitating much. I like that.”
That, married to Sahagian’s bright and cheery outlook on life, informs the Apo and the Apostles output and makes the listening and watching experience all the more entertaining and fun.
“We also jam a lot and improvise,” says Sahagian. “It gives things a happy feel. Happiness is the thing.” The band will perform as part of the Kulna multi-act bill, at Mitchell Gardens, between Hutztot Hayotzer and the Old City walls, on Thursday.
The rest of the lineup for the evening includes East West Orchestra, singers Dikla, Nasreen Qadri and Shai Tsabari, indie artist Luna Abu Nasser, liturgical singer Ziv Yehezkel and hiphop artist Muhammad Mughrab. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., the show starts at 7:15 p.m.
For tickets and more information: *9882, (02) 653-5854 and