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Interview: Gevolt, Israel’s Yiddish Metal Pioneers

I came to know about Gevolt several years ago, when their promo Tum Balalayke came out on Youtube. Being a big fan of folk and industrial metal (e.g., Arkona and Rammstein), I was led by Youtube that recommended me check out Gevolt’s tunes in AlefBase – how smart, Youtube, you got me right! Here’s their performance of Tshiribim Tshribom. Grrrrrr.

The vernacular in the state of Israel, needless to say, is Hebrew (or Modern Hebrew if you will, in reference to Biblical Hebrew). The revival of Hebrew as a national, spoken language is truly astonishing, but the so-called Hebraizing the country did accompany with degrading of diasporic languages, one of which was mamaloshen, Yiddish. The first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion was preoccupied with state-building (a newly-born, vulnerable state), emphasizing heavily on the spirit of pioneers, to which the lives and heritages of Eastern European Jewry were antithesis.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that public discourse in Israel gradually shifted to cherish Yiddish (and Ladino) traditions, conducive to the creation of Yiddish Theater of Israel (Yiddishpiel). Israeli universities started to establish Yiddish courses open also to international students. For example, Tel-Aviv University’s Naomi Prawer Kader International Yiddish Summer Program attracts Yiddish-inspired students and educators from all over the world. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t a language confined in the areas of haredim, but appreciated and re-approached by renewed and in-depth contemplation on Israel’s heritages and identities.

Gevolt had kindly accepted my interview request. Out of six band members and contributing session musicians in the making of AlefBase, I came to meet with two; Once I arrived at their recording studio in Tel-Aviv, Dmitry (Dima) Lifshitz (synthesizers) warmly welcomed me, and Anatholy Bonder (vocal) arrived soon after. Over black coffee in a cozy studio on a rainy day, they made sure I felt comfortable to conduct an interview. Time to learn where they are coming from and what they are up to!

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Both Anatholy and Dima arrived in Israel as teenagers in early 1990s, upon the collapse of former Soviet Union. Prior to their arrivals in Israel, Anatholy played drums, and Dima played a violin since he was eight and enrolled in a music school. Dima is a multi-instrumentalist – violin, guitar and keyboard – and met Anatholy at a college in Israel. Passion for music (or namely, heavy sounds) bonded them, which may or may not have had something to do with their dropping out of college (we all laughed). Russian is their first language, but Hebrew comes as naturally since they have spent the half of their lives in Israel. Anatholy resides in Ashdod, while Dima is from Givatayim.

Anatholy grew fond of metal since 1980s and attracted to heavier and heavier sounds in time. Dima listed influential musicians to him as following: Sex Pistols, Ramones, Megadeth, and various punk bands and electronic musicians. All the members of the band came from diverse musical backgrounds. Eva Yefremov the violinist, for instance, brings classical elements (strongly resonated with klezmer) to Gevolt, and it is a big advantage of the band that every member adds a different flavor to the final tunes of Gevolt.

Yiddish is not a spoken language to them, but Anatholy’s self-education has come to fruition that he now freely reads and understands. Gevolt also has a language consultant, Professor Leybl Botwinik, who generously offered his assistance for correcting and polishing Gevolt’s Yiddish lyrics.

What initiated Yiddish metal? I asked. How did you come up with the idea? Answer: The wonder, on how traditional Yiddish songs would sound in metal. Tum Balalayke was the first product of the wonder, and since it was already a well-known and beloved song, the band hoped to reach a wider audience by covering Tum Balalayke. The major turning point that led the band determined to go on with old Yiddish songs was Zog Nit Keyn Mol, a partisan song against the Nazi Germany that touched the members of the band deeply and motivated them further to “make it powerful.”

“Because of this song, the whole album AlefBase came out. With this song, we knew we had to do it.”

Other songs in AlefBase (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AlefBase) were carefully selected by an exhaustive research; the band listened to numerous Yiddish songs for numerous times to consider melodic composition, potentials for instrumental improvisation, and lyrical contents. The release of AlefBase brought a surprise to the band; Gevolt’s fan base is incredibly diverse (there’s a fan page on Facebook “Gevolt Mexico”) and their metal cover does not seem to repel those who speak Yiddish as their mother tongue (largely the elderly). It both surprised and delighted the band very much when a Youtube clip “My grandma singing Gevolt” came up.

While positive feedback to AlefBase was all around, the band also met with non-stop comparisons with Neue Deutsche Härte  – especially with Rammstein. “We’ve got used to it,” Dima responded casually with laughter, and it turned out that Anatholy is indeed a fan of Rammstein. Dima pointed out some similarities between Gevolt and Rammstein, such as the deep, heavy vocal style of Anatholy (like Till Lindemann) and Yiddish’s sounding similar to German. Even though they are well aware of restrictive effect of labeling, categorization doesn’t matter and doesn’t bother the band. “Making an order” of musical genres is a “critics’ job” after all, and Gevolt will eventually come out as a distinctive band for its own merits and musical styles. There’s “no problem” with labeling and comparisons, and “everything will be alright” for the future of the band! Strong and adventurous – seem to be their middle name.

Gevolt will be soon performing at the Midi Festival China 2016 with a new original single, Khokhotshet. It took them a year to finish this song, thanks to the “perfectionist,” Anatholy (Dima knows when to leave Anatholy alone).

From now on, Gevolt will engage in creative endeavors with original songs written by themselves. Open to any musical exploration, their future projects won’t be limited in Yiddish but possibly including Hebrew, Russian, and even English. Find more about Gevolt at: http://www.gevolt.com/

On my way back home after the interview, I couldn’t help but ponder Ben-Gurion’s devotion to the making of “new Jew”/ “proud and strong sabra” and his suppressing Yiddish. There was a time when performing in Yiddish was strictly banned in Israel (1940s-1950s respectively). I wondered – what would early Hebraists of Israel say, if they listened to Gevolt’s Sha Shtil (hint: it’s loud, it’s Yiddish, meaning ‘shhh, quite’)? Grateful for their time and kindness, I wish all the best to their upcoming performance in China and look forward very much to more rockin’ to come – zayt gezunt!

 

About Yuri Keum