Ex-Lion Tamer guiratist Zoe Polanski on playing in the US – It’s fun and a good place to be.The CMJ Music Marathon – the American independent rock music annual showcase in New York City – is going to have an Israeli accent this year. Four acts from Tel Aviv will rock Manhattan’s Makor Club on October 31st – Ex-Lion Tamer, Katamine, Anat Damon and Rockfour.
Currently in its 26th year, the 2006 music marathon showcases over 1,000 bands playing in fifty plus venues over the course of five days. While Rockfour is already a CMJ veteran, for the other three bands this marks an exciting opportunity to make a bigger mark in the US’s independent music scene.
Karen Zehavi, drummer and percussionist for Anat Damon and the Time Flies, views CMJ as a sort of rite of passage: “CMJ is on the showcase circuit and it’s probably one of the biggest events around. It’s kind of a required thing, like NXNE [North by Northeast], SXSW [South by Southwest], MIDEM [the World's music market], etc… depending on who’s in the audience at the showcase, CMJ could open a few doors…”
CMJ, which was founded in the late 70s, initially intended to group together a number of college radio stations, according to Reverend Moose, VP of content and Editor-in-chief of CMJ’s New Music Report. Meeting with success, it became a national syndication, and continues to represent college and non-commercial radio to this day.
For the members of Ex-Lion Tamer, who are kicking off their second US tour with CMJ, the music marathon seems like a natural step for their band.
“We aren’t expecting a career jump,” says singer and guitarist, Zoe Polanski, “but it’s fun and a good place to be.”
Tel Aviv resident Hillel Wachs, manager for both Rockfour and Anat Damon and the Time Flies, sees an additional significance to the showcasing of Israeli bands at CMJ.
“The fact that CMJ is devoting a whole night to original English music coming out of Israel is impressive. It’s a milestone of sorts in that it not only recognizes that the individual bands chosen to play CMJ are of a certain professional and commercial level, but more specifically, that the Israeli English music scene is producing music that can compete on the international level and is worth taking note of,” he told ISRAEL21c.
Unlike the traditional Hebrew pop commonly found in Israel, over the past decade a number of Israeli musicians have been forming an alternative music scene in Israel, playing edgier rock written entirely in English. With sounds ranging from progressive alternative rock to power pop to punk rock, there are plenty of Israeli musicians besides the four featured CMJ artists who are taking steps to create a viable international music scene in Israel.
Amir Neubach, lead singer, guitar player and co-founder of hard rock band The Genders, sees the progression into English rock as an expected move for Israel.
“It’s just natural that the westernized, cosmopolitan environment that exists in Tel Aviv should produce an international music scene. It’s a step towards becoming part of a global music scene, which isn’t replacing traditional national culture, but rather thriving alongside it, as a refreshing alternative,” he said.
And thrive it does, as an increasing number of Israeli English rock bands make their way across the Atlantic to bring their music to the US.
Man Alive, a punk influenced rock band, has already completed eleven US tours, including their debut this summer on the Warped tour, a well-known US punk rock tour. According to bass player Jonathan Shkedi, touring has only just begun to get easier.
“Being a band from overseas is really hard. You have to get a van and equipment that can work in the US. Buying flight tickets, routing a tour and booking shows is a ridiculous amount of work. It has finally gotten easier because we have really good contacts and have signed with a big label. It’s a hard lifestyle, but it’s worth it for our mental sanity because we all love playing.”
Beyond the smaller fan base in Israel, the US also affords the bands exposure to new music and new influences. “If you only play in Israel and your influences are American rock, like ours,” says Omer Hershman, singer and guitarist for progressive/alternative rock band Jetsam, “you need to come here once in awhile to update, to hear other bands, hear some more music.”
Neubach agrees. “Rock ‘n roll is American music, and we feel at home onstage in the US. We feel it’s our mission to bring our sleazy tales of debauchery in the Middle East to every town in America… The US is still the center of the Western world culturally, and since we were raised on its music, film and culture, it’s only natural for us to want to be part of the music scene there.”
For The Genders, the decision to sing in English was less about opportunity and more about achieving their artistic goals: “Why did any rock ‘n roll band ever sing in English? The answer is simple; rock ‘n roll was first conceived by American performers and it will forever remain an American idiom? Rock ‘n roll is a language in itself, and may be adapted slightly to one’s culture here and there, but should always represent the original values laid down by its originators, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, to name a few.
“It hasn’t been a question of advancing our career; it’s more an issue of writing and performing within this powerful idiom of rock ‘n roll. There’s no other option really, but choosing this idiom has steered us towards the USA like nothing else, and it has given us the focus that every band needs, the realization that what we’re doing is the only way that’s right for us.”
Anat Damon sees the choice as artistic as well: “When I decided to try and write lyrics, and to make them into ‘real’ songs, words just came out in English. When I started to think about it I realized there was more to it: it’s easier to expose yourself not in your mother tongue.” And beyond that, Damon notes, “We all must confess, it sounds better singing without all of the problematic consonants Hebrew has.”
And so a growing number of Israeli artists continue to foray into the growing English rock scene in Israel, expanding Israel’s musical horizons, while simultaneously boosting Israel’s cultural appeal on an international level.
Beyond the musical significance, Damon’s drummer Zehavi notes the national importance as well: “I think it provides a challenge to bands that choose to sing in English: how do you present yourself as a regional entity, or is this even an issue? Every performing artist – whether in music, theater or dance – is essentially a cultural ambassador… The English rock scene in Israel tends to avoid overt political messages and concentrates on universal themes of identity and belonging. I think that Rockfour made a significant international impression in the early part of the current decade and other local bands are following their lead.”
For Neubach, the national significance is important as well: “Hebrew pop is still the leading force in Israeli music, just turning on the radio, that’s instantly obvious. But it’s the international bands with lyrics in English that can actually “put Israel on the map” so to speak. I’m a firm believer that Israel needs to be “on the map” in a non-political, cultural aspect. We’re a nation of creative, intelligent people and it just seems unnatural that all we’re known for is war and bloodshed… even now, with the political situation being rather grim, we definitely need to prove that this country has a huge creative and cultural potential.”
As the English rock scene in Israel continues to grow, many of the musicians place hope in the fact that their talent as bands will soon supercede their national identity, and that Israeli rock will be viewed purely as an artistic force without the political baggage.
Says Hershman: “Still most of the places we come to talk to us about the politics and about the fact that we are from Israel. Hopefully enough bands will come and sign with major labels that the issue will be more the music and not the political issues. We aren’t so interested in politics, we are interested in the music.”