A penny for their performance

Festival B'shekel is a socio-cultural initiative to bring high-quality cultural performances to Israel's periphery and inner-cities at popular prices.

mika karni 88 (photo credit: )
mika karni 88
(photo credit: )
The "One Penny Festival" ("Festival B'shekel") is a socio-cultural initiative to bring high-quality cultural performances to Israel's periphery and inner-cities at popular prices. Sha'anan Street, the well-known soloist of the home-bred Jerusalem Hadag Nahash hip-hop group, created the festival five years ago. "At that time, it [the festival] was considered a kind of subversive reaction to the high priced music festivals all over the country," recalls Esther Yadgar, then a social activist in Jerusalem and today a member of the board of the Association of Festival B'shekel. Although this radical, alternative festival has become much more organized over the years, the association, founded in 2001 to promote the festival, still abides by its original aims - to empower the residents and bring good popular music at the lowest price to the young and the less-young in the poorer neighborhoods and the development towns. Members of the association include actors, artists, social activists and authors, among them Meir Shalev and David Grossman. The association is supported by the Jerusalem Foundation, the Pratt Foundation, and Omanut La'am. Each year, the festival takes place in several different locations, although Jerusalem is always one of them. The festival, explains Yadgar, "is not merely a musical event. It is more a social process, which begins long before the festival itself. In order to strengthen the ties between youth, communities, social action and culture, we encourage young boys and girls in the different neighborhoods to participate by bringing their musical and theatrical skills." She continues, "In addition to the preparations for the festival itself, including the public relations and the links with the community, we... look for local talents and work with them on their performances. This is done in workshops. Once they "graduate" from the workshops, they are involved in all of the different stages of preparation and production of the festival. And so, in the end, the festival includes the participation of both top-billed performers - at least those who share our social commitments - together with new, local performers. The most important message that we wish to convey, says Tami Molad-Hayu, a social activist who also ran for Knesset on the Labor ticket (but did not get in), "is that culture and arts are not a luxury, but a basic and very important component in every viable society." This year, the festival will perform in Kiryat Gat, Migdal Ha'emek and, next Monday, July 3, in Jerusalem at the sports yard near the Seligsberg School in East Talpiot. Street theater performances will include the Zaza group and the Jerusalem Circus Association, together with local performers Caroline, Drive, and the Alex Liberman rap group. Guests performers will include Doll House, Mika Karni, the Mercedes Band, Amir Lev, Tomer Memia, and Reguev Hod. Yoav Kutner will be MCing. Pointing to the cultural contribution that the festival makes, Yadgar notes that Reguev Hod, for example, "is a very talented and admired performer of traditional oriental music, but is still totally nonexistent on the official radio stations in Israel. Despite the huge numbers of people who attend his concerts, you'll never hear him on either 88FM or Galatz [the popular army radio station.] So when he comes to our festival, we are all also making a social declaration." Yet Yadgar acknowledges that the festival does not meet the needs of all of the residents of Israel's periphery, where many Russian immigrants, who tend to prefer Western classical music, live. Yet no Western classical performers have been included in the festival. She adds, "I personally am very sorry for this, but we include only popular music in the festival. It will take time, we are aware of the fact that the older Russian immigrants do not understand us, but I am convinced we will find a way to reach them, too, as we did with Arab citizens in Acre, in one of the previous festivals." She reveals that at that festival performance several years ago in Acre, some young teens from the Jewish neighborhoods had initially refused to listen to the Arab performances. "But in the end, it turned into a real gathering." Involved in the project from its inception, Yadgar remains enthusiastic about the festival's important social influence. "We've had a young Ethiopian breakdance group and a young Russian rock group. One of the social workers told us that they usually only communicate through violence and usually only their knives talk. But at the festival, they listened and watched each other with obvious pleasure." Another time, kibbutz members joined in, too. "This is exactly what we want to achieve - an encounter on the periphery, especially for the young." The association views the social activism that propels the festival as an antidote to the avalanche of "the soulless Western music industry on Israel." And Yadgar abhors what she sees as a large stream of young people who abandon their own musical traditions and surrender to the "twinkle of the delusion of stardom in the show business industry." This is, she says, "a real disaster." "We have terrific musical traditions here and instead of enjoying them and feeling proud of them, the youth here run after things like the TV program, A Star is Born and the like. The result is the oppression of our traditional and cultural heritage, and this has implications that go far beyond issues of entertainment and music."