Blues in the Holy Land

Yamit Hagar has risen from a dead-end job to become a full-time blues show impresario, bringing quality blues to our neck of the woods.

Yamit Hagar hugs American blues performer L.C. Ulmer after his show in Israel. (photo credit: SHARON SHAPIRA)
Yamit Hagar hugs American blues performer L.C. Ulmer after his show in Israel.
(photo credit: SHARON SHAPIRA)
‘If you will it, it is no dream,” said Theodor Herzl all those years ago. It is a sentiment with which Yamit Hagar identifies fully. Hagar may not be in the weighty global political business of establishing a new country, but she has set up a new musical venture which appears to be gaining momentum with every passing gig.
Two-and-a-half-years ago Hagar was stuck in a dead-end job.
“I’d been working as a computer games software tester for 16 years,” she says. “I was going nowhere professionally.
I was in charge of a small team of other testers for a while, but basically I was on the lowest rung of the hi-tech industry and I hadn’t made any progress.”
Thirty-six-year-old Hagar wasn’t exactly suffering, but she wasn’t going places either.
“I enjoyed the actual work, but it doesn’t really suit me to sit in an office all day. It’s not really me.”
Hagar began to consider another, very different, breadwinning option one evening when she happened to catch Eran Sabag’s show Haim Shel Aherim on Army Radio.
Sabag’s counterculture weekly digs into historical figures and events, with the informative material interspersed by roots music pertaining to the culture in question. Sabag has a special interest in Africa and the cultural tentacles that have spread out from the continent, which naturally incorporate blues music.
Hagar heard one of the blues numbers Sabag played on his show, and a 200-watt bulb sparked into brilliant luminescence above Hagar’s head.
“I heard the music and it just clicked into the right place for me,” she recalls.
“I felt that I’d finally found my music.”
Hagar was reared on a diverse musical diet.
“When I was a kid my dad used to play opera records and classical music and [preeminent Egyptian singer] Umm Kulthum, and my mom used to play Elvis records and Barbra Streisand and that sort of thing. I always felt that I liked music, but I just hadn’t found my music.”
She tried her ears out on contemporary rock, including Pearl Jam, but they didn’t get her where it really matters.
“It was nice and all that, but it didn’t really grab me. There are those moments that change your life, for good.
That happened when I heard the blues on Eran’s show.”
Once bitten, Hagar wasted little time getting her own blues endeavor on the road.
“I arranged a small blues party and around 100 people came,” she says. “I woke up the next day with a hangover, and I thought: Why don’t I try and bring Robert Belfour over to Israel? It was as simple as that.”
That was after she’d listened to every single show Sabag had broadcast.
“There were 50 programs I could access on the Internet, and I listened to them all,” she explains. “I really got into it.”
The said gent was a blues musician from the cradle of the art form, Mississippi, and Hagar was determined to get him over here. As a newcomer to the music sector, Hagar took the advice of some of the more experienced members of the Israeli blues community, in addition to Sabag.
“I asked [Canadian-born Israeli blues musician, historian and radio show presenter] Eli Marcus how many people he thought would come to see Belfour, and he said that if I put in a lot of effort, I might get an audience of 300.”
But Hagar is clearly made of sterner stuff. She decided to go for broke and set her newfound blues goals higher.
“Eran took me to the Barby Club [in Tel Aviv] to introduce me to [co-owner] Shaul [Mizrahi], we closed the deal and I had a venue with a capacity of 1,000 people set up for the Belfour show. We got 1,000 people. We packed the place out!” There was an intoxicating buzz about Barby at Belfour’s 2012 gig, which set the Hagar blues show production endeavor rolling, nay snowballing.
Hagar threw herself into her new musical venture and reaped the side benefits, too.
“For these blues musicians, coming to Israel is not like going – say – to Sweden to perform. They come to the Holy Land, and visit Jerusalem and all that.
It’s a real experience for them.”
By now Hagar was into the thick of the blues scene, and mixing it with all and sundry. She’d also set up Nobody’s Fault Productions, which organized the tours here, and has also gotten into the recording act.
“You bring over a blues musician, and they go home to Mississippi and tell the other members of the blues community about it, about what a great time they had in Israel, and people get to know you,” Hagar notes. “Now, when I go over for the Mississippi Blues Festival each year, I’m part of the community. It’s great.”
Since bringing over Belfour, who died earlier this year at the age of 74, Hagar has showcased bluesmen of all ages and stylistic ilks from the Deep South here, up and down the country. The Belfour gig proved to be far from a one-off, and was quickly followed by a successful three-date tour here by Rev. K.C. Williams from Texas, with sellout shows at Barby and Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv, and at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem.
Hagar has worked with various music venues and events here, and provided Israeli audiences with a rare opportunity to catch some of the veterans of the acoustic blues-based Deep South blues scene, such as octogenarian L.C. Ulmer from south Mississippi. Artists like Ulmer offer a direct, living, singing and playing link with some of the giants of the past, and with artists who have lived and breathed the blues all their life.
Even though her blues venture enjoyed an impressive liftoff, it took Hagar another couple of years to quit her day job. Now she is a full-time blues show impresario and never misses an opportunity to bring over some quality blues entertainment. Next up is Corey Harris, who will play at the forthcoming Sacred Music Festival in Jerusalem.
Earlier this year she established the Tel Aviv Blues Festival, with mostly free gigs at bars and other venues all around Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
The lineup featured local veterans of the discipline, such as Marcus, Ronnie Peterson, Danny Litani and Mickey Shaviv, with a bunch of Americans thrown in, such as guitarist-vocalist Lightnin Malcolm, larger than life singer Candye Kane and 83-year-old blues and gospel singer-guitarist Leo “Bud” Welch.
The latter did the limited southern US church circuit for over half a century, playing largely gospel-seasoned blues, until a young fan took him under his wing. Welch was past 80 when he released his debut album, and Hagar made sure Israeli blues fans got a chance to hear the seasoned bluesman do his thing. It was a blast from a treasured past.
And there are plenty more plans afoot.
Hagar has another blues festival on the drawing board, with a week of shows lined up for Tel Aviv in December, followed by another helping at the Yellow Submarine. And multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, who performed at the Jacob’s Ladder Festival last year, to rapturously appreciative audiences, will be back anon.
While Hagar is now a bona fide member of the global jazz community, and has become a major player on the live blues scene here, there is still an endearing wide-eyed amazement about her demeanor.
“I produced a record for K.M. Williams [Jukin’ in the Holy Land – Live in Israel].
That is incredible! If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d do something like that, I would probably have fallen over laughing.”
Nobody’s laughing now – just grooving to the quality blues Hagar brings over to our neck of the woods. Stay tuned for more of the same.
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