The Blues in Israel is a long trek in the desert; once in a while you may encounter an oasis…

Veteran blues fans in Israel may recall the legendary Josh White performing in the resort town of Eilat on the Red Sea in 1956. Prime blues artists like B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Jimmy Witherspoon, Buddy Guy, and others have graced our fair land a number of times since the early 1970’s as well. We have even been blessed with two or three successful local blues festivals over the past decade.

The Blues has been used an icon for a number of years in Israel, and many non-blues festivals, bands and events have tried to cash in on the mystique by using the word Blues in their title. One local movie (with no blues content whatever) was even titled “Late Summer Blues” when marketed overseas. I even participated in that movie by mistakenly thinking due to its name that there was something for a Bluesman to do there…

For many long years, the Blues was a commodity that was imported into Israel from overseas, often brought here by new immigrants from North America or the UK, by kibbutz volunteers, and by wandering travelers that extended their stay in Israel. Local musicians received most of their blues influences from British rock such as Peter Green with Fleetwood Mac, Cream, Led Zeppelin, John Mayall, Rory Gallagher, and Jimi Hendrix (who was living in the UK during his rise to stardom). Many local artists knew how to play some bluesy 12-bar solos, but the vocal aspects and the acoustic side of the blues escaped their notice. Perhaps the lyrics of older blues, which are often difficult for native English speakers too, placed a barrier before the local Israeli artists, and maybe they simply weren’t exposed to enough variety of the blues for it to sink in. That is probably the reason why the majority of authentic blues players in Israel either came from overseas or spent substantial periods of time there.

Israeli radio began introducing listeners to the blues some time in the early 70’s, when Gil Shemer and Shamira Imber first programmed blues content in their weekly shows. Leah Lior and Shlomo Israeli were soon to follow suit, and Shimon Parnas (who does the ethnic music TV shows lately) also took part in the introduction of blues content on Israeli radio. The early 1980’s seem to have forgotten about the blues, but near the end of the decade, Danny Karpel and Leah Lior each had as many as 3 weekly hours of blues on their respective radio programs. In 1990, yours truly was given the opportunity to create and deliver a series consisting of 13 one hour episodes on the blues, but since then, Israeli radio has once again forgotten the blues.

One early wanderer that settled in Israel in the early 1970’s was Jeff Laibes, a former keyboard player and arranger with Van Morrison. He was a whiz at the blues, and didn’t mind sharing what he knew in little seminars he gave to all who asked. At the time, Israel had quite a flourishing community of young rock/pop groups that filled dance halls in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Ramle – the centers in those days for the music scene. “The Princes”, “The Secrets”, “The Churchills”, “The Electric Stage” were prevalent bands that were all influenced by rock and the British rock-blues scene.

In 1972, Avner Strauss, Shaikeh Michaeli, Moshe Revach, and a drummer named Amnon presented a musical evening in Jerusalem that traced the history of the blues. The show was a success, but was a one time event that was not repeated until the 1996 International Guitar Festival in Tel Aviv where Danny Zukerman, Paul Moore, and myself presented an evening dedicated to the blues and jug-band music of the 20’s and 30’s.

From time to time, the blues desert is decorated with the odd Israeli song in the blues vein: Shalom Chanoch wrote “Tafasti Rosh Tov AL Ha Bar” (“I Got a Good Buzz At the Bar”) and “Al Tevatri Alai” (“Don’t Give Up On Me”), Yoni Rechter wrote “Kavu Ha’Orot” (“The Lights Have Gone Out”) and “Blues Shaket Min Haderech” (“Quiet Blues From the Road”), and blues guitar virtuoso Yitzhak Klepter wrote “Nifgashnu” (“We Met”) and “Etzel Avraham” (“At Avraham’s Place”), all of which are now Israeli classics.

In the early 80’s, Canadian musician Ted Cooper began to perform in public and to teach blues harmonica to a new generation in Israel. Ted was well versed in both the country blues and the electric Chicago style blues. Ted even received his 11 minutes of international fame when foreign press and TV covered his song “The West Bank Boogie” which Ted wrote in reaction to the Intifada of the early 90’s. Ted left Israel a few years ago disappointed in the local blues scene and the difficulties in making ends meet as a musician, and some of us still garner hopes of his eventual return….

Another blues immigrant in the early 80’s is Michael Simon, a highly sensitive guitarist from Scotland who also performed as a clown and juggler on the side. Michael worked at first in an acoustic blues and R&B duo with Gideon Yuval (who is by the way the topic of the famous pop hit “Gidi” by Dan Toren). In 1988, Michael Simon and Johnny Mayer (harmonica, guitar and bass player and originator of the Blues For Peace web site) put together the electric blues band Highway, which held its ground until both the leaders left the country in the early 90’s.

Johnny Mayer has since returned to Israel, and created the first ever Israeli web site dealing with the blues, named simply at first, but quickly evolving into The Blues For Peace website has received much international attention and praise over the past 3 years, and has also sponsored a number of musical events in Jerusalem. John is also the author of the first ever Hebrew instruction book and cassette on the blues.

Bassist Miki Shaviv created perhaps the first real Israeli blues band with his “Blue Eyed Brotherhood” in the late 80’s. Shaviv is not only a gifted guitarist and bass player, but can speak English as a mother tongue. His familiarity with both languages allowed him to write excellent blues lyrics in Hebrew, lyrics that fit well into the blues idiom and the musical rhythms. Over the years only one other Israeli artist has had success in writing consistent blues lyrics in Hebrew, Avner Strauss. Strauss followed his early interest in blues (see the 1972 tribute mentioned earlier) to America, where he spent a number of years studying music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was only in the early 90’s that he realized his dream and put together a blues band, complete with horn section and female singer (Shevachia Bat Yisrael from the Black Hebrew community of Dimona). He named the band “Big Women” after one of his lyrics describing his love for big women….

The Black Hebrews of Dimona, a community of immigrants from the Afro American community in Chicago mostly, can be seen as a little oasis in the Israeli blues desert. The concentration of extraordinary musical talent among the Black Hebrews is enormous, almost every other person in the community is a fine musician or vocalist (often both). Singers such as Shevachia Bat Yisrael have accompanied many of the top pop artists in Israel for years. Another shining star, Godel, a multi-instrumentalist and singer who was also a talented teacher, producer and arranger, was capable of playing Chicago blues and abstract jazz equally well. Unfotunately, Godel was killed in his prime by a car accident. The Black Hebrews have not managed to penetrate the local music scene with total success, perhaps due to political motives, or simply because their talent has been underestimated by the local agents and managers, but they are diamonds of talent nonetheless.

The clubs that have consistently hosted blues in Israel are few and far between. In the early 90’s, Logos bar in Tel Aviv began booking some blues and hosted regular blues jams on Friday afternoons with a band named “Blues Rosh Pina”. The band members met originally in Rosh Pina, and had an informal style of playing long open ended jams. The vocalist and harmonica player, an American immigrant named Gershon, could compose blues lines on the spot as the jam proceeded. Local punk rock guitarist Yossi Elephant was a guest of the band quite often, which gave the band a wider audience, but one night, Elephant died of heart failure (due to a previous condition and drug abuse) right on the Logos stage. Other blues acts to play at Logos were Avner Strauss and Big Women, Ted Cooper’s Blues Band, and the occasional artist from overseas.

In the mid 90’s, the Logos bar began to fade, but a little club named Camelot began a regular blues and jazz program of importing artists from the US to play for a week at a time in Tel Aviv. Camelot helped support a number of house bands, among them the Sanhedrin, brainchild of Russian immigrant Danny Zukerman, who took a keen interest in the blues after playing pop and jazz for many years as a bass player. The Sanhedrin featured 3 acoustic guitars plus a bass and drums on stage, and they performed both original and traditional blues. Camelot also helped guitarist Ronnie Peterson, brought over by Shalom Chanoch as a hired guitarist in the late 80’s, to rediscover his blues roots. Today, Peterson is the most successfully marketed blues artist in Israel today, managing to break through the barriers of musical genres, working with many local pop artists as well as foreign artists brought over by Camelot, and gaining the most attention from the local media.

So the blues does exist in Israel, but it is still an odd crop in a musical desert here in the land of Israel. To quote Ted Cooper: ” I got milk and honey in the promised land….”

Article by Eli Marcus