Dov Hammer (left) with CG Shorer: I think that it’s good to show people that Israel is a normal place with normal people. Mention Israeli music and the average American might think of Naomi Shemer, the wedding favorite ‘Hava Nagila’, or moving away from ancient history, hip hop and multi-ethnic music. But Israeli blues? The two just don’t go together. But all that may change at this week’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee.
Israeli blues band CG and the Hammer will compete against more than 100 bands from around the world for the coveted title of ‘Best Unsigned Blues Band’ and over $25,000 in cash and prizes.
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal daily paper, The IBC is like the Super Bowl for fledgling blues musicians, who not only get to be seen and heard outside of their hometowns but have a chance at winning prizes including “publicity, Web site design, recording time and gigs – lots of them.”
The Memphis-based Blues Foundation, which has produced the competition for two decades, has seen the contest grow by leaps and bounds the past few years. Blues for Peace, the Israeli affiliate of the Foundation, is sponsoring the band’s journey to Memphis for the competition which takes place from February 3-5.
According to its founder Johnny Mayer, Blues for Peace was established 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.”
Vocalist and harmonica player Dov Hammer – the ‘hammer’ of CG and the Hammer – lives that credo to its fullest and hopes to impart the blues spirit of Israel to American audiences.
The son of an American-born Conservative rabbi, Hammer grew up in Jerusalem after his parents immigrated to Israel. He found his initial musical inspiration when seeing blues great John Lee Hooker perform in The Blues Brothers in 1980.
“As a kid in Jerusalem it was hard to find that stuff around. It took me a few years before I could find someone I could learn something from,” Hammer told ISRAEL21c.
He eventually found a musical mentor in Canadian blues artist Ted Cooper who dominated the Jerusalem blues scene in the eighties.
“I used to go hear him play and we got to be friendly. When I began to play, he took me into his band and I played with him for a few years. That was where I was really schooled in the Blues and where I learned to really play,” Hammer explained.
For the past twenty years, Hammer has played in a myriad of blues bands. But for him, it all came together when he met up with gifted guitarist Sagi “CG” Shorer a few years ago and formed the band that’s going to Memphis. Rounding out the group are bassist Danny Tzukerman; keyboardist Kfir Tzairi; and drummer Oren Avisar.
The band has released one album of original material, and last year, Hammer and Shorer released an acoustic set Going Deep that has been entered into the IBC ‘Best Self-Produced CD’ competition
Hammer believes that as a whole the blues express universal sentiments – emotional or financial troubles for example. As to whether Israel’s unique local culture and climate have influenced their blues songs or subjects, Hammer explains, “A couple of our songs from a few years ago had a feel and a little bit of the depressed feeling that was in the country at that time. But nothing is mentioned specifically.”
Though Israel’s blues scene is not a large one, fans can rely on the Tel Aviv beachfront bar, Mike’s Place, for live shows nightly. While many attendees are not well versed in the blues, Hammer says that he usually gets positive reactions from Israeli audiences.
Having toured the US several times in the past, Hammer also receives interesting reactions from American audiences who seem generally quite shocked to hear a proficient blues band from Israel. “It’s something that they don’t expect and they are always surprised – especially since I am originally American and my English is pretty good.”
“You never know how you are going to be accepted [in the US] but I think that it’s good to show people that Israel is a normal place with normal people. We’re trying to live our lives like anybody else. We hope to show that despite the stereotypes we can be as good as anybody from anywhere else doing these things.”
If he gets his wish, he’ll show the crowds at the International Blues Competition that CG and the Hammer can be not only as good as anybody. They could be the best.