Johnny Mayer’s message is simple: “American Jews, Israeli Jews, everyone, we’ve all got the blues, so let’s use the music to bridge some gaps, and get more in touch with each other.”Music has, of course, always figured highly in Jewish culture – from Miriam’s melodic offering of thanks to God after the splitting of the Red Sea to the emotive liturgical efforts of numerous cantors through the ages.
Now Jerusalemite musician Johnny Mayer is doing his best to help bridge cultural gaps through his musical art, with his Blues for Peace (BFP) organization.
BFP was established in Israel, in 1998, “to honor the roots of blues music and promote peace and the understanding that all peoples have had their share of the blues.”
BFP has promoted a wide range of musical events, such as an evening of blues and Ethiopian music, a Blues Bash for a People to People group (sponsored by the Eisenhower Foundation) that visited Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, and Faith, Hope & the Blues concert in Jerusalem.
Most recently, a group of young Jews from around the globe on the birthright Israel program discovered that you can get the blues in Israel too.
Mayer provided the brains and spirit behind the musical content of a recent birthright tour of Israel in which over 100 twenty-something Jews from several countries around the world participated.
Through its work, it has gained international credence, through recognition by UNESCO as promoting the “Culture of Peace”, and has been written about by leading publications and other media in the US, including Downbeat magazine, USA Today Hot Site, CNN Student News and PBS American Masters.
For Mayer, who was born and grew up in the U.S., music and especially the blues, have been a lifetime calling.
“I was born with a guitar pick in my hand for a rattle and a blues harp for a pacifier. When I was eight, I started guitar lessons and by the time the Beatles came along, I was ready to rock and roll!”
After participating in a work-study program on a kibbutz in Israel after high school, he was introduced to jazz and blues, which he developed further at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he studied Hebrew and Music Education.
After graduation, he moved to Israel and worked as a musician, playing in Shlomo Artzi’s band, teaching music in schools and writing a book called Hebrew Blues Rock Guitar in order to teach Israeli kids to play blues guitar.
The philosophy and goals behind Blues For Peace were articulated in a moment’s desperation and inspiration.
“I was on my way to a salsa lesson one night in 1998 when all of a sudden I realized there was a blues festival in Tel Aviv,” recalls Mayer.”
With just ten minutes to make up a flyer about my Israeli blues site, beat poets and the peace process… I thought to myself… what would Jack Kerouac do in this situation? And I came up with… Blues for Peace. It was set up in Israel to honor the roots of blues music, promote peace and the understanding that ALL peoples have had their share of the blues.”
For Mayer, music is one of the most powerful tools available for achieving his stated three-tiered target, as well as promoting some peaceful objectives. The closing event of the birthright tour group in August was a nocturnal blues cruise on the Sea of Galilee with the Jerusalem-based Southbound Train band providing live entertainment.
Mayer sees a strong connection between the Jews and blues music, and emphasizes the added value of using music as a bridging element between different cultural entities.
“The ancient Hebrews first got the blues as slaves in Egypt and then wrote a whole bunch of tunes as wandering Jews for the Assyrians, the Romans and Babylonians. If you look at the music of all the Jewish ethnic communities – from Spanish-speaking countries, Arab states, and from African and European countries – behind all that music is a feeling of sorrow over the loss of Jerusalem, and the longing to return to the Holy Land. So, like many other people, the Jews including, of course, American Jews, have a bond with the blues.”
One birthright tour participant, Jonathan Brostoff from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was taken with blues cruise experience. “I can’t believe I’m in Israel, much less on the Sea of Galilee,” said Brostoff. “It’s the middle of the night and I’m listening to a blues band on a cruise boat… cool!”
Mayer fervently believes young Jewish men and women from the US can find a way back to their own cultural-religious identity through the blues which is, after all, an Afro-American art form.
“The blues happens to be a local ethnic music of black Africans who were, basically, stolen out of their everyday life and transported to America as slaves, and then they created this music called the blues which became a worldwide phenomenon. Every people has its blues, and the blues is a music of the people.”
Mayer says, it is this powerful element of universal identification that birthright was so keen to harness as a vehicle for strengthening young Americans’ ties with their Jewish roots. “What could be better for bringing young American Jews closer to Israel, and Judaism, than their own indigenous music – the blues. Music is an integral part of the Jewish experience.”
For now, Mayer is busy preparing more blues-related events for participants of the next Birthright tour of Israel (January 4-13, 2004) as well as promoting his nascent Blues for Peace Music School which, he says, “brings together young people from different economic and ethnic backgrounds in a quality [multi-ethnic music] teaching environment that fosters creativity and tolerance.”
Among Mayer’s many plans for the future:
** Touched by the Blues” – a book due out in mid-November dedicated to the “unsung heroes” of blues music, the local blues musicians in every city, town, locale in the world that love the blues and pass it on to the next generation.
** A trip to compete in the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis in late December.
** BFP will participate in the International Christian Embassy (ICEJ) event in
BFP also plans to establish a Blues for Peace Cafe in Jerusalem that will operate under the Biblically-inclined slogan: “And they shall beat their swords into guitars.”
Mayer’s message is simple: “American Jews, Israeli Jews, everyone, we’ve all got the blues, so let’s use the music to bridge some gaps, and get more in touch with each other.”