Big blues stars head to Israel for Tel Aviv music festival

As the 4th annual Tel Aviv Blues Festival approaches, JOL interviewed Yamit Hagar, the organizer of the upcoming event. During the interview, Hagar talked about the Israeli blues scene and said that “it’s alive and kicking.”
Alvin Youngblood Hart Photo Credit: Candise Kola

Seemingly, there is nothing that can connect the current metropolis of Tel Aviv to the distant historical blues music scene that sprouted in the United States out of African work songs that were sung during the hardships and miseries of the slavery period. Blues has since long evolved and transformed into rock ‘n’ roll and branched out into numerous other musical styles.

But still, thanks to a devout group of people, some of the biggest blues musicians are brought over to perform. The impact of these grew into a full-fledged blues festival that has been gaining momentum and is now opening its fourth year. It features big names such as Grammy nominee Alvin Youngblood Hart and 'Deep down south' alongside prominent local musicians such as Yair Dalal and Miky Shaviv and Dan Toren.

In a special interview, Yamit Hagar, the organizer of the 4th Tel Aviv Blues Festival, spoke about the upcoming event.  

You started to bring blues artists a few years back before you started working on bigger and more elaborate productions, how did the idea come up?

I produced a small Purim party a few years ago and I woke up with a hangover. There is this musician that I wanted to bring to perform here to Tel Aviv and I remember thinking that it’s doable and having the notion that it can’t be impossible, so I started to ask around what clubs could host blues musicians, how to get some press for the event, where to get funding and so on. I gathered all the information and the rest was almost like a dream, watching everything take shape.

Watch: Alvin Youngblood Hart performing Big Mama's Door

What was the most inspiring moment with these first productions?

I invited Rev. KM Williams to perform here and all I knew is that I really wanted him to come here. I couldn’t imagine he was also interested in coming but as it happens, it was sort of a dream of his to visit Israel. We went on a road trip to the Galilee and the Jordan River and visited the holy sites. Afterward, he played a radio gig and we were both tearing up. The whole room was surrounded by this intense atmosphere. I also remember bringing the late Elmo Williams, he was I think around 80 years old, and by the end of the set, the entire club was on their feet dancing. But there are plenty more memorable moments that make all the hard work worthwhile.

What was your first blues album? What was the last album you listened to?

Mississippi Fred McDowell’s Amazing Grace is probably the album that got me into blues. Now I’m listening to Youngblood's Big Mama's Door. I’m really looking forwards to hearing him play.

How did the production of the festival begin? Did it grow organically from bringing gigs?

It started almost coincidently. I was in Mississippi and I emailed some friends and asked them if they wanted to do a weekend of live sets and that grew into 40 different shows and became a festival.

Are there parts of the festival's production you don’t like?

I think it’s that bit where the whole thing is over. The music stops, the lights are turned off and everyone goes home and then its hits you, it’s over.

Who would you bring over to perform if you could get anyone you want?

I have a whole imaginary festival list that includes among others Mississippi Fred McDowell, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Lightnin' Hopkins and Skip James. Unfortunately, I still can’t change back time. But there are also some amazing musicians that are still alive that I want to bring.

How would you describe the Israeli blues scene?

I think it’s alive and kicking. You can see that at the festivals. We had over 10,000 visitors to the last one, so I think people are into it and want to listen to more materials. There are interesting collaborations and new albums and more blues performances at different venues around the city. It’s quite magical watching it from the sidelines, to see that there is an impact and that there is a response and an audience.

What do you think about blues today? Is there a new generation that carries the torch?

I think there are two major kinds of blues now, one is “show off” blues, which I’m not that into, and the other is soul blues, which I adore. You can hear when a musician gives everything he or she has and even if it’s a new young artist, you can usually tell if their listening and learning from the great artists of the past and if they’re really good, they add their own voices and experiences to those pillars. 

The 2017 Tel Aviv Blues festival is opening this weekend. For more information, check out the festival's website.

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