ColumnsPaul Stokes

Column - East By Middle East: A short introduction to Israel's music scene at the Jerusalem Music Conference

ColumnsPaul Stokes

When Tina Fey and the writers of 30 Rock were looking around for a country with a music scene so naff that Jenna Maroney's - the show's airhead actress character - porno-pop single Muffin Top could top its charts it seems they felt only one place could aptly accommodate the fictional single's success: Israel. Belgium was also considered lame by the writers, though not that lame, Muffin Top (sample lyric: "I'm an independent lady/ So do not try to play me/ I run a tidy bakery") supposedly only made the Top Ten there.

Out to change that perception was the inaugural Jerusalem Music Conference, which Q - along with a small group of invited live agents, festival promoters, A&R men and various other music industry types from across the globe - was invited to observe last week (27-31 August). With gigs in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the conference was billed as a small scale version of the mighty South By South West, as over four days nearly 50 Israel acts staged performances at a series of shows and attended advice panels with the shared aim of turning the Muffin Top tide and taking their music out to the wider world. Sceptical? You're not alone. The mere mention of attending an Israeli music conference to the country's national airline, El Al, apparently sounded so implausibly suspicious that Q was subjected to a heavy bout of extra questioning and full bag search flying both in and out of the country.

However the Israel's Music Export Office, the NGO behind the conference, are serious about the country's music, and so it seems are many of the country's artists. As Arnon Naor, a folk singer-songwriter who established his career living in London as Sun Tailor before recently returning home to record a new album, tells Q things have been changing on the Israeli music scene. "When I left to go to London a few years ago nothing was going on, but it feels like the artists here are waking up after the winter," he observes. "There's a new level of ambition around that's risen up in the last 18 months that's really exciting. It feels like something is finally happening." However with a population smaller than that of London, being ambitious in Israel is difficult. There are lots of musicians - Q has never seen so many bands with full brass sections - but few are full time and the country's biggest label employs around 12 people.

So what chance of making it on the global stage? Well across the conference we witness a band embracing P-Funk (complete with costumes) in all sincerity, heavy-metalised Jewish folk tunes, a Hebrew surf band who sing in Italian and a ska band fronted by Israel's answer to Suggs (flat cap'n'all). Clearly there's a lot of imagination, creativity and no fear of failure that comes from being in a small scene, but equally the competition (3000 sales is considered successful, conference organisers explain) that encourages innovation and a heightened state of individuality elsewhere in the world is not as strong. Indeed during one of the conference's music industry advice panels, one of the international live agent tells the shocked audience that the best bet for any act serious about making it is to swap Israel for London, New York or LA.

It's not just internal competition many Israeli artists are missing though. They also don't get the inspiration of having the world's most creative musicians on their doorstep too often. For every act like Madonna who has played the country this years, others boycotted it over the issues surrounding the Palestinians and the occupy territories. Some like Elvis Costello and Pixies even announced shows, before cancelling after activists got in touch. Even in music, the region's politics looms large.

The organisers do try to tackle the issue, organising a debate between local acts and international artists on the merits of boycotts. As they'd all travelled to Israel, unsurprisingly none were pro a boycott, although one of them, rapper and former P Diddy associate Shyne (he converted to Judaism while in prison following a nightclub shooting in 1999 for which also Diddy and then girlfriend J.Lo were present) argues that rather staying away international acts should tour the Middle East and vocally support the Palestinians.

"Artists who boycott would do better to come here and express their opinions even if they disagree with the politicians," he suggests. "The politicians don't represent all the people. For example most Israelis think there should be a Palestinian state but that's not something you read. Boycott artists would be surprised as the majority of Israelis would probably agree with their opinions." Although as his fellow panellist Saz, a Palestinian rapper who lives in Israel and is prevented from visiting his family in Gaza by the Israeli authorities observes, starting a debate in this part of the world is not always straightforward.

"Some of my people will boycott me for doing this showcase," he explains following his performance, adding that despite his family's plight he is against artistic boycotts. "I deal with both worlds. Israelis boycotting me and my own people boycotting me too. At the end of the day I represent myself. I know the situation is complicated, we have to be realistic but I came here as a bridge to tell both sides, It's really hard, yes, but we can make it. I want to talk to the people and tell them I'm not against anything, I'm with them."

However equally passionate arguments for boycotting the country (completely rather than just culturally) are later put to Q by a pro-Palestinian Israel activist we meet at one of the showcases. To our hosts' credit, even if they're a bit uncomfortable about it, they don't stop our discussion and suggest they could have taken part in the earlier panel discussion. Ironically, the activist isn't necessarily against the conference's aims of exporting Israeli music though for entirely different reasons, suggesting they would be happy if young Israeli acts found abroad success if it meant new arguments and perspectives (and possibly their own boycott?) were reflected back into the domestic debate. However with most of the acts we saw who sung in English at least avoiding political issues, that seems a way off and besides an act will need to make a difference musically first before making any other kind of difference.

So what chance of a band breaking out of the Israeli scene? We witnessed a head-spinning large number of bands during the conference and while most were more on the "potential" side rather than the finished article, here are five acts we saw who have something genuinely different:

Red Band Taking the best of Avenue Q and covers bands, this group who started life on Israeli TV combine rock'n'roll classics with dysfunctional puppets (above) as their fluffy creations 'perform' live in a genuinely fresh show. A simple idea, but it's so originally and brilliantly executed you could imagine these Commitments-meets-Muppets making an impact on the cabaret and festival circuit around the world. You've not really seen The Doors' People Are Strange until you've seen it performed by a rodent drug dealer who looks like Roland Rat's cousin.

Acolletive The sort of sound (and beards) you'd expect to find coming out of Brooklyn rather than Tel Aviv, this seven-piece (very top) indie pop band of multi-instrumentalists managed to exude charm and infectious fun without straying into irritating twee. Quirky, passionate and engaging. Joinacollective.com

Drunk Machine Not the greatest name, but this trio blend At The Drive-In post hardcore with art rock rhythms in a pleasing burst of righteous fuzz that more than excuses the moniker. Drunkmachine.com

Oren Barzilay Hit with Guillain Barre syndrome, which sees the immune mistakenly attacking the rest of the body, the singer-songwriter was 'locked-in' his own mind for eight months unable to move, Barzilay then had to learn to talk, walk and play music again as he recovered. Inspired by Jacque Brel, his album, Sorrow Demons Joy Blizzards, and live show is a mixture of songs and monologues as he recounts his unique experiences. Orenbarzilay.com

3421 When Q was told a live dubstep band were set to be the last thing we saw at the conference we were expecting a depressing end. Not a bit of it as the band who feature a live drummer and whizz kid producer - who sings as many instrumental parts as he plays - proved the ultimate party starters, evening turning Radiohead's Everything In Its Right Place into a club anthem via live remix. Facebook.com/3421hcxhc

Plus one band we didn't see, but we heard... Sun Tailor, aka Arnon Naor, didn't play the showcases, but attended several of the shows and gave Q a copy of his Nick Drake-infused second album, Like The Tide. It's beautiful and well worth checking out. Suntailor.bandcamp.com Paul Stokes