When I was younger the mere site of an accordion would be enough to send me running. It was the instrument of Lawrence Welk and the worst sort of music imaginable. As my musical horizons broadened I learned this instrument, once the butt of so many jokes and derisive comments, had been unfairly maligned. Once you’ve heard zydeco and klezmer music, you gain new respect for the accordion. However, nothing I’d heard before prepared me for what Koby Israelite does with it on his new release, Blues From Elsewhere, on Asphalt Tango Records.
While the disc has been out in Europe since March, it’s just being released in North America on April 9, 2013. The 16 tracks take you on a musical trip around the world as Israelite and his accomplices in musical adventurism blend genres and cultures in as extravagant a display of virtuosity as I’ve ever heard. From North America to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and down to Southeast Asia, probably the only continent missed out is Australia. Along the way you’ll hear almost every instrument you can think of, with Israelite playing most of them. Yaron Stavi plays electric and acoustic bass on every track save seven (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”), 10 (“Rural Ghost”), and 16 (“Kashmir”), while other guests join in on a couple of songs. Tigran Aleksanyan plays duduk and clarinet on “Lemi Evke” (track 12), and “Kashmir”. Ofir Gal adds electric guitar to “Lemi Evke” and John Telfer plays tenor saxophone on “Just Cliches” (track 15).
While Israelite also contributes vocals, he has enlisted the aid of two highly contrasting, but equally powerful female vocalists for three of the songs. One of the highlights of the recording has to be his version of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, featuring Annique on lead vocals. It starts off sounding like it might be a klezmer version of the song, as Annique sings the opening verse to accordion accompaniment in the sort of slow and almost mournful manner klezmer sometimes takes. Then, with a suddenness almost heart-stopping, it rips into overdrive with Annique belting out the lyrics overtop screaming electric guitar only to have it drop back into her and the accordion again.
On paper that might sound weird, but believe me it’s bloody amazing. You can check out the video for the song and it will give you a fairly good idea of how well it works. The video also gives you a good idea of Israelite’s sense of humour. Dylan put out a short film for the song way back when and it featured him holding up pieces of cardboard with the lyrics to the song. Israelite uses a computer tablet to do the same thing, although it’s not necessarily displaying the lyrics, but random words which may or may not have anything to do with the song.
While Annique handles what could be called the Western vocal duties on the disc, she’s also featured on the intriguingly titled second track, “Why Don’t You Take My Brain And Sell It To The Night?”, Mor Karbasi’s vocals on “Lemi Evke” take us to the other side of the world. While Karbasi is famous for singing in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews in Moorish Spain, here she sings in Hebrew in what is described in the liner notes as Jewish blues. While it doesn’t sound like any blues song you’ve heard before, there’s no denying the weight of sorrow conveyed by Karbasi’s voice. At one point she has overdubbed her own harmonies and sends her voice soaring up into the heavens overtop of her lead and you feel chills up your spine.
It’s at this point that Israelite shows his genius for arrangements. For as Karbasi’s voice is keening up in the higher registers he adds a clarinet to the mix. As you listen to what is apparently Karbasi’s voice rising higher and higher on the scale, you all of a sudden realize she’s no longer singing the harmony but the clarinet has taken it over and is carrying the notes even higher. The transition from voice to instrument is so subtle and beautifully done they could be interchangeable.
While the two women guest vocalists stand out vividly, the consistent star of the show is still Israelite. From the opening tribute to Johnny Cash, “Johnny Has No Cash No More”, a burst of Cash-sounding licks on accordion turned into just under two minutes of fun, to “Peckham Rai”, a heady mixture of Western and Arabic pop music bridging the two worlds effortlessly, he shows he can play almost any instrument he lays his hands on. Even more important though is how he redefines the whole idea of world music.
According to genre classifications, world music is sort of a catch all for any music, folk to pop, not readily identifiable as North American or British. Instead of partitioning music by ethnicity Israelite finds the common ground between cultures and weaves them together. His music is anarchy made real as it knows no borders or boundaries and ignores all laws and conventions. With the accordion leading the way he shows how a love of music can bring disparate cultures together without them having to surrender either their identities or having any one assume dominance.
Anybody who was fed a diet of Lawrence Welk will find it hard to think of the accordion as either revolutionary or an instrument of change. After listening to Blues From Elsewhere not only will you radically reevaluate your opinion of the accordion, but rethink the whole notion of world music. While others might dabble with music from other cultures to give their own music some additional flavour, Israelite immerses himself in all music equally. He knows it’s our differences which make us unique and are a source of pride. His music not only celebrates those differences but also shows their potential to co-exist in harmony. It might just be for a few minutes in a song, but that’s a start. We just need more people to follow his lead.