Seymour Stein, a veteran of Warner Music and the man who discovered and signed Madonna to Sire Records, sits in a renovated steam train stationed in South Tel Aviv while being interviewed for an audience of hungry Israeli musicians. As celebrated music journalist and personal friend Larry LeBlanc questions the music mogul on an illustrious career, those gathered are eager to ask their own. “What do you look for in international superstars?” says one. “How did you find Echo & The Bunnymen all the way over in Liverpool?” asks another. “What was Robert Smith like before The Cure exploded?” etc. The answer is, “They all had good songs.” Stein concludes saliently: “In our past lie valuable lessons for our future.”
It’s a sentiment that’s particularly emotive in recent days (this reporter learned of Trump’s election while dismounting the plane at Ben Gurion airport) but it’s even more comforting in the bamboozling and fast evolving music industry we operate in now. For Israel, a State that isn’t yet 70 years old, the music scene is too new to have past decades to analyze for solutions. Yet it could do well to look to the DIY attitudes of other successful underdog Davids who rose above the double Goliath of America and Britain when it comes to exporting its wares. That’s the aim of the music conference and festival known as Tune In Tel Aviv.
This is the festival’s sixth year. It’s the vision of Jeremy Hulsh, founder of Oleh! Records, which isn’t a record label, but an organization dedicated to exporting Israel’s biggest music talents, Tune In being the priority focus. It takes place in a distressed yet progressive city, a patchwork of old, new, borrowed and sometimes tragically blue. It’s far too small to be associated with the likes of Brisbane’s Big Sound conference, but its delegate lineup wouldn’t be sniffed at in New York’s former CMJ. The festival features over 100 acts who perform over four nights (November 9 to 12) in venues dotted throughout the convoluted bazaars, broken streets, and bottleneck lanes of Israel’s largest metropolis. This year Hulsh’s right arm — manager and publicist Boaz Sachs — informs that they’ve secured the city’s best upcoming venues. They’re not all around the corner from one another but jumping in and out of cabs to screech through TLV’s narrow streets allows for a pretty comprehensive crash course in the city’s heady nightlife.
“In a minute there’s some new age Chassidic electro starting downstairs!” shouts Hulsh in a fascinating venue named Teder.Fm, a secret courtyard occupied by bustling restaurants, recording studios and practice spaces, live stages and bars. It reminds of New York’s Silent Barn, except with the Eastern mix of cumin and hashish wafting through the air. Over in the North by the Port is Hangar 11, an industrial square space, enormous enough for club nights and rock shows. This year it hosts the festival’s international headliners Moderat from Berlin. Other venue highlights include Papaito, a great-sounding low-ceiling’d bar, home to soul and funk nights. A club called Kuli Alma is by far the most unique, impressive and reflective of Israel’s restorative, patchwork architecture. It’s a subterranean outdoor Mecca off near the markets, disguised by foliage. One of its rooms is decorated by Pokemon cut-outs, the other dotted with arcade games, an art gallery and a bar that doubles up as a pizza joint, serving alcoholic slushies for cocktails. The extra kookiness of the city’s escapist rabbit-holes are an expression of pure necessity. These distractions are required.
Beyond the venues, the major success of this year according to Hulsh and Sachs is the quality of international delegates. Stein and LeBlanc aren’t just an encyclopedic education for the Israelis. The other delegates also hang on their every word. When news of Leonard Cohen’s death breaks, LeBlanc, who was close to Cohen, is only too happy to talk about his war stories, which are extensive, colorful and, of course, never last “just a minute” as promised. The enviable lineup of speakers elsewhere include agents, managers and bookers from Glastonbury, Primavera and Montreux Jazz Festival, including Martin Elbourne who instigated the Great Escape in the UK. He headed to Ramallah with some of the other delegates to meet with Palestinian musicians about their equivalent conference which takes place next year. The faction who visited appeared suitably “mind-fucked” upon their return.
From the presence of Clayton Frederik (Creative Director at Tomorrow Land and Mystery Land) to Michal Kasak of Slovakia’s Pohoda Festival, the group is truly international. Even the perpetrators of the festival offer a birds eye view of the global industry. Hulsh himself spent his early years working at major labels in LA and now lives in Slovenia. Sachs, born Israeli and Italian, has spent a decade in London and a year in LA. He’s had every conceivable job in the industry, including roadie and band member. Together, the festival’s participants are proof that you needn’t be from a big European or North American market to break but you might have to find more inventive ways to make yourself heard. The challenges that lie ahead are starkly abundant.
Many of those obstacles are broken down during two days of organized discussion at Hatachana, the former site of Old Jaffa’s railroad station. They take in a wide array of subjects: broadcasting, festival booking, how to survive independently without a deal, and how to attract the press. Israel doesn’t even have Spotify. Israelis’ naivety, however, is confounded by their hustle and desire to learn. Most are aware they’ll have to travel overseas to kickstart their careers. “You have to succeed abroad,” says Sachs. “You could be the biggest artist in Israel and just be making rent.”
Despite being aware of their shortcomings, there’s a lot of fronting — a survival tactic that’s in their blood. Israel was built off a tenacious, often arrogant sense of idealism and do-or-die ethos. Tel Aviv itself continues to be a breeding ground for the young and eager, a graffiti’d melting pot of liberally minded expats from around the globe mixed with Israeli-born former army cadets, all trying to make the grade with the few tools they have. It’s only natural that it’s become a hubbub for self-realized musicians. People here live out bohemian existences like they’re in throwback Greenwich Village times, except instead of brown tenement buildings they occupy shacks. Talking to one of the festival’s volunteers, who moved to Tel Aviv from London’s East End six years ago, she describes the rental market as a permanent search for “a lovely shithole.” It reminds me of when I visited a friend who moved here a few years ago. She was making do with furniture she found on the street and a smattering of resourcefulness. Spraying the chair with a can of gold paint I remember her saying: “It was a garden chair, now it’s my golden throne.” Similarly the talent here is trying to make something out of nothing.
Therein lies the biggest disappointment. Tune In Tel Aviv is not the rightful apple of its city’s eye. The connection to local music fans is significantly lacking. As Sachs reveals, even many of the artists who didn’t make the lineup decided not to participate in the aftermath of their rejection. It’s a problem. Difficult too is the lack of wider communication. The festival has miniscule visibility on the streets, and — unfathomably for such a tech-front society — social media. Twitter is not remotely popular in Israel. Every artist wants to connect personally via Facebook. Tune In is facilitated on such a shoestring budget and with so much good will by all involved but the proper outsourcing of a social media strategy has sadly fallen by the wayside.
After a week that began on Wednesday afternoon and carried sleeplessly through until Sunday’s wee hours, the work takes its toll on the family of Tune In staff. Saturday sees a delegates’ trip to Jerusalem (second option: the Dead Sea). On a lookout rooftop in the Old City that oversees the controversial Wall which separates Jerusalem’s East from the West Bank, Hulsh has just enough of his voice left to lead a captivating discussion on current Middle Eastern politics. At 3 a.m. on Saturday night Sachs keeps his eyes open long enough to finally put a pizza he’s been craving all week into his mouth. With a tight-knit team of local volunteers, they’ve toiled to realize Hulsh’s vision. It’s a work in progress but it’s growing gradually with a flurry of teeny wins year on year. Getting people to come here continues to be laced with obstacles.
In the Bascula venue on the final night, Sachs points at the corner where many delegates were sat in shock last year as news of the attacks on the Bataclan in Paris struck. Many international delegates are wary of their security and won’t come. The threat experienced in the Middle East has moved somewhat closer to home, albeit with far less ferocity and regularity. Israel doesn’t offer answers to the world’s current fears, but it does inspire perspective. Art and creative expression can flourish in the most stressful of environments. It shouldn’t be limited by borders, political upheaval or looming danger. Those looking to discover Tel Aviv’s treasures simply must seek it out.
Having exhausted three nights of nonstop entertainment, dipping into all genres as though they’re being offered up like tapas plates in a local hummus-and-falafel spot, we’ve whittled it down to five key acts to watch…
1. Noga Erez
Last year, the Israeli answer to a Bjork or St Vincent played a set marred by venue issues. This year she outshines most of the other acts. Kicking things off on Thursday night in Hangar 11, a space as black, cold and sparse as the skittering beats of her electronic hip-pop, her steely determination comes across in every body blow and hit of her synth-pad. The beats are provided live by Ran Jacobovitz, the most in-demand drummer in Tel Aviv. He turns into a human trap machine while Erez herself snaps back lyrics like “Hear me / No one sees me / I’m off the radar.” You get the impression she won’t be off the radar for long. Her unique inventiveness chimes more with Fatima Al Qadiri than it does M.I.A., but with new single “Dance While You Shoot” and representation by City Slang Records in the UK, there’s the potential to be just as provocative a firebrand as XL’s number 1 politicized queen.
2. Tamir Grinberg
Word on the street and in the shuk is that Seymour Stein asked for a personal hour with this rising star such was the level of interest in him throughout the conference. His official showcase came at intimate club Papaitos on Thursday night, but he continued to do pop-up shows due to high demand. Having recorded and arranged all his own music since the age of 17 he’s forthcoming about his desire to get out of Israel, and will venture to New York City in the new year. His show is accompanied by a big live blues band, all horns and stomping percussion, while Grinberg either delivers slick soul-inflected love songs from his piano, or stands up to charm the crowd with his R&B pop. It would be fascinating to see what he can do with something a little less showboating. On record, his 2017 EP Inwaters is more electronic focused and pared back. The kid has a rasp in his voice starry enough to make Zayn Malik run back to One Direction.
3. Dana Elle
It’s impossible not to fall in love with Dana. She’s relocated to London, adores its trendy Shore-“deetch” and views Amy Winehouse as her ultimate icon. Her live show takes place at the upstairs acoustic-minded Ozen Bar as she patiently waits in the wings for international delegate Grady Champion to finish a seemingly never-ending set of Mississippi blues. Champion is a larger-than-life character around the festival, thrusting his harmonica-armed hips around every venue he can squeeze himself into. But Dana’s presence is much more subtle. She reminds of an early Lianne Le Havas or Corrine Bailey Rae, with some of the newer material clearly influenced by the same underground UK electronic beats that have contributed to the careers of Jessie Ware or Jamie Woon. Her voice is pure soul powerhouse, but it’s softened by her acoustic guitar playing and between-song banter. Before her final song she tells the crowd she’s from small town Nazareth but risked everything when she moved to London — and gladly. “If you’re not scared,” she says, “You’re not dreaming big enough.”
4. Garden City Movement
In the day time the Bascula venue is a circus school, but at night it turns into a street art decorated chamber for loud and fierce music. The realtively ambient Garden City Movement (nothing about them screams gardens, or cities or a movement) have had a fair amount of traction on the scene here and via Stereogum, Noisey and Ninja Tune, garnering bigger fan bases following previous Tune In showcases. Forming in 2013, they’re a four piece who begin their set with the same vein of math rock that birthed Foals, then move into funk-fuelled dance that reminds more of Jungle and finally winds up as a vocal-less foray into The xx/Disclosure style untz-untz garage beats. Boasting the same drummer as Noga Erez, they’re a contagious and captivating electro party. Their biggest error is in talking to the crowd in Hebrew. Sachs relays once more that it’s these small yet crucial lessons that keep Israel’s talents from capitalizing on their captive audiences, who tonight largely don’t speak in the mother tongue.
5. Ouzo Bazooka
Having just experienced the psychedelic majesty of Desert Daze festival at the Institute of Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree last month, I could close my eyes to Ouzo Bazooka and imagine them opening up for Brian Jonestown Massacre there. Another fourpiece, they appear on the Bascula stage in full Bedouin garb; bare feet, loin cloths that belie any other garments beneath, and hair and beards that seem like they’ve been bathed in the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre. The songs are as melodic as Pond’s, sometimes even venturing in the direction of the Black Keys, but they’re style is far too shamanic for it to feel like its gunning for the mainstream. You never know though… Perhaps Ouzo Bazooka are Israel’s answer to The Dandy Warhols.