#postzionist music. Thoughts about etnoise and fakelore.
In a letter from Tel Aviv I have arranged this interview with Ensemble of Love and Terror as part of an exploration of the local music scene, asking questions like what is folk, or what is fake folk (“fakelore”) or what is “etnoise”. I thought it would make sense to start with the guy that invented the word “etnoise” – Amir Bolzman (computer) from the duo Ensemble of Love and Terror, as well as band-member Ariel Armoni (drums).
We can say that the band is based in Jerusalem, right? Can you say a few words about the Jerusalem scene?
Ariel: We never lived in the same city but you can say that the center of our work is in Jerusalem. It’s just because we like to eat at Akramawi ( a hummus place). Actually now we have moved to an Ethiopian restaurant. I can say as an outsider, and someone who has lived in Jerusalem, that the 40 brave people who decided to live there are really kicking musically and artistically. It’s not a city which is an obvious choice to live in.
Amir: It’s a very interesting scene. It’s a scene that is totally out of the mainstream. You have more noise bands than you have pop or rock.
Ariel: Whoever is going mainstream runs away from there. And also those who are not going mainstream. Most people are escaping. But the people that stay find things they can find nowhere else.
Tell me about your music.
Ariel: I’ll tell you how I see it. There are few ways to look at it. First of all, I don’t see our concerts as “concerts”. We are an experimental group, and the concert itself is an experiment too. If I would have to give names to all our concerts it would be: experiment no.1, no.2 and so on.
Amir: we’re not a rock n roll band. No orgies
Amir: We were invited to play in Tzidkiyahu Cave in the old city of Jerusalem by “Season of Culture”(a big music festival in Jerusalem). That was the first time we were commissioned and also the first time we had a proper sound which brought out our music at its best. Also the name of the band “Ensemble of Terror” was formed at that moment. We chose the name because in a way we didn’t want to do this concert. It was a problematic location in Jerusalem.
That’s an important point. Can you tell me more?
Amir: Tzidkiyahu Cave is near Damascus gate, the beginning of East Jerusalem (Palestinian part), and it felt pointless and too invasive.
Ariel: I was playing there also a year before and also then I had mixed feelings about it.
Amir: You can justify it theoretically and you can not justify it. Today I know I am just not doing this stuff. The location was really cool but on the other hand…Anyway, we did it. The name of the piece we played is called “Mashtap” (Israeli slang for Palestinians that collaborates with the Israeli army), and it was a good show.
It’s interesting that Amir lived in Musrara at the time which is just two minutes away from that cave. (Musrara is a Jewish neighborhood on the border with East Jerusalem).
Amir: We as Jerusalemites are used to it. But actually Road 1 is like an invisible border that we cross to go shopping, eat and all that , but you don’t enter there culturally although it takes us five minutes walking from my house to the venue. We may have even bought kebab on the way.
Why did you choose to call the band Ensemble of Love and Terror?
Amir: The name of the band came piece by piece. The first name “Ensemble of Terror” was an experiment of ours, saying, “If you want us to play there we will do it with a provocative name.”
Ariel: Yes, a name which is evocative, makes people wonder. You are in East Jerusalem and there is a band called Ensemble of Terror. To arouse a bit of discomfort among the crowd, provocation, a cheap provocation.
Amir: I was just waiting for them to say that the name was not appropriate, so that we could say, “Cool, we’re not doing it.”
Ariel: But they approved the name.
And when did love enter into it?
Amir: I was with Áslaug then – I had an Icelandic girlfriend, super cute and she was really not impressed with our name “Ensemble of Terror” saying: “ Why terror?” “There is a gap between how you look and the name”. She was really into pretty things and love and that’s how we expanded the name. In retrospect we found a line from the Shlomo Artzi song (a mainstream Israeli pop singer) Under The Mediterranean Skies, and it goes:
“Under the Mediterranean skies
your hands stroke me with a rare stroke. Soon the election will come. You are a political beast, identifying with minorities. Now this is the time for Mizrahit (oriental style. Half the world sings Greek. Shivers in my body anyhow
from terror and love.”
That’s incredible! But what’s up with the video ?!
Amir: One of the most horrifying clips , yes I really got addicted to the song, not to the clip…Indeed it’s a bit bothering.
And what’s with the name of the piece “Mashtap” (collaborator)?
Ariel: It was some kind of a confession – we are the collaborators.
Amir: As a musician and as an artist you have those boundaries especially in Israel, especially in Jerusalem and especially in front of “the season of culture” and other institutes with money. In the day to day scheme of things you are in the esoteric scene, play in your usual venues. And then when money comes into the picture they will put you in dilemmas, all kinds of dilemmas.
It’s a question that you develop your identity about with time. “Mashtap” was released on the label “Full Body Massage”(a Berlin based label releasing underground music from Israel). Releasing the tape was a meaningful moment.
Let’s talk about the twist to the “oriental” vibe. What attracted you to play riq, Ariel?
Ariel: I don’t remember where but I saw someone playing the riq and I thought it’s like the smallest drum set in the world. It has a great kick and it’s small, and I started playing it in different groups instead of drums with Ensemble of Terror. In the beginning we experimented more with feedback coming from the sound of the drum, and not necessarily bringing the Oriental origin of the drum. Actually trying to hide it in the beginning. This thing led in the end to the work with Dor.
Tell me about the work with Dor Zelikha.
Dor is a visual artist who deals a lot with the origins of his family in Iraq. Dealing with Iraqi music, Iraqi landscape, and trying to find his place in post Zionism etc…He invited us to work with him on a soundtrack for his exhibition in Tel Aviv museum together with the musician Aviad Zinemanes.
Amir: The starting point was recordings which Dor had from the “Qatar National Library” of the visit of the Iraqi delegation in Cairo’s congress of Arab music in 1932. The Iraqi musicians were all Jewish aside from the singer. Those recordings were educational and interesting and that was the starting point of our work. What we did in the exhibition was one piece of music with riq playing and my electronics and you can see a pretty video with the riq playing.
In the work process we were exposed to this archive and got to know Dor better , who also designed the cover. Based on this archive we createdThe Visit Of The Iraqi Delegationtrack. And all the other parts of the album are based on sketches we worked on for the exhibition.
How did you feel as Ashkenzi that Dor’s work is all based on his Iraqian roots, and you are there dealing with Arab music?
Ariel : The fact that I don’t have roots from the East. You know ,I was raised in the Middle East, so doesn’t that mean I have roots in the Middle East? Zionism destroyed everything anyway so I can choose what I like and what I feel related to and what’s good for me . Just because my parents came from a different place, does this make it less legitimate? This is our hardest problem as Israelis: what feels comfortable to deal with and what doesn’t feel comfortable. Why do you have to justify yourself all the time? I think that the music field is very different from the visual art field. The role of music for human beings is different, it’s much more emotional and much more direct. You know, here in London me and my friend opened a falafel stand in a market and one day we worked near an Ethiopian stand and I put Mahmoud Ahmed on and the Ethiopian mama was really happy about it , and another day we worked near a Greek stand and we played Greek music. Nobody will say don’t put this or that. Listening to music makes people feel good, especially when it’s close to their heart and they don’t care who plays it or who listens to it. So I think it’s not really the talk when it comes to music.
Amir do you have something to add?
Amir: At the end of the day you let go, that is what I am interested in and that’s it. If I’ll start giving it political justification, or tell myself I won’t touch this music because it’s not mine, how will it help? Either I’ll write a bad manifesto that justifies it, or I’ll just drop it and those are two bad options. You can just let go and be conscious and move on and deal with what you’re interested in. To block yourself from trying something is the worst you can do, in the artistic field.
Till now you said things lead from one to another but I am wondering what was your intention in the process of getting into Arab music…
Amir: I was concerned at one point in my sound studies in the Hague because my department of electronic music was very multicultural. And at a certain stage it hit me that all the multicultural aspects are not coming out of there. It’s all computer music or electronic music and it all sounds like German music or Dutch. People come there and learn the instruments, they remove from themselves the musical identity they came with and adopt the new instruments and tradition . There were few that tried some experiments, like a Korean who combined Korean percussion, or an Iranian that worked with Persian carpets. And I tried to find, inside the experimental electronic music, where the local element is?
And then things started to become complicated. When you come and think ok , where are the roots? Where do I put my music, the folk? And you arrive in a hopeless situation.
The Zionist identity and culture, they are all fake.
We can call it fakeloreinstead of folklore hahah.
Amir: Yes, it’s fakelore! It doesn’t have roots. It is not easy.
Where are the roots and culture? I am asking.
Amir: There are no roots.
And no culture, ok maybe there is…
Amir: It wasn’t easy this transition and it’s still not easy. Since the work of “Ensemble” I still use Arab samplings.
Amir: #Etnoise yes, I like it and I learn (Arab music),but on the other hand I can’t play.
Ariel: My first musical memory was when I was 9 years old ,in Turkey with my parents, taking a darbuka in the market and starting to play while all the sellers clapped for me. That’s my first musical memory and it’s a bit sad that it took almost 30 years to go back to it.
And it’s interesting because it’s not by accident, there are cultural reasons for that.
Ariel: Of course there are, but it did come back and that’s what’s important. And yet there is an uncomfortable feeling that you are taking something “Which is not yours” because we don’t have a history and our past is repressed. And then you have klezmer…
Amir: Yeah, the attempt to find our roots in East European music , it’s interesting but..
Ariel: But it’s one of many.
Amir: Yeah, it’s one out of many.
Ariel: I am not more identified with klezmer because my grandparents came from East Europe. I am not more related to that than I am to Led Zeppelin which I actually heard much more. I played klezmer with a few groups and it’s not like I found my roots there.
Yes, of course as secular Jews we don’t have any relation with this music.
Ariel: Would you like to?
What are your wishes for the future?
Amir: My wish is to play in places with amazing sound.
And you Ariel?
Ariel: My wish is that Amir will be happy from the sound.
What else are you guys doing now?
Amir: Producing an album of “acute” Mizrahi music for kids. Doing sound art.I want kids.
Ariel: Practicing tabla.
Last word about etnoise. I have to know, did you use it for the first time?
For me etnoiseis a keyword.
Ariel: It’s one of the best words invented in the 21 century.
Amir: It’s related to what I said before , especially as a curator and a musician there I searched for experimental music with folkloristic elements in the essence of it. As a curator I had a few plans and it all fell through, because I didn’t have enough confidence about it.
But after all you are maintaining it.
Ariel: I am not maintaining it.
You maintain it with Ensemble of Terror and other collaborations you had with Arab instrumentalists. Those things pile up.
Ariel: They do. There was a time.
Are you saying etnoise is dead? Oh no!
Amir: I think there were roots we planted, I think as a curator it was an interesting question. And when something is interesting as a curator you should stop for a moment and understand what’s happening in your brain and wonder why you think like a curator and then erase it.
It’s interesting, because I see myself as part of the etnoise movement, and continue to explore it and develop it, so for me etnoise is not dead.
Amir:Also Noam Inbar for example is performing the etnoise with the Gey Ben Hinom Choir. Creating a space for singing together, an attempt to search for roots , for folk. The need for creating community which is part of folk music. It’s a different way to ask what is folklore and to say I need folklore because I need community and roots. It’s a search, and you need courage for it. It’s all a process.. I think even the new age scene in Israel made people go more deep in the Arab music, and schools opening.
I just think that even the evolution of it is not interesting.
Amir: The time is long, it’s a long process.
Yeah it’s true , maybe it’s a very long process, but at the end of the day it depends who are the people that open those schools. If they are not interesting people and their agenda is problematic in my opinion, I can’t see how it goes to a good place. The fact that there are more and more settlers that go and study Arab music, I don’t feel it will go to a good place, it won’t lead to peace.
Ariel: Maybe it will lead to peace, go figure..
Amir: Peace is around the corner. In the post corona world there won’t be any wars.
Story by Yael Lavie