Israeli rockers to get by with a little help from.. Oleh! Records

by Brian on February 15, 2007

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

Friday afternoon is a time when many Israelis are winding down, preparing for the Sabbath or taking a break at the end of a hectic workweek before heading out for a night on the town. But at Tel Aviv’s Levontin 7 club, situated in a seedy, rundown neighborhood in the south part of the city, hundreds of young, hip looking Tel Aviv musicians have gathered to hear a presentation from Jeremy Hulsh, a shy and earnest Chicago native who speaks little more than a stumbling Hebrew.

But they have patience even when Hulsh switches to English. Because the purpose for this unlikely gathering is the launch of Oleh! Records, an ambitious new initiative which hopes to transform the way Israel is seen by Americans, while at the same time propelling some of Israel’s most talented young musicians into the international limelight.

Hulsh, who immigrated to Israel five years ago and fronts the Tel Aviv-based indie rock band Primo Levy, believes that if young Americans get to know Israel’s vibrant music scene better, it will help create a more multidimensional picture of the country, one that goes beyond the stereotypical images they’ve grown up with of a militaristic or religious society (see my related article on attempts by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to “re-brand” Israel).

To do so, Hulsh’s Oleh! Records is reaching out to a very specific segment of the music industry in Israel: bands who perform in English. At the same time as striving to help the musicians he signs to book tours and land record deals in the US, as well as the UK, Canada, and Australia, Hulsh’s parallel goal is to facilitate face-to-face ‘encounters’ and dialogue between Israelis and Americans.

Oleh! will take on traditional recording label responsibilities such as promoting and marketing its acts. But musicians will not be required to sign exclusive contracts. “If your band receives an offer from a major label, you’re free to take it at any time,” Hulsh told the appreciative crowd in Tel Aviv at the official launch of the label.

The company will be putting out a number of compilation albums – in rock, reggae, hip hop and other genres – in order to showcase Israeli talent. The label will also facilitate hosting by student and Jewish organizations abroad.

Aspiring musicians must meet some tough criteria to be accepted by Oleh! At least three-quarters of the band’s members must be Israeli and have lived in Israel within the past year and a half of the signing. The band must also have performed at least six times in public in the last six months. The bands must have already produced their own “radio quality” record (unlike fellow non-profit Jewish music label JDub in New York which works with a few artists in a full management and production role, Oleh! is focusing only on the promotion and marketing side), have a website or MySpace account, and must identify themselves as Israeli.

This last point is crucial. “There are a number of musicians from Israel who move to, say, London, change their names and call themselves ‘Nigel,'” Hulsh said. “We want bands that acknowledge their Israeli identity.”

Oleh! has forged ties with both the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the birthright program which Hulsh says will arrange meetings between first time visitors to Israel and Israeli bands. “We’re non political and not associated with any religious stream,” Hulsh emphasized. “That will allow bands to really talk about their lives with Diaspora youth. To show them that while we may have problems in Israel, we’re really just like you. We all love music.

“You can listen to a punk song from the States and a punk song from here and while the style may be similar, the content is completely different because of the personal narrative of the artist,” Hulsh said.

Kfir Basson, lead singer for the Tel Aviv group Caveman, agrees. “Everyone outside Israel thinks we’re all about politics and the military. But if a great band comes out of Israel, people will look at us instead as a very creative country.”

Basson says he definitely plans to apply to Oleh! Records. “None of us knows exactly which things we need to do to get publicity. Oleh! offers us a kick, a push in the right direction.”

Gabriella Tohner, who fronts the band Gabriella, shares Basson’s enthusiasm. While she admits that her first interest is in how Oleh! can help her and other Israeli musicians succeed, she sees Oleh!’s goal as ultimately humanizing.

“People look at Israelis with some strange caricature in their heads,” she said. “But I’m really just a human being in this world. If I can show my real soul, it will help show that Israelis are the same as Americans or English.”

Oleh! Records is, to be sure, not a typical label; the organization is non-profit and is backed by American Jewish philanthropic organizations like the Bronfman and Pratt Foundations. That allows Oleh! to combine educational activities with those typically associated with a recording label.

The Oleh! website, Hulsh explained, will include a section containing articles on how to make it in the music business – from how to give an interview and set up a successful tour to creating a press kit. A database will list resources on where a band can send its material for airplay in the US, as well as performance venues, newspapers, magazines and even podcasts that will play independent artists. The site will also feature a marketplace where artists and vendors can swap services – for example, producing a video or creating a band logo.

Despite Hulsh’s goals of showing Americans that the Israeli music scene is no different than anywhere else, a question from one band member in the audience reminded Hulsh that some things remain unique in Israel.

“Two of the members in our band are going into the army shortly. Will we still be able to apply to Oleh?” the band member asked.

Hulsh looked momentarily dumbfounded, realizing that there was at least one question he hadn’t anticipated, but quickly caught his footing. The answer, Hulsh said, was that they would have to wait until their military service was completed.

“We need all our bands available for touring,” he said, to facilitate the cross cultural dialogue that is Oleh!’s goal beyond the music.

Oleh! will also be conducting twice monthly in-person workshops to help teach local musicians the ins and outs of the overseas music industry. The first session will allow participants to pose questions to the successful Israeli group Rockfour, which also performs in English.

Bands will have until April 1 to submit their material to Oleh!’s advisory board, which sports some leading figures in the Israeli music world, including journalist and DJ Yoav Kutner, long considered the dean of Israeli rock and roll and founder of “24,” Israel’s first 24-hour music video channel. Hulsh’s ability to attract local heavyweights in the music industry is testimony to both his enthusiasm and his knowledge of how the industry in the US works.

The 28-year-old Hulsh was already on his way up in the US music industry before deciding to move to Israel in 2002. He worked at Sony Music as a college marketing representative and as a regional retail marketing rep for Columbia Records, responsible for 18 Midwest states, prior to trading in a potentially glamorous career for Zionist ideology.

Hulsh doesn’t see it that way. He believes he can help Israeli musicians and make a name for himself at the same time. Judging from the standing room-only crowd in Tel Aviv, he may be on to something. “I let go of everything and took a big leap of faith” to move to Israel, Hulsh said. “America may be my home, but Israel is my heart.”

This article was originally published on – here’s the link.

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