Israel’s Biggest Reggae Band Comes to Atlanta

Israel’s Biggest Reggae Band Comes to Atlanta


By Bram Bessoff

Arguably the best of Israel’s world music and certainly the biggest by default, with eight members consisting of Israel’s best underground musicians, Zvuloon Dub System may be the only band on the planet fusing the sounds of reggae and world music with both Hebrew and Amharic Lyrics to drive a world message of peace, love and equality for all.

Adopting their name from one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the band was formed in 2006 by the Smilan brothers. But the story begins well before that. In 1966 Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, the man known as Ras Tafari, visited Jamaica on April 21 that year. More than one hundred thousand Rastafarians were waiting at Kingston Airport to see the man they revered as the Messiah. For a brief moment, still celebrated by the faithful as Grounation Day, the two countries came together. Then, 18 years later an Ethiopian family, members of the lost tribe of Israel, walked across the desert, making the long trek to their homeland. Within that exodus was four-year-old Gili Yalo, a Jewish boy who grew up with no electricity or running water in the northern town of Gondar, Ethiopia.

In 1984, as drought started to grip the country, the family made the decision to go to the land of their distant ancestors – Israel. It was on that trek that he first realized he was destined to be a singer. “My father carried me on his shoulders most of the way, and I drove everyone crazy singing old songs that I knew. My mother felt that singing was my true calling – and I haven’t stopped ever since.”

Yalo recounts the trip, “We walked across the desert for two months, all the way to Sudan, and then we were in a refugee camp for several months after that. Finally, one night, trucks took us out into the desert and we got on an airplane. The next thing I knew, we landed in Israel. After all I’d seen in my life, it was like going 100 years into the future.”

In 2006, the Smilan brothers, who shared a passion for roots reggae and dub, with influences from a variety of music styles, like Ethiopian jazz and rare grooves from the 70’s, USA’s soul, funk and jazz, alongside with Israeli mizrahi (oriental) music. Similarly to the major producers of reggae, like Lee Perry and King Tubby, the band is also keen on creating not just their own music but their own sound. All their tracks are produced, recorded and mixed in the band’s studio, representing a unique blend of a rich cultural heritage, which can be heard in the debut album, “Freedom Time.”

“It’s a natural mix,” says drummer Asaf Smilan. “We started out playing roots reggae, all very ‘70s. I’d also loved that old Ethiopian music since I first heard it, about 10 or 15 years ago, but I didn’t have any Ethiopian friends to discover more about it. Then Gili Yalo joined as the singer in 2009, and everything changed.” They have perfected the mix of the reggae offbeat with horns and chord changes from Ethiopia. And for Yalo, with Zvuloon Dub System he was able to not only explore the Jamaican music he loves, but also know his roots he’d been forced to deny for so long due to the difficulties he faced integrating into Western society.

What the band has created is a unique fusion that’s based in Tel Aviv, but looks equally to Kingston and Addis Ababa. And they’ve refined the sound until it feels utterly natural, the mix of the reggae offbeat with horns and chord changes from Ethiopia. Their latest effort Anbessa Dub consists of nine previously unreleased original songs, and a groovy reggae version of Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix. It presents the band’s vision of contemporary roots reggae and dub. The album released in April 2012 on CD and vinyl under the band’s independent label, Med. Tone Records and includes a guest appearance from leading Jamaican DJ, Ranking Joe.

One person who liked what he heard was Mahmoud Ahmed, the voice behind so many legendary tracks in the Golden Age of Ethiopian music. “I found out he was coming to Israel,” Smilan says. “I got his number and sent him a demo of a song we wanted him to do. He liked it and did a session with us. He was a complete perfectionist in the studio, listening to what he’d done and wanting to do it over until it was right. His friends said that he told them it was the highlight of his trip.”

The result, “Ney Denun Tesesh,” sounds as if it would have been perfectly at home in the classic Ethiopiques series, but it’s just one in a series of standouts on Anbessa Dub, with Yalo’s soulful voice shining throughout. The music flows perfectly, Africa and the Caribbean in perfect sync. “When we play in front of Ethiopian people here it’s very special,” Yalo observes. “Parents think the culture has been forgotten here, but hearing us, they know it’s not. We even use a krar (an Ethiopian lute) and a maskino (one-string violin) mixed in with the sound.”

Now on the road in support of Anbessa Dub, ZDS is amidst their tour across North America with their next stop here in Atlanta to play The Variety Playhouse Sat., July 12 – the tour finishes with a date at Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, Jamaica. “We want to go into the studio while we’re over there,” Smilan says. “I want to take the riddims from this album and record Jamaican artists singing about Ethiopia, Haile Selassie and the Lion of Judah. To celebrate the triumvirate.”

The members of Zvuloon Dub System are: Gili Yalo, Vocals, Inon Peretz, Trumpet, Idan Salomon, Alto Sax, Ilan Adiri, Tenor Sax, Ilan Smilan, Lead Guitar, Simon Nahum, Rhythm Guitar Lior Romano, Organ, Micha Gilad, Piano, Yacov Lilay, Krar / Bass Krar, Tal Marcus, Bass, Asaf Smilan, Drums and Percussions. See you at the show.

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