The new Israeli record label, Vega, aims to unite Middle Eastern musicians. Are they ready for it?
Is the timing impeccable, or the worst ever, to build a multicultural music label in Israel right now?
Producer Monica Haim grappled with this weighty question earlier this month, when age-old tensions flared up in Gaza, leaving many for dead and making international headlines once again.
Haim, a Jewish expat from Colombia, recently moved to Tel Aviv, where she is on the verge of collaborating with a new, progressive record label called Vega.
Vega, a Picnic Magazine project created by Israeli editor/publishers Meir Kordevani and Adi Engelman, is open to all Middle Eastern artists, whether or not their nations are political enemies. It is a label that inevitably bears a message: one enabled by shared traditional music roots and a collective desire for peace.
A handful of musicians are already on board, ranging from Israeli dub to Lebanese techno producers. So far, fusion electronic music has been the label’s main focus, but Haim doesn’t want to impose limits.
“We really want to use the cultural hodgepodge that is Israel and cull all the musicality out of it. The Ethiopian, the Moroccan the Eastern European — there are so many different flavors,” says Haim in a phone interview from Bogota. “We want to start being more united, with less of the political rhetoric. What happens on the dance floor? They connect. They embrace. They celebrate.”
Then, two weeks ago, rockets hit Tel Aviv. Though Haim’s friends, loved ones and Vega cohorts remain unharmed, she had to face the true gravity of the project, and wonder whether or not it’s appropriate.
“I was in Miami, and my friend sent me a text message that said he had to get out of a car because ‘the sirens went off,” Haim recounts. “My mind was blown and I was picturing the worst-case scenario, wondering if my friends were gonna die. I asked, ‘Is everyone okay?’ and, ‘Is it okay to be [working on a music label] now?”
Being so close to the conflict — which has since entered a tenuous ceasefire –was a new experience for Haim. The rockets were, of course, one of countless violent acts in a decades-old, back-and-forth saga between Israel and Palestine. For lifelong residents like dub electro musician/producer and inaugural Vega collaborator Haim Laroz, what is happening today reflects the norm.
“Yeah, things are alright. It’s a regular thing. We just keep on living,” says Laroz from Tel Aviv, where the streets around him were being emptied as we spoke by phone Friday. “Eh, today, a bus was blown up. Anytime a thing like that happens, people just don’t go on the street and stay away from buses…Some people have no safe place to hide. I make it seem easy, because I am just here, making soup.”
Laroz (a chef and a vegetarian) has been a musician and producer at home and abroad for 25 years, collaborating with artists from Iran to Jamaica. Despite his true grit, he holds out that music has healing powers, even in Israel. .
“We want to make other people see that we can talk, and that the cultures can meet, not just fight,” he says of his participation in Vega. “It sounds bombastic, but we’re really trying to be human beings, you know? But of course, it’s a confusing and weird time, with all the violence right now, and here we are, talking collaborations and making music together…”
Watch Laroz’s video for “Black People” feat. Jamaican artist and activist Ras Haile Malekot
Another Vega collaborator is Morphosis, a techno DJ/producer and a member of the Christian minority from Lebanon, a nation with deeply contentious relations with Israel.
“Artists are seen as black sheep because they ask questions and try to understand things better,” says Morphosis on a call from Lebanon (though he is currently based in Berlin). “Also, artists travel a lot, and this puts them in a more critical light by the system and the government. We want to make a situation where they are proud of us, and see that we’re bringing out our country’s name. But it’s very hard. They get very critical, especially when Israelis are involved.”
For its part, Vega — at least officially — takes no political stance apart from peaceful music collaboration, though the label’s upcoming presentation at Art Basel Miami Beach is partially funded by the Tel Aviv Municipality and the Israeli Consulate of Miami, as well as private investors.
“When two government agencies are willing to get behind something so potentially controversial, it’s a good sign. They’re tired. And they’re not alone,” Haim says. “I’m consciously not trying to speak politically. We’re not going to give the same arguments that have been said for years and years.”
It’s unknown how well Vega as a business entity would fare among the turmoil, but there’s certainly no shortage of hunger in Israel for music. Concerts in Tel Aviv are canceled incessantly due to conflict, and being wedged between enemy territory means travel is a persistent problem. You can’t fly to many Arabic countries with an Israeli stamp on your passport, for example. Also, expect Israel airport officials to grill you if you are on their turf with an Arabic stamp.
And yet, Israel has grown to be a mild rep for metal and trance music over the years, with exports, like Orphaned Land or Infected Mushroom, cropping up every now and again. The information age, too, has brought about a growing indie scene and a wider appreciation for existing veterans like Laroz.
“It’s a bit of a time warp. But the kids are catching up,” Haim says. “They’re smart, they have their ear to the ground in the age of technology. The electronic music scene is so sophisticated now. They’re both a little deprived and hungry for it. There’s a camp of really interesting musicians that use the sound and the anciency of the region in a modern way.”
Despite pitfalls, politics, and nagging philosophical questions, Vega is trekking forth. The label’s presentation at Art Basel Miami Beach will take place on December 6. Laroz and Morphosis are slated to perform, as well Yemenite-Israeli singer Ravid Kahalani and the work of Jerusalem-based artist Daniel Kiczales (the top photo is a still from his audio-visual piece, titled The Messenger). In the meantime, the label will seek out a home in the heterogeneous Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa.
“Maybe it’s my pathological optimism,” she says. “But this might all be a cosmic signal that we’re doing the right thing….It’s really important for us to express to the world that there is a voice within the country that wants to try something new. A voice that’s not pleased with how it’s going.”
Check out the trailer for Vega’s Art Basel event. For more information on the label,visit their website.