Whilst in Tel Aviv, I had the pleasure of meeting up with the guys behind the alluring record label, Fortuna Records. A label that is nobly tasking itself with excavating overseen and forgotten Israeli and Middle Eastern music of yore. Reissuing albums and tracks from Israel and surrounding countries that never really got the attention they deserved when originally released. Yet are now recognised by Fortuna records, and their following, as exquisite works that were way ahead of their time and represent a unique time in Israel, when multiple cultures collided post exodus to the land of milk and honey. From the late 1940’s, the honey pot for exiled nationalities became a genuine melting pot for music.
I met with Zach and Ariel (Maor had left his packing for Fortuna’s next-day trip to Greece a bit late) for an afternoon at one of Tel Aviv’s coolest and tastiest hang-outs, Port Said, where you will find some of the city’s most delectable dishes and a wall packed with vinyl. Nestled on a square with tables and chairs spilling out onto the street overlooking the curiously bizarre and noticeably seventies renovated architecture of the Great Synagogue. Port Said is one of Zach’s own personal ventures, as well as the pop-up radio bar Teder, which changes location around the city every season and sees a melange of spaces being turned into a club come nightfall. Currently Teder occupies a warehouse, which in the day is filled with trucks but at night is emptied of automobiles and filled with music and dancing Israelis. The atmosphere at which I can personally vouch for as being unbelievably friendly and relaxed – the exact kind of atmosphere one always wants on a night out. Talking to the guys, it also became quickly clear that whilst Fortuna is a relatively new venture, with three releases since its creation in 2012, the creative minds behind it, Zach, Ariel and Maor are hardly new to the music scene. Rather they are at its core. As well as running hang-outs and music venues, Zach runs two other labels, Audio Montage and Raw Tapes. Ariel is well-known by his production moniker Kalbata, under which he has released his own dancehall, reggae and UK bass influenced music. Music he started producing when living in Bow, London, whilst studying photography. His recently released joint album Congo Beat the Drum with drummer Mixmonster, was made in Jamaica whilst spending two months in the country, recording with legendary Jamaican MCs such as Little John and Major Mackerel. Their title track has coincidentally also been excellently remixed by our own homie Kahn, whom aptly added his signature Middle Eastern vibe. Maor, as well as working for Israel’s biggest branding and advertising agency, has been collecting records since forever, indeed all three have been digging and DJing at parties in Israel for years. Which has clearly placed them in the perfect position to begin a label that is defined by discovering Middle East’s obscure but accomplished records.
As to why these three started the Fortuna Records label, they tell me that Israel has a wealth of music that has largely gone unheard both abroad but in Israel itself. Music that is utterly original, thanks to the unique international situation in Israel, where post WW2, a huge number of different nationalities came together to settle and live in Israel. Indeed this is evinced by their heritage. Zach is Turkish, Romanian, Transylvanian. Ariel is Argentinian, Bulgarian and Maor is Moroccan and Syrian. Many musicians living in Israel, influenced by their amalgamated surroundings cultures, created sounds that were highly unique for back then and now. Unfortunately most of this music went largely unnoticed and Fortuna Records has thus been born out of their desire to bring such music to the attention of the world and Israel. “Most people in Israel don’t know this music either, it was underground, released in small quantities and didn’t have much of a following”. “The general public at that time in Israel was European, Hungarian, Poland etc. or North African. The popular music of that time was European or North African, everything in between fell between the cracks”. It’s that lost music that they want to dig for and reissue. They are “musical archaeologists” if you will.
“We always knew there was a lot of cool stuff that happened here, and knew of a lot of the music before we started the label, from digging, from our family or through friends”. When I spoke to Maor he told me about memories of being five and his “grandpa playing cassettes of Farid el Atrach, Sabah, and Samira Tawfik loud in the leaving room of his house”. “When my father saw i was really into this music he started to tell me more and more and most of my knowledge about Egyptian and Lebanese singers is from him.” The Fortuna guys have grown up listening to these obscure sounds of their country’s past, however, the sound of their music isn’t just unknown to us foreigners, but Israelis as well. “Some of what we play can be totally obscure for Israelis who wouldn’t even know that what they are listening to is from here. However, sometime what we play is what their Grandma used to play at home. But because of all the different cultures that came to Israel, what one person’s Grandma used to play, another person would never have heard it!”. “Sometimes we’ll put out a version of a traditional folk track which is a lot crazier than the original – then you have people suddenly hearing a spaced out, crazy psychedelic version of their Grandmother’s favourite song”. Indeed the music Fortuna puts out is an utter breath of fresh air to the ‘variation of the same’ that most western dance music can’t help but be. “From the support we’re getting we’ve noticed this real hunger for a new sound and the stuff we play”. They spoke about an amazing“first big response being from England” with Gilles Peterson playing a hugely supportive role. They also hosted Boiler Room’s first every session in Tel Aviv and when they played at Rhythm Section in Peckham “it was the first time we played this music abroad and we didn’t know how it would go down but people went crazy for it.”
Fortuna are joining fellow colleagues and neighbours in a relatively new phenomenon of bringing a largely unheard sound and collection of middle eastern music to the dance culture community. By taking “music from their own countries or going places to find these crazy unheard sounds” and then “ integrating this middle eastern flavour into club and electronic music”. “Our good friends, Acid Arab, from France, use samples and write music with this type of middle eastern edge, techno mixed with oriental sounds. There are also many other producers now doing this which makes us even more motivated to do what we are doing”. As Israel is such a small country, the music scene and club scene in Tel Aviv, despite being one of the best and extremely creative, is relatively very small. This no doubt accounts for the Fortuna guys expressing real humility and surprise by the responses they’ve had to their music. “Even big house DJs who come over here, either booked by us or other clubs in Tel Aviv have heard of our label and want to buy our stuff. People like Kenny Dope and hip hop producers, producers of all genres, even techno, are coming over here and are really interested to check out our sound – we’ve been really blown away by this”. To anyone who listens to the music Fortuna put out and play, this interest shouldn’t come as a surprise, it is unlike anything you will have ever heard played out. Producers are always looking for new sounds and influences to sample and after the big rise in afro-beat and african-sampling, the more obscure middle eastern honey pot sound is rather tantalising.
Not only is the Fortuna sound absorbing but so are the stories behind the records they re-issue. Indeed it’s this uniqueness of the sound and stories that drove them to start the label. “We love this music and its really special, its the kind of music that you really have to dig for it. It feels really special that this music and these crazy stories of how albums were made actually came from here. ” “Realising that all this crazy amazing music was made right here in Israel yet nobody knows about it, and given that people from other countries are interested in hearing about it, we wanted to share it and spread the word.” Their first release by Tsvia Abarbanel, Wings Of Love, is a jazz funk mix. “She was a Yemenite girl who moved to America when she was 18 to study art in LA in the late 60s and was exposed to all the black music in America. When she came over here she got in contact with Albert Piamenta (Israel’s grandaddy of Israel’s jazz scene) to remake the original Yemenite songs she knew from home, but in a jazzy vibe”. For their second release, Fortuna tapped into a more Mediterranean part of Israel’s honey-pot community. “Our second release was Nina Koladis, a greek artist.” Interestingly the greek sounds is often more popular in Israel than the more middle eastern sounds. “It was the sound of Jaffa in the late 60s and early 70s. Lots of tavernas, restaurants and bars were playing live music. The sea trade was a lot more active then so there was a real Mediterranean vibe back then. Greek and turkish sounds were very strong back then.” Of the three records they have released, their third, Grazia, is probably the most technically exciting, being an album that marked a time in changing music production, an amalgamation of traditional and modern sounds. “An Iraqi girl, Grazia used to sing Turkish music at weddings. When she was 16 years old she recorded her first and last album. When she made the album it it was mid to late 70s and disco was coming in, so she wanted to incorporate disco, synthesisers and stuff into this traditional Turkish music. When it came out though, it just didn’t appeal to the hardcore folk community, it was too weird for them so again disappeared”. Due to the obscure and boundary-pushing nature of the records Fortuna releases, their audience at the time of original release found the records somewhat unpalatable and so the reality is that these records are only now getting the attention and praise they deserve. “When we tracked down and got in touch with the individual artists, they responded with real amazement, that somebody was actually really into their stuff. Grazia for example hasn’t been making music for 38 years and has had a whole life since then. So for somebody to actually come to her with this record that, for her ,was a failed attempt and tell her its amazing and that loads of people would be interested in it, is for these artists, a really amazing experience.”
Their latest release, The Jazz Workshop, by Albert Piamenta, is a dazzling production that truly encompasses the Fortuna multi-cultural sound. We are thrilled to be premiering the third track off the LP, Sha Shtil Harabbi Ba on Stamp. It’s a wonderfully satisfying meeting of East and West, with psychedelic arabic sounds woven around the New York jazz sound. Fortuna describe the Jazz Workshop as being their most obscure record to date. “It was the first proper jazz album ever released here but it was also a new composition of arabic tunes, so again it is this weird very interesting combination of arabic melodies mixed with jazz. Everything we put out is rare, but this is really rare, you wouldn’t even find it at a proper collector’s house”. Listening to The Jazz Workshop is a real insight into the unique, jumbled, eclectic music scene that was born in Israel post-war. “Albert Piamenta was a sax player as well as a music producer, and was very important back then, in the jazz beat groups. He was a real originator of this sound here but also produced everything from jazz to funk to beats. He is a pillar of the sound from those years.” Releasing records hasn’t all been easy though, “some artists we tried to contact didn’t want to have any of it.” Making comparisons to William Onyeabor they explain that “some artists turned really religious and many have had completely different lives and are not interested”. “We also had some problems with record labels. There isn’t as much of a record industry and vinyl culture in Israel, so some labels couldn’t understand that we were wanting to re-release out of love of the music rather than wanting to take their money”. Irrespective of this the music they have put out has been amazingly received, from Turkey to Tokyo, from London to Lebanon.
Not confined to their home country, the Fortuna guys intend to dig into sounds from countries other than Israel. “Especially with the conflict around us, we really want to collaborate with our surrounding countries. People talk about ‘enemies’, but we don’t see them as enemies, on the contrary, we want to collaborate. Also people from our neighbours, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon have got in touch with us. Really digging what we are doing and it transcending our political reality”. With Israel and her neighbour’s situation of unrest, the act of sharing and collaborating music becomes even more significant than just ‘hearing something new’. “It is part of our agenda, that by collaborating with musicians around us we can make a small contribution to this messed up situation. It will take some time before everyone can stand in the room together listening to music but we can show a partnership and show its not a big deal to work together”. Entering a discussion or debate about the political situation in the Middle East is never easy with no obviously achievable solution in sight. Music, however, has always played a significant role in breaking down social barriers and easing conflicts. When unity currently seems unachievable, perhaps small steps in bringing and bonding a new younger generation of Arabs and Israelis through the sharing of music will help prompt an integration of youths, crucial to the establishment of peace. The club scene in Israel has a long way to got though. “In Tel Aviv, say if you play in Jaffa, which is more of an arab area you might get mixed audiences, and in Haifa, which is also largely Arab. But there is still a long way to go before we are one happy family”. “However, when we’re playing arab music in the heart of Tel Aviv club culture it does suddenly really open the door – for people of Jewish Israeli origin to check out the Arab side and vis versa”. “We are not into politics, we are just into music, but if it has a good effect that is amazing and we would love to do whatever we can to help. By coming from a musical perspective, however, it does shield our work from the conflict and in that way its a safe space for people to just easily come together and help the situation.” Whilst music is not politics, it is political and it can, and has always historically, had significant socially political effects. It will be very interesting to see how the music scene in the middle east develops and potentially plays a role in ending the conflict.
During the war this past Spring, a lot of artists booked to play in Israel didn’t go. When I spoke to Ariel about this he was fully understanding, not least because of the way the media presents Israel and the situation. However, he explains that the situation is much more complex than is ever shown, emphasising the fact that mostly everyone who lives here just wants peace and safety for all. The problem is that people attribute what governments do to the people and the media always show the situation in one specific way. He hopes that Fortuna’s work can promote a different and strong side of Israel. That as a country and as people, it is a cooperative, communal, un-judgmental and peaceful country, which shares so much cultural similarity with its neighbours and just wants to be at peace rather than be enemies. “Its hard though because you try to not get involved and when I live my life I do so just as an individual not as a representative of the country. I respond to my community not to my government. I live in Jaffa in a really mixed community, Israelis, Arabs, Mediterraneans, Europeans, I embrace all of them for their culture and their opinions and also for their disagreements” . It is really hard, however, being completely slated in the media for things that you don’t agree with yourself”. “The media and countries afar confuse the government for the people, and forget that within the people there are many different views. I hope through the stuff that we do people will see that there are peace loving, music loving communities here in Israel that just want to live together in peace.”
Organisations specifically dedicated to helping improve the Arab-Israeli conflict exist and are evolving and growing. As well as Fortuna, “Radio Trip are our mentors and godfathers of this sound, they dug this music before anyone else. As DJs and producers, they are the first people who searched for and played this sound – a lot of the stuff we do we did together with them ”. Also “the record label Vega is an Arabic Israeli label which releases music from Arab musicians, a lot of Egyptian artists. A lot of DJs are digging whats going on in our neighbouring countries and playing it out. The Iranian techno producers Deepa and Biri are spreading the sound, as is Ariel Brikha”. “There’s a real evolving music scene here in Tel Aviv, it will never be huge but with the internet, spreading our music is much easier than it used to be. In general music is so much more multi national, Ariel for instance recorded an album with one half of Radio Trip in Jamaica, released on the English label ‘Freestyle Records’. The Fortuna guys describe their work as ‘music without borders’. “For us there are no borders, we release old middle eastern music and music from all over”. “Artists and relatives of artists are now even coming to the label which is amazing. One of our releases for next year is a Yemenite compilation by an artist whose grandson got in touch with us who never thought anyone would be interested in his grandfather’s music until he heard of us. It’s really nice that people are responding and coming together to give us access to music that we couldn’t otherwise reach.” There’s a really exciting scene in Israel and Fortuna are only at the beginning of their quest to spread the Middle Easters sound far and wide. The Tel Aviv scene is small but flourished.
The future of Fortuna Records is genuinely so exciting. “We’ve got a lot of things ready and lined up, so the volume of our releases is going to be a lot higher. Another three releases this year, an album and two EPs. Next year we also have some serious releases lined up. We have a lot of sounds we want to put out, so we are going to explore the Yemenite sound even deeper.” They’re also starting their own monthly night at Port Said to cater to the growing appetite for their sound and to share the fruits of their musical archaeological endeavours. “Right now we’re really pleased with the response and we’re excited to show the world the sound of Israel and her neighbours, to help Israel be known as relating to something other than trouble”.
Follow Fortuna Records here.