An island of grassroots music

The 40-year-old Tel Aviv Folk Club includes well-known performers, but also provides a stage to young musicians.

Alain Abadie (right) with Harold Jacobs. (photo credit: ARIELA ORION)
Alain Abadie (right) with Harold Jacobs.
(photo credit: ARIELA ORION)
Traditionally, folk musicians play in small places, where the audience is discriminating and the entrance is cheap. So it follows that folk music clubs in Israel meet in community centers.
Entrance fees just cover costs; performers play for no compensation but exposure to an appreciative audience; musicians around Israel keep coming because their fans are not only appreciative but influential. As word gets around between the various clubs and folk music festivals, local musicians’ reputations grow; some have recorded albums and started careers.
The Tel Aviv Folk Music Club holds shows in the Bikurei Ha’itim center on 6 Heftman Street. It’s an imposing building with a grand staircase leading to upstairs rooms, but in keeping with grassroots tradition, you must descend to a humbler sphere: the basement. The door opens to a large room with microphones set up in the front, and chairs arranged on three sides of the performers’ space.
Most of the audience has been meeting there for years, so there’s a natural buzz of greetings until Ariela Orion, organizer and MC, rises with guitar in hand and gives the first, 20-minute set. She encourages people to harmonize or sing along, and the audience, warmed up, is eager to welcome the first performers.
“I’m an amateur musician myself,” says Orion. The enthusiastic, redhaired Sabra, 54, is an English teacher with a passion for folk music. “I got addicted to the folk music scene after attending a Jacob’s Ladder festival in 1987. It was such an amazing experience that I felt I had to find out more.
I started attending the Tel Aviv Folk Club meetings and that was it, I’ve been there ever since.
“At the time there were two organizers, Michael Greengard and Malcolm Roth. For one reason or another, in subsequent years neither could remain as organizer, so they asked me to MC and I accepted. Eventually, I took over.”
The club started in 1974 with Greengard and three friends meeting in people’s homes to make music. It moved to the Bikurei Ha’itim center in 1986 to accommodate a growing audience. Shay Tochner of the wellknown group The Taverners made a point of attending regularly, and of bringing people from his band.
Word spread among other professional musicians. Local performers like Sandy Cash, Jill Rogoff and Bruce Brill began appearing at the club, while folk music stars like Tom Paxton, The Taverners and Black Velvet have rocked audiences there in the past.
“The folk community in Israel is mostly English-speaking, but Israelis also come,” says Orion. “Most folk clubs are started by English-speaking people: Americans, English, Irish and Scottish, who have the tradition.
Ours is small, intimate, family-like, friendly. We sit on three sides of the performers, and the closeness to them allows us to communicate and ask questions: who wrote that song, can you play another that I’ve heard here, etc.
“We consider ourselves an island of music where people can leave their troubles and the news outside, and just enjoy pure music.”
Some audiences make a point of visiting folk clubs in Karmiel, Modi’in, Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Sderot and Beersheba. The organizers are in frequent contact. “Each club has its own ambiance,” remarks Orion. “We don’t all operate the same way; for example, we’re the only one offering shows twice a month. But we all support each other and cooperate. Musicians migrate between the clubs and festivals.”
The folk club is a boon to local performers just starting to make their way. Other venues are scarce, and most are in bars. Playing in a bar is a struggle to sing over the hubbub of conversation, the beer pump, the coffee machine and customers popping in and out.
“This is a place for people to perform when they’re not experienced yet,” says Orion. “Nobody will criticize or look down on them. Musicians say it’s empowering to perform in front of an audience who’s there to listen. Some very talented performers started on our stage, and they go on to perform at other folk clubs and the Jacob’s Ladder festival. It’s wonderful to take part in helping musicians enter the folk community.”
Orion has been known to accept performances with musicians that she hasn’t auditioned. “I received a call from a young performer who has a bluegrass trio in Zichron Ya’acov.
He asked to play at the club. The program was full, but I offered them my set, which is 20 minutes long. I asked if they wanted to come all the way from Zichron to play for 20 minutes; they said they did. It turned out they played great bluegrass! “I take young musicians on trust, and so far, it’s been worthwhile, a musical adventure.
“We do have professional musicians too, often. I try to book well-known local musicians for each program, so the audience can feel comfortable asking for familiar pieces. And every once in a while, we get musicians from abroad. James Durst, one of the singers of Work o’ the Weavers, came here and returned four or five times.
We’ve hosted performers from many countries, singing in over a dozen languages,” Orion notes, adding that performers from abroad like the intimate atmosphere of the club, which recalls Greenwich Village.
Part of the club’s charm is its cultural underground feeling, but another is the musical variety of its programs. In the same evening, a Bossa Nova quartet may precede a young Israeli songwriter with a dark, gothic style. Then a young woman with jingle bells around one ankle sings English and Hebrew folk standards to acoustic guitar. Other evenings might feature gospel, rock, bluegrass, French chansons or swing.
Occasionally there’s a theme evening when people, including audience members, are invited to perform songs around topics like woman power, children’s songs, nonsense songs and protest. Orion is currently considering a theme evening around the topic of money.
Look for upcoming performances on the club’s Facebook page. Admission is NIS 30; shows start at 8:45 p.m. and consist of four 30-minute sets. There’s a short break after two sets, during which people can mingle and chat with the artists. The evening usually ends at 11:30, although on occasion a spontaneous jam session keeps the place rocking until later.
For information, email Ariela Orion at, call (03) 683-7441 or visit the Tel Aviv Folk Club on Facebook at