Sometimes being the most authentic roots-reggae act in the Middle East just isn’t enough, as the brothers Smilan discovered after the 2012 release of Zvuloon Dub System’s Freedom Time. The album was a smash at home in Israel and won praise abroad, but the expected international bookings did not come streaming in.
“Everybody liked the album and said it sounded very good,” says drummer Asaf Smilan, who formed Zvuloon Dub System in 2006, along with his guitar-playing sibling Ilan. “But there are lots of bands playing this kind of style, and we felt that promoters around the world preferred to hire original Jamaican roots-reggae bands, instead of bringing in reggae bands from Israel. So then we thought that maybe we should try to bring more of our own culture into the music and make something that is more unique and more special for us.”
They didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Singer Gili Yalo was happy to set Freedom Time’s English lyrics aside in favour of original numbers and Ethiopian classics from the ’70s, all sung in his native Amharic. The result, as heard on the recently released Anbessa Dub, is an intoxicating blend of reggae rhythms, ska horns, and sinuous East African melodies—and it’s already resulted in the North American tour that will bring the band to the Chutzpah! festival this Friday.
There’s more than just musical alchemy going on here, though. Smilan sees Zvuloon Dub System’s new direction as uniting three groups of the dispossessed—European and Ethiopian Jews, along with Jamaican Rastafarians—beneath the red, gold, and green banner of reggae.
“Anbessa means ‘lion’ in Amharic, and the lion is the symbol that unites those three cultures,” the percussionist explains, on the line from Tel Aviv. “You can say that the lion is the symbol of Jewish and Israeli culture, dating back to the kingdom of Judah and King David. From the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba the lion became the symbol of the kings of Ethiopia, and then the Rastafarian culture took Haile Selassie as their king and their god, you can say, and they also took the symbol of the lion for themselves. So the lion is the symbol that represents those three cultures—the Jamaican, the Ethiopian, and the Israeli.”
Both the Jewish and the Jamaican people experienced exile and slavery, the former in Pharaonic times and the latter under British colonial power. More recently, Ethiopians experienced a holocaust of civil war and starvation that sent many of them, Yalo included, into their own disapora.
“Around 1984, when he was about four years old, Gili and his family made this incredible journey to Israel,” Smilan says. “They walked about two months on foot from northern Ethiopia to the Sudan. Then they stayed in refugee camps for four or five months, until the government of Israel brought them here.
“From an early age, Gili started to sing music. He sang on that journey; he told me he’d sit on his father’s shoulders and sing all the time. So when he came here he joined a few choirs. He was travelling with children’s choirs all over the world, and then later he followed his heart and joined our band.”
It’s been a good development for all concerned. Not only has Yalo helped Zvuloon Dub System develop a distinctive, sensuous, and internationally salable sound, he’s become an ambassador for Israel’s Ethiopian minority, just as the late Bob Marley did for Jamaica’s Rastafarians.
“Many young Israeli Ethiopians come to us and say ‘That was incredible, because you’re letting us feel proud about our roots and the Amharic language again,’” Smilan explains. “That happens very, very frequently after our performances. It’s a beautiful thing to see how our music unites people from different cultures, and makes everybody feel good about who they are and where they come from.”
Chutzpah! presents Zvuloon Dub System at the Imperial on Friday (February 20).