Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mojo in the Negev

On March 24, 2011, Heartbeat Jerusalem lead 30 Israeli and Palestinian young artists through a musical and creative retreat in Negev/Naqab Desert. The diverse group included musicians, songwriters, and rappers from East and West Jerusalem, Nazareth, Tel-Aviv and in between. This was one of the most moving artistic and human experiences of my life and collectively the group generated a higher level of spiritual and creative power.

The goal of the program was to help the artists develop their artistic voice, musicianship, and to offer a space for the Arab and Jewish youth to work together and build relationships through the creative process. The desert served as a tranquil and spiritual place for the group to explore themselves and each other.

On the first night we had open show/jam session where different combinations of artists performed and collaborated. First to take the stage was Nem Tudom, one of the most spirited group of musicians and individuals. The band includes Heartbeat veterans Guy Gefen and Dekel Shula Adin. Check out the bliss and mayhem:

The following day we broke the artists up into three bands and began working on songwriting from the ground up. We exposed the bands to revolutionary artists of the last century and lead a workshop on their music and influence. To get the juices flowing we listening to and discussed artists like Bob Marley, Dead Prez, Fela Kuti and such. The ball was rolling and the bands began to improvise and develop song ideas through stream of conscious exercises and collaborative sharing and improvisation. The band I was working wrote a song based on dreams and desire for someplace new that was real and attainable and the rainforest became our setting. Check us out rehearsing the end of the song:

Later that day Mustafa "Muzi" Gaber shared with us the lyrics of his rap he wrote that morning. Siwar Mansour translated the Arabic into English. This was a heavy piece told from two narratives; the first coming from an Israeli soldier, who belittles the Palestinian character, exclaiming, "your ideas do not matter here... you are only a product of a monster." Mustafa answers the soldier with a first person narrative, enlisting hope in his people; "don't stop, you have to fight for every inch of land, and I fight with my pen about how things are going to change... This is the start, but there has to be an end; there has to be an end to everything that ever started." Listen as Muzi and Siwar as they share the lyrics with our band for the first time: 

Following dinner all the musicians reunited for a bonfire jam. At this time we had only been in the desert for 24 hours and it was clear to see and feel the sense of camaraderie and trust that had developed through the first day. Check out Dean Frechtman leading the group in a Louis Armstrong fire scat:

We spent the final day rehearsing and developing the music with our respective bands. Each of the Heartbeat staff members lead workshops in different musical genres; Arabic traditional rhythms, Jewish folk music, reggae, and I taught one on American blues to pop. A fair amount of the Palestinian musicians are really into hip-hop and it was cool to give them a little background on it's roots in the blues and R&B.

In the afternoon, with the entire group, we headed deeper into the desert to reflect and absorb the stillness of the Negev. Now we had been there for two nights and it felt like we had experienced weeks together, creating and constructing our stories, imaginations, and realities through song. On our trek we came to the edge of a plateau and gathered in a circle to share our deliberations.

To conclude the retreat we had a big finale concert in the middle of the Negev. Each band performed the songs that they had written. So many interesting ideas and sounds came to life under the heat of the Middle Eastern sun. It was incredible. Here we we're in the land of intense political and human struggle and these young artists had visions beyond conflict and unbelievable empathy and trust for one another. These are the people that can sew this afflicted region together through love and creation.


To check out more photos from the retreat and learn more about the Heartbeat movement visit:

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Violinist

On March 28, I made my first voyage deeper in the West Bank of Palestine. My initial stop was to Al Kamandjati to teach a jazz workshop. Al Kamandjati, which translates to The Violinist, is a vibrant music school in Ramallah that offers music education and ensembles for Palestinian musicians throughout the West Bank. Most of the programming is centered around Arabic traditional and Western classical music, however there is a growing interest in jazz. I immediately connected with Dimitri Mikelis one of the lead instructors. Dimitri is an oud and piano player from Athens, Greece and received a masters from Berklee College of Music in Boston. We bonded over Bean town and together we lead a workshop with the jazz combo he instructs. We rehearsed several standards including one of my Monk favorites, “Well You Needn’t” and worked on improvisation, ensemble playing, and listening exercises. The young Arab musicians were very spirited and a gas to work with.

After the workshop, I hung out with Dimitri and he told me about his story and we spoke openly about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Growing up in Athens, Dimitri studied Arabic traditional music and it was the music sparked his connection to the region and culture. His objective for teaching music in the West Bank is to help Arab youth musicians grow and enrich their lives and communities. Dimitri is a master musician and could be playing anywhere in the world but chooses to dedicate himself to music and the seeds of Palestine. I hold a lot of respect for him and all the other instructors at Al Kamandjati. Below is a picture of Dimitri giving a piano lesson to a young student.

Here's a clip of Mahmoud improvising on his violin. He's only been playing for five years and has beautiful tone and great musicality.


Meet Mahmoud:


Following my visit, I explored Ramallah with Rasha, who is a friend of a friend and grew up outside the city. She was very sweet and was a great host. As the night moved along, Dimitri called and invited us to a “dinner party.” It was midnight. I was interested in going but Rasha was hesitant and said she could not go to a man’s house she did not know. All day I had been feeling the intense cultural differences between Palestine and the Western World. I showed Rasha a few pictures of Dimitri and she warmed up to the idea. We then found out that it was Maddalena, a female friend of Dimitri’s who was hosting the dinner party and she agreed to go. The party was huge feast with several of the instructors from Al Kamandjati and their friends. We jammed out and I sang them some Elvis tunes. That's alright Mama.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Sounds of Tel Aviv

I've had the pleasure of playing with several different musicians here in Israel and Palestine. I've also had a handful of my own shows. It's been a trip to play my American based music for ears that are not used to the style. My favorite venue to play has been my friend Ami's rooftop concert series in Yafo (a la pic above). I'm also really looking forward to a pair of farewell shows in Jerusalem next week. The final show takes place in the open-air Shuk (marketplace) as seen in my previous post. I put together an eclectic band for the show. I'll be joined by my Palestinian friend, Tamer on bass and Israeli drummer, Matan. I just taught Tamer some honky tonk harmonies to Jambalaya– so incredible to hear the Southern twang come from him!

About a month ago I got together with Israeli/Yemenite singing phenomenon, Ravid Kahalani. He graciously invited me to his flat in Tel Aviv and we hung out, talked music and jammed. He is an amazing singer, with a heart full of mojo. He's most commonly known for his work with Idan Raichel, but it is his solo project, Yemen Blues is what speaks to my soul. The nine person ensemble marry Yemenite, Arab, and Israeli roots music with the inspiration of West African and early American blues. It's a beautiful and power sound. Check it:

Yemen blues just returned to Israel from a big tour through North America. Check out Ravid's interview on PRI's The World.
Tel Aviv really does have a myriad of musical worlds spiraling throughout the city. During my first night in the city in the beginning of February I stumbled across this hipster-posh venue on Sderot Rothschild. To my surprise the band was performing an acoustic tribute to OK Computer by Radio Head. The group was lead by the captivating female singer, Mika Sade and they killed it! Check out Karma Police:


I moved to Tel Aviv–Yafo on St. Patrick's Day which fell right on the weekend of PURIM! I couldn't have picked a better time to move to the big city. Purim is a less religious Jewish holiday and in Israel is celebrated by dressing in costume and letting it all hang out. Even the Orthodox Rabbis get drunk and dance the hora! I dressed as a Native American which seemed like a fitting parallel to my work here. I hit the streets and enjoyed the revelry and wild dance parties through out the city.

The Rebi w/ Chief Casimir

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Today a bomb went off next to the 74 bus near the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. One woman was killed and 50 civilians were injured. This was particularly alarming for me, for it was just last week that I moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I used to ride the 74 bus daily while in Jerusalem. In addition to today's bombing, rockets and firing have been escalating between Hamas and the IDF. Meanwhile, tomorrow I embark on a pinnacle mission with Heartbeat Jerusalem. We will be traveling to the Negev Desert with 30 Arab and Israeli musicians to rock out and use the power of our voices, melody, and creation. "BOOM BOOM BOOM, WE DON'T WANT NO MORE OF THIS!"

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Al Kamandjati

A few weeks ago I attended a special concert by the National Ensemble of Arabic Music at the Palestinian National Theatre, commonly know as Hakawati in Palestine/East Jerusalem. The performance was an elegant tapestry of classical Arabic music featuring an ensemble of musicians from 12 to 60 years old.  The orchestra is lead by Ramzi Aburedwan who is also the director of Al Kamandjati, a music school and center in Ramallah in the West Bank. Check out a clip from the concert:

Ramzi established Al Kamandjati to make music education more accessible to children from refugee camps and villages throughout Palestine and Lebanon. I had the pleasure to meet him and hang out with the orchestra after the show. 

Ramzi Aburedwan, second from left

The female singers were affable and adorable!

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Heartbeat Jerusalem is the organization I am working with here in Israel. Heartbeat was founded in 2007 under a grant from Fulbright and MTV. We're working to empower Israeli & Palestinian youth through a collaborative musical experience. Most importantly Heartbeat provides a safe space and opportunity for a musical dialogue to begin and grow. Check out the documentary:

On Tuesday, February 22 Heartbeat Jerusalem hosted an Open House - Open Mic event. I had had a few meetings with the directors, but this was my first integrated event with the group and didn't know what exactly to expect. 

Independently I have been meeting and connecting with several young Palestinian and Israeli artists, so I reached out to Ihnaminhon (the hip-hop group from East Jerusalem/Palestine) and invited them to come participate. The event was taking place at the Willy Brandt Center, a multi-cultural center in the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem and it was a little tricky getting Mustafa and Naser over there. My Arabic is useless in regards to giving directions, and communicating with English over the phone was onerous. Eventually they found their way...

As I did not know what to expect, neither did they. Mustafa and Naser arrived smoking cigarettes in the building which is a no go; they were riled up and ready to go. At first, the vibe was tense, and Tomer, one of the Heartbeat coordinators and I tried to get things rolling with a collaborative improvised jam. It was a mixed group with David on guitar, Tamer on bass, Frima and Ami on percussion, Guy on keyboards/samples, Mustafa and Naser on the mics, and myself on drums. Most of the group was listening and working together, but Mustafa was heavy on the mic, making himself very present. After the jam, we had a discussion about where we are all coming from and we gave a presentation about Heartbeat and opportunity. After a while, Mustafa and Naser warmed up and were respectful. We passed the mic around the room and gave each person a chance to share. 

In this song Mustafa takes a stab at the Palestinian and Israeli men who just sit and watch the turmoil in the Gaza Strip. He sings to empower the women to speak up and let their voices be heard for change.

In this clip Guy discusses the meaning of his song he had just performed. He confronts the common misconception of who the main character is and points out how both Israeli and Palestinian kids identify with the subject.

Lastly enjoy this beautiful piece performed by Bassel on the Qanun accompanied by Tamer on the derbekkeh. Bassel joined us in the beginning for an audition for the Heartbeat band and he will be joining us for the recording/writing retreat we have planned for the end of March in the Negev Desert.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Rhythm in the Streets, Kitchens, & Rooftops

I followed heavy sounds of cymbals and bellowing bass to find a wild, counter-culture beat happening in the Shuk. Mahane Yehuda commonly know as "the Shuk" is by day the neighborhood-large open market where folks come to get produce, meat, and pita. I had been there a handful of times to pick up peppers and pita myself and it was a total 360 to walk in to this psychedelic dance party. The 5th of May, one of the few bars in the Shuk hosts a live show on Mondays and it's a liberating let-loose. Check out Tree from 2.14.11:

Tree live in the Shuk

The Shuk by Day

A couple of weeks ago I caught Tsatse for a lively and extremely intimate show. The band plays original and traditional Balkan music and the five members squeezed into the kitchen/bar of this tiny joint called the Zigmund in Jerusalem. The cafe can comfortably seat eight customers, but about 20 packed in surrounding the bar and another 20 peered through windows, doors, and crannies to enjoy the show and musical dialogue. Total vivacious experience! Enjoy the clip:

I've been making weekly pilgrimages to Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Essentially it's one big city that lies on the Mediterranean and is full of energy. To my surprise I was give an unexpected treat when "Why We Build the Wall" by Anais Mitchell came on at a bar I was hanging at. Anais is a friend and timeless artist from Vermont. Her folk opera, Hadestown is very relevant to the political climate here. So great to hear it in Tel Aviv!

My friend Ami Yares an ex-pat from the States, lives in a mostly Arab neighborhood in Jaffa and hosts a great concert series on his roof. His roof is an unbelievable setting for a show with a mosque in the backdrop. The sense of place is reinforced by the periodic chant from the Muezzin, the Arab caller to prayer. Below are a couple pics from the last two shows. I'll be playing as the featured act this Friday; looking forward!

Gary Bonanni and Lilach Perlstein-Bonanni

Muhammad Abu Ajaj & Son

Thursday, February 24, 2011

We Are From Here

IHNAMINHON: Naser Ajloni, Fader Gaber, Mustafa "Muzi" Gaber (from left)

I interviewed Ihnaminhon, a Palestinian hip-hop group on February 6. They shared their story and strife with the Israeli Settlers; but in the end are using the mic to spread a message of peace. We walked through their turf in Muslim Corner of the Old City in East Jerusalem (Palestine). The limestone streets were dark and we made our way by cell phone light. It was intense and unpredictable.

Walking in the Muslim Quarter, before the lights went out

Ihnaminhon means "we are from here" and they sing it loud and clear! They performed an impromptu rendition of "Abut Elshekh Jraah," one of their songs about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

I am working on writing a bigger story on underground music in the Arab-Israeli world. Muzi and Naser have become staple characters in my work here. More to come...  

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Setting Up Shop

I arrived in Jerusalem on Thursday evening, February 3 and spent the first few days getting my feet on the ground. I explored the Old City; the epicenter of the Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The city is divided into four quarters; Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian; they are literally on top of each other– it's pretty wild.

Christian Arab monk on the roof the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Wailing Wall

In front of the The Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock 

I spent the first couple nights at the Abraham Hostel. The hostel is run by Gal Mor, an inspiring character who has traveled the world and is now establishing hostels in the region with a progressive and open minded vision. Religiously, Abraham is the father of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and the name reinforces the hostel's ethos. I hit it off with Gal and he offered me a room to stay in for the trade of me running an music night at the hostel. I spent the first week here hustling to find a room to sublet and eventually found a pad in Baka, a nice neighborhood about a half an hour walk from the Old City and the city center. The hostel's got a great vibe and energy to it, so I may still run a show their when I am free. I've now been in Israel two weeks and it feels like a year full of adventures so far! I've had some amazing and intense music and political experiences that I hope to post about in the near future. Until then– nitrae bishmichot (see you in happy times)! 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mountains Beyond Mountains: journal entry from 2.2.11

"From somewhere in the valley below us comes the sound of drums. I recall the time I spent in the central plateau (Haiti) with the American soldiers, and I remember the sound of Voodoo drums wafting into the army barracks in Mirebalais at night and how unsettling it was to some of us sitting there in all it's mystery. I'm sure we'd have felt different if we'd known we were probably hearing ceremonies to cure the sick. For myself, right now, I like the sound, like so many hearts beating through a single stethoscope."

Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains

I finished reading Mountains Beyond Mountains in an airport bar in Newark, NJ while waiting for my flight to Tel Aviv. The book tells the the heroic tale of Paul Farmer's public health developments in the third world. Farmer's affirmed my belief that truly anything is possible...

I now embark on an ethnographic music and peace mission in the middle east. I will be living in Jerusalem and working with a non-profit organization called Heartbeat Jerusalem. The organization works to empower young Israeli and Palestinian musicians by creating opportunities and spaces for musicians from both sides to work together, hear each other, and amplify their voices to influence the world around them. I will also be doing an independent study and documentation of artists who are expressing their desire for change through various creative mediums. And yes, I plan to play and absorb as much music as possible. Here we go now, here we go now, here we go now!