This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Abe Hathot, musician, composer, and music producer.
To be a celebrated Palestinian heavy metal musician in the Middle East for over a decade, Abe Hathot can tell you, is to be a minority within a sea of musical minorities.
To be a musician now living in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, working as a composer and music producer, he might describe as shattering a glass ceiling that most people don’t even know exists.
American music fans likely know few Palestinian rock bands, but Khalas–aka Khalas–Arabic Rock Orchestra–one of the pioneering metal bands in the region, is a name they likely will recognize.
inspired by classical Arabic repertoire, and with music laced with metal riffs and arrangements, Khalas has released two albums, “Ma Adesh Feeha” (2004) and “Arabic Rock Orchestra” (2013) that have caught international ears.
Founder and lead guitarist Hathot has been producing, composing, and touring with the band for nearly 15 years.
He has worked with many artists in the Middle East including Palestinian hip hop pioneers DAM; internationally-acclaimed bassist and music producer Yossi Fine; and Israel’s pioneering metal band Orphaned Land. He has also worked with Samih Zakout (Saz), Zaman, Walaat, and others.
Hathot served as the head of the music supervision team and A&R at Media Men Group (MMG) the largest publishing company in Israel. During his five-year stint at MMG, Hathot provided music for countless films, TV shows, and commercials.
In 2015, after moving to Los Angeles, Hathot decided to focus on composing for film and television. His most recent project was writing music for the Black-Palestinian Solidarity film “When I See Them I See Us” which featured filmed statements by Ms. Lauryn Hill, Danny Glover, DAM, and others.
Prior to his move to America Hathot, along with Mahmood Jrere of DAM, developed the music platform Indiepush to promote the music of bands in the Middle East.
Hathot is also one of the prime movers behind the first Palestine Music Expo (PMX) that will take place April 5th-7th 2017. The event, to be mainly produced and staffed by Palestinians, will features showcases for established and upcoming Palestinian artists over three days in Ramallah, Haifa, and Jerusalem.
Joining Hathot on PMX’s management board are Cooking Vinyl Group founder/chairman Martin Goldschmidt, Mahmood Jrere (DAM), journalist Rami Younis, and trainer, evaluator and coach, Samar Baidoun
How did the Palestinian hook-up with Martin Goldschmidt that has led to the Palestine Music Expo (PMX) come about?
What happened with PMX is that last year (2015) Martin went to Tune In Tel Aviv and he told Jeremy Hulsh (CEO/founder of Oleh! Records, and Tune In Tel Aviv) that he would like to see the other side of the (Israeli-Palestinian conflict) story. To go to the West Bank.
Mahmood (Jrere) of DAM, (journalist) Rami Younis and rapper Saz (Samih Zakout) took Martin to Ramallah and showed him around. After that, he went with me to Akka (also known as Acre). We were having dinner in Akka and we were talking about how we could help the Palestinian music scene. Martin came with the idea of, Why not do a Palestinian Expo?
What was your reaction?
My reaction was, “Yeah, I had thought about doing something like that, especially after I went to WOMAX in 2012, but we didn’t have the connections to the (international) music industry. We just thought that it was something really big. So I gave up on trying to do anything. When Martin was here, it was like, “Sure. Let’s give it a shot.” So we met with Mahmood, and Rami, and we talked over some drinks, laying down our thoughts, and the whole idea started to become clearer.
How many acts will be presented over the three days?
I think probably between 20 to 30 bands. Between folk bands, rock bands, singer/songwriters, and instrumental bands.
What venues will be used for PMX?
In Ramallah, it will be Beit Anisa, and GrandPark Hotel, and in Haifa it will be the Kabareet bar, and the Al-Midan Theater. We are still working on further venue options.
In November, seven Western music industry figures–including myself–met with 12 Palestinian musicians for lunch in Ramallah. What was the immediate reaction of the Palestinians to meeting with outsiders in such a social setting?
When we started talking to the Palestinian musicians they were kind of skeptical at first about it (the lunch). They had never experienced anything like that before. Most of the people who have come to Palestine for those artists were people who were somehow related to the music industry, but not directly. It was the first time for them to sit with people like you or someone like Beckie Sugden (X-Ray Touring in London, England), who works with an agency that books Eminem and Green Day. To them, that’s unbelievable. It was mind-blowing to them. For us too. To see that connection and how everybody is willing to help.
[Led by Martin Goldschmidt (Cooking Vinyl Records) the group consisted of Martin Elbourne (Glastonbury Festival/The Great Escape Festival), Malcolm Haynes (Glastonbury Festival), Mark Meharry (CEO of Music Glue), Scott Cohen (Co-founder, and senior VP International of The Orchard), X-Ray Touring agent Beckie Sugden, and myself.]
[Note From Larry LeBlanc: As an international music industry journalist I have discovered great music and incredible musicians in such non-Western countries as Vietnam and South Africa. As evident with the musicians I saw and met recently at Tune In Tel Aviv 2016, and the 12 Palestinian musicians I met during lunch on their home ground of Ramallah, music is a shared international language. I had further dinners in Jerusalem with several of the Palestinian musicians, and I was greatly impressed with the follow-up questions they asked about the music industry.]
With the Palestinian music community being so small I wasn’t surprised to notice a distinct camaraderie and bond among the musicians I met.
I’m really glad about that. It was something that I never really noticed before until you mentioned it when we were in Ramallah. You mentioned that you had seen how the musicians interacted with each other. For me, it was like, “Okay. Isn’t that the way it is worldwide?” I think that it’s a natural thing to do. One of the times that we played Ramallah at the SnowBar, my amp didn’t work that night. The guitar player from (rock rap band) El Container was there, and he said, “Don’t worry. In five minutes, I’ll be back.” He went home, and he brought his Marshall amp. Like okay, that’s cool. To us, that’s a natural thing to do. We would do the same for them. They can use whatever they want from our equipment. We talk always to each other.
The Indiepush platform that you and Mahmood Jrere developed seems to be a response of how difficult it is for Palestinian musicians to grow their fan bases.
The idea of Indiepush started just like PMX started which is we were trying to figure out a way to help local musicians. Not just Palestinians, but all those in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region as a whole. The thing is that there was no platform that gave an answer to musicians in their distribution in the region. Indiepush is now the only one.
The challenge is to promote bands and reach fans at the same time.
Yeah. So the idea was to help the artists reach more fans by their fans. Artists upload their music and their fans start sharing their music on that social network. The more that they share the more that they earn points, and these points can be used as currency inside the website. A fan can then download new music. So from one side a fan is promoting their favorite bands, and on the other side, they are using the points that they have earned to discover new music and to promote more bands.
How many bands are involved with Indiepush?
We have 120 bands. The thing is that in the Middle East, the music industry…the idea of being an indie artist is not as evolved as in the Western World.
Spotify has yet to launch in Israel.
Yes. And Israel is considered more Westernized than any other country in the MENA region. If we are talking about Jordan or Egypt, or even the Palestinian territories, they don’t even have PayPal. Not to even talk about Spotify. Spotify is still a long way off.
While Palestine has a very different set of challenges for musicians than being in Israel many Palestinian musicians seem to be on Facebook.
Yes. Social media is coming along, but still, there’s no e-Commerce. For Indiepush to be very successful we need an e-Commerce solution. We don’t have that yet. What is going on with Indiepush at the moment is that it is a platform that gives a service to musicians from the MENA region. We don’t think of the business side of it. We don’t want to make money from it as yet. We just want to be there for our fellow musicians, and give them that service.
Are Palestinian musicians able to get their music carried by the various streaming services?
They can if they do it on their own.
There’s is no single distributor yet to oversee that?
That’s what we are doing with Indiepush now. We are trying to figure out a deal with one of the companies in distribution. We are talking with them. When we strike a deal with them, it will be a great solution. From the MENA region bands and artists can then just put their album with Indiepush, and they will be on iTunes, Spotify and so on.
The Internet, smartphones, and increased globalization have led to people outside the Middle East having more access to Palestinian music. Now access to social media makes it easier for fans to find out about Palestinian artists.
From one side yes, it makes it easier to reach to new fans in other places that because of the political situation you can’t reach out to them. The internet gives us a great solution for that. With Khalas, due to the internet, we have a huge fan base in Egypt and Lebanon while we can’t go to Lebanon. We can’t go to Algeria. It is a (communication) solution that the internet brings to the artists. But still, it doesn’t give us a solution where we can play live in those places. But still, it’s a step forward.
An estimated 1.4 million Arabs live in Israel with full Israeli citizenship You were born and raised in Akka/Acre which has a mix of Jews, Arabs, and Christians. Jaffa is similar.
You have an Israeli passport, right?
Do all Khalas members have Israeli passports?
Does having an Israeli passport make it easier for you to travel abroad?
Yes, and no. It is easier if we are talking about the West for touring. Yes, definitely for touring it’s much easier because of the Israeli passport we can go to Europe and the UK without a visa. It’s much easier. But on the other side, we can’t play Lebanon or we can’t many of the countries in the Arab world because it’s an Israeli passport.
What passport does a Palestinian have living in the West Bank?
It doesn’t matter if you are a Muslim or a Christian on the West Bank—there are a lot of Christians in the West Bank–you will have a Palestinian passport which you can’t do much with it. Anywhere you want to go, you will need a visa. Even if you are going to go to Jordan or Egypt as a Palestinian you will need a visa. It (a Palestinian passport) doesn’t have much of a value.
So bands living in the West Bank are limited to where they can work?
Yeah. The thing is with a Palestinian passport even if you want to leave (the West Bank) you still have to have Israeli approval. So it’s more complicated over there. It’s really harder there.
It seems difficult for musicians living in the Middle East to make a living regardless of their religious affiliation.
Definitely. You have to have a day job. You just can’t make it on music as it is. If your band is not touring outside of that region, you can’t make it on music because we are talking about Palestine and Israel in which to perform. The whole country (of Israel) is small. You can go from one side to the other in six hours. So when Khalas released its albums we tried to tour everywhere in that region from Ramallah to Akka to Tel Aviv to Haifa. We finished in one week. So now what?
So there aren’t many places Palestinian bands can play.
What facilities are available to them in The West Bank?
In the West Bank, there’s Beit Anisa, the Ramallah Cultural Palace, the GrandPark Hotel, SnowBar and a bunch of other small venues.
How about within Israel?
In Israel, there’s the Alsaraya Theater in Jaffa; the Kabareet bar, and the Al-Midan Theatre in Haifa, and Levuntine, and the Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv.
Is it easy for a Palestinian band to play Tel Aviv? Would there be an audience for them?
(Ummm) It depends on the venue. Some venues do allow Palestinian musicians to play there. Some venues do that less. We have played in Levuntine and the Ozen Bar. Both are great venues in Tel Aviv, and the crowds were mixed. That was great. That is the good thing about it. You play your music, and you can find Israelis and Palestinians in the same venue listening to your music while you are singing in Arabic. Most Israelis don’t understand a word we are saying but they get connected to the music. It’s the same thing that happened to us when we were touring Europe. People connected to the music. They don’t understand what we are saying but they know that it’s cool because of the group.
Khalas has toured or played alongside such Israeli bands as Orphaned Land, Hadag Nahash, and Balkan Beatbox as well as Israeli singer/songwriter Riff Cohen. Also played alongside such International acts as Gogol Bordello from the U.S., and the German hip-hop group Blumentopf. What Khalas offers as Palestinian musicians is unique. Nobody else can replicate it.
Yeah. It’s not easy, though. Today, it’s easier, but back then when we started in 1998, and in early 2000, it was really tough. It wasn’t just, “Okay guys, let’s form a rock band.” You can’t do that. We had to build a rock scene because there was no rock scene when we started. It wasn’t just starting a band. It also was also building a rock scene from scratch.
Around the same time in Lod, DAM–Tamer Nafar, Suhell Nafar, and Mahmoud Jreri–were going through a similar process. Not only becoming the first Palestinian hip hop crew but also developing a hip-hop scene to work in.
Exactly. Exactly 100%. The same thing with DAM. They are pioneers of the hip hop scene in the Middle East.
[After DAM’s song “Min Irhabi” (“Who’s the Terrorist”) was downloaded over a million times in 2001, DAM became a household name among youth throughout the Middle East.]
Has Khalas toured or worked with other metal or rock acts in the region?
We did work with Matan Cohen from Betzefer, and of course with (legendary bass player and music producer) Yossi Fine. We would love to collaborate with other metal bands from the Arab world like Myrath (Tunisia), Rasas (Syria), and Bilocate (Jordan), We are in touch with all of them but we did not have the chance to do that yet.
Few people meeting you for the first time as a Palestinian musician want to talk to you about your music. Am I right?
Yes, unfortunately, you are right.
The music is going to be the third question, right?
Yeah, if they reach that.
The first question will likely be about politics followed by religion, and third might be “So what’s going on with you guys?”
Don’t forget the social aspect of it. You have the politics, then the religion, and with things going on in the Arab world–with all of the women killing with the honor of the family and shit like that. If you are lucky, people might ask you a question about your music.
Palestinian musicians are expected to sing mostly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, Khalas’ music doesn’t deal with politics. You aren’t saying, “We are Palestinian. We are under occupation. This is our story.”
There is a thing that has really bothered me through my whole career which is as a Palestinian musician, you automatically are expected to talk and sing about occupation. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe that is a badge that I have to carry on my bag as soon as I am born and choose to be a Palestinian musician or choose to be a musician as a Palestinian. I don’t want to sing about occupation. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe that there isn’t an occupation or that I don’t believe in freedom for my people or that I don’t believe that there are horrible things going on against my people.
I believe that a girl in Palestine comes to a Khalas concert, and she dances and moves her hips on the dance floor, head banging and whatsoever, and she smiles despite all of the horrible things that are going on and despite the occupation. I think that this girl still has the same power as a girl who goes to a demonstration the next day, and shouts against occupation. It’s just as powerful. Those two things. You can’t have one without the other.
Well, you are a Muslim who drinks beer.
(Laughing) Yes. Let’s say that I have been in more bars than mosques in my life.
[The word “occupation” is contentious in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians use the word to describe their surroundings as a whole. Arabs living in Israel proper–in such cities as Haifa and Nazareth and holding Israeli passports and citizenship, consider that they are living in “occupied” Palestine. In the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Jericho, which are fully autonomous and controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, people there consider themselves to living in “’occupied’ Palestine.” Those living in Gaza, a fully autonomous area that Israel no longer occupies, consider themselves living in “Occupied Palestine.” They can enter and exit Gaza via Egypt but not Israel.
The State of Palestine, aka Palestine, is recognized by 137 of the 193 member states of the United Nations, and has since 2012 had a status of a non-member observer state in the United Nations.]
In 2013, Khalas shared a tour bus and stages with progressive Israeli metal band Orphaned Land. Eighteen performances in 6 countries including France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. As a kid who played air guitar along to Orphaned Land’s “Ornament of Gold” It must have been incredible to be touring with them.
Yes, it was a crazy experience waking up every day in a different city on the tour bus. Not just that but the guys from Orphaned Land, they are amazing people. They are really, really great. And they have an amazing message which is, “All is one.”
As a teenager, I was listening to a lot of metal. Orphaned Land’s song “Ornament of Gold” was on a heavy metal compilation that went out in Israel around 1995. I think that song was #3 or #6 on the tracking. It blew my mind. It was like, “So you can do Middle Eastern riffs or lines with a distorted guitar.” That planted the seed for Khalas to do that as well.
[Ben Brinner, professor of music at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “Playing across a Divide: Israeli-Palestinian Musical Encounters” has said that when musicians from both sides come together, “They create different kinds of musical styles; it’s giving a vision of a rich kind of working together (that in) the best cases creates something new, something that they couldn’t create on their own, that can speak to the hearts of diverse audiences.”]
You and Orphaned Land founder and singer Kobi Farhi, who has received three honorary awards for his peace activities, seem to be part of a generation of people who want an Israel-Palestine where people can live together with their families in peace and safety.
Yes. With equal rights for everyone. Just the usual basic human rights for everyone.
I heard Kobi say in an interview, “We look at the politicians as the little kids arguing in the sandbox whereas we are now the grown-ups, and we have moved on to other things.”
Yes. The basic thing about it is “Do you believe in equal human rights for everyone in that region?” You can’t find anyone in the world that will say, “I don’t.” You will, of course. Stupid extremists from both sides. You will find those.
Today, it’s hard to see any balanced package of steps on the peace process for Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would be accepted by both sides. There are those in Israel’s coalition government who demand an immediate annexation of the West Bank, and other Israelis who want to redraw the map completely to ensure a greater concentration of Jews within the eventual Israeli borders. At the same time, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal continues to believe “in the full liberation of Palestine, and that jihad and resistance are the only means to expel the occupation and liberate Palestine.”
I believe what we should do is take those people from both sides, put them on an island, and see how long they want to fight. Who cares?
Your family came to Akka from Egypt in the 16th century.
Yep. From my father side. My mother’s side is Palestinian.
How many kids in your family?
I have another brother and a sister.
They didn’t end up in the music business.
No. My parents can say, “We lost only one.”
How long have you been playing guitar?
I was 16 when I started.
What was the reaction of your parents?
“Don’t waste your time on that shit. Go and study something. That’s a hobby. You can’t make a living out of music.” The usual thing from parents. The funny thing about it is that my mom is an oud player, and my grandfather is a violin and oud player. So she knows how important music can be to a person. But when you are young and you are a kid, parents try to steer you in a way that you will have that big job. Like a doctor or a lawyer or whatever.
As a teenager, you grew up listening to Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and other metal bands?
Yes, yeah. The thing is, back then, it was before the internet. We are talking about the mid-‘90s. So to discover those bands you had to go to the only record store in the north end of Israel, which was in Haifa, one hour away from Akka if you take public transportation. So after school, we used to go there, and spend the whole day there going between CDs and magazines and writing the band’s name on our hands to remember them.
How would you discover these metal bands initially? These aren’t the type of bands being played on local radio.
No, no. Just by going to the record store. It was the only source. Getting those metal magazines and going through them and checking out the bands. Then going to album section of the store, and taking that album to play at a listening station. You listened to that album, and you bought that music.
How did Khalas form in 1998? A bunch of teenagers into the same kind of music?
Yeah. The metal scene was so small back then. So if I was listening to Metallica and there was another guy was listening to Metallica who lived in, say, Haifa, we probably knew about each other. That’s how small it (the scene) was.
You could spot him at the bus stop in a black T-shirt with long hair.
(Laughing) You are 100% right. You would know that guy because he wore that black clothing, turned up jeans with chains or whatever. That was something that you would see. It was unique to the Palestinian scene. A teenager wearing those band T-shirts. If I had a Cannibal Corpse T-shirt. You know how (American death metal band) Cannibal Corpse covers were like. It is pretty shocking for the Palestinian or the community within Israel to see a teenager wearing that. It wasn’t easy (being a Cannibal Corpse fan) because for them you were a freak.
A bunch of guys who like music and play instruments get together and there’s the suggestion of forming metal type band. That wasn’t realistic at the time given that there wasn’t a metal scene in the Middle East.
We didn’t think of forming a band and going on tour. What we wanted to do was sit in that garage and play our instruments together and imagine that we were onstage with Metallica. That’s what we used to do. Close our eyes, and yeah imagining that crowd with Metallica. And that was fun for us. To just jam together. The idea of doing Arabic rock or Arabic metal came because we wanted to listen to our music in Arabic, and we couldn’t find anything. So we said, “Fine. Let’s do what we want to listen to.” That’s where the idea came to do Arabic rock and Arabic metal.
Khalas started out by experimenting with renditions of notable Arabic songs. On its first album “Ma Adesh Feeha” (translated “We’ve Had It”) released in 2004, the first song was an instrumental reinterpretation of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum’s renowned “Enta Omri” (“You Are My Life”).
Exactly. Our first album 99% of it was original music except for this opening track which was a tribute to Umm Kulthum, a very famous Egyptian. We did a metal cover of that tune. That is one of our most famous tunes in the Arab world. A lot of people discovered Khalas because of that cover of “Enta Omri.” It was featured in countless TV shows in the Arab world. We don’t get royalties because there are no royalties in the Arab world. At least we are out there.
At the same time, you must have outraged her fans, “How dare you do this tribute to Umm Kulthum.”
Yeah, yeah. Definitely. This was a very big name in the Arab world. This would be like taking a Frank Sinatra song and doing a heavy metal version of it. Something like that. The older generation said, “You have just ruined the song.” But we figured the younger generation might like it, and that’s what happened.
Pop music in the West has long been more open to unlikely renditions. The most controversial being Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious filming a punk rock version of Frank Sinatra’s signature song “My Way” in 1978.
Yes. The Western world is more open to that than the Middle Eastern world. Umm Kulthum for the Middle East world, she is like a sacred cow. You can’t touch it (her music.)
On its second album, “Arabic Rock Orchestra” in 2013 Khalas covered Egyptian singer Farid al-Atrash renowned as the “king of the oud”
Yes, with the song “Hebeena Hebeena.”
The band also covered Abdel Halim Hafez’s “Gana al-Hawa” (“Love Has Arrived.”)
The idea for the second album was, “Okay what we are going to do now is just focus on the music, on the Eastern and Arabic music. We’d like to bring that to the West. It also wouldn’t be too awkward for the Middle Eastern world to listen to which is rock music.” So we went through a lot of the famous Middle Eastern tunes that they used to play at weddings. Songs that would sound the best if you do an interpretation to those songs. And we did that. What we did was take rock music (metal) from the West though our Middle East filters and threw it back to the West.
Traditional Palestinian song styles include ataaba, zajal, Bein Al-dawai, Al-Rozana, Zarif – Al-Toul, Al-Maijana, Sahja/Saamir and Zaghareed. Does Khalas touch on any of these styles?
Yes indeed. We do use Palestinian grooves and melodies in our music, and we have a song called “Mijwiz” which is based on a Palestinian traditional tune is “Ya Zareef El Toul.”
In time the band’s name morphed into Khalas Arabic Rock Orchestra.
It’s the same band. Khalas and Khalas Arabic Rock Orchestra ,which is the name that we use when we do shows outside of Palestine because the word Khalas is hard to pronounce for non-Arabic speakers.
Khalas often has had additional musicians for its larger shows.
Yes. On the bigger shows, we have leading musicians from the Palestinian music scene. A flute player, a keyboard player, three percussionists, and sometimes a Sufi dancer. Between 9 and 11 people onstage. If there’s a budget, we can make it.
Has Khalas toured Europe with the larger ensemble?
No. Those big shows that we do we do locally. It takes a lot of money to take something like that out on the road in Europe.
When did you start producing?
The producing started around 2007. Just after we did our first album. I started getting more interested in that side of the music and music production.
There aren’t recording facilities available in the West Bank.
PMX’s partner In Place of War, which aims to develop the creative industries in communities marginalized by the effects of war, will launch a studio it has have funded, and built in Nabulus during the PMX event.
Yes, it will be up and running in April. Right now, we don’t have the facilities. Even if we had enough budget to build a studio in Haifa, it isn’t all we need. It’s not just (having) the studios. Even if you had a studio, and you bring in everything but we don’t have the people who have the knowledge to run that studio. Who knows how to record a metal band in the proper way? That’s why we have to do it through Israeli studios with Israeli people.
In Tel Aviv?
In Jaffa, actually. We are talking about studios with top-notch mixing consoles like SSL and Neve. There are worldwide standard studios there.
You have also done production work Samih Zakout (SAZ), Zaman, Walaat, and DAM. You also worked with renowned Paris-born, Israeli bassist, and producer Yossi Fine. A learning process for you?
Yeah, I learned a lot. My work with Yossi was more like learning. I wasn’t producing. I was learning from him. He’s a genius. He’s played with David Bowie, Lou Reed and a bunch of others. Not only that, he produced Shabak Samehk, and later Hadag Nahash. Two Israeli bands that I grew up listening to.
[Yossi Fine fronts the world music/reggae/funk band Ex-Centric Sound System. Fine has worked with the likes of David Bowie, Brian Eno, Naughty By Nature, Gil Evans, Lou Reed, Rubén Blades, Stanley Jordan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Anthony B, Karsh Kale, Cheb i Sabbah, Antibalas, Hassan Hakmoun, Hadag Nahash, Ofra Haza, Noa and Hamsa Lila.]
A case of you trying to be around music figures more advanced than you, to learn from them?
Given your work as a producer and as a composer do you have a formal music education background?
Much of my music knowledge I learned on my own or with private lessons. In 2009 I did music production at the music college Muzik College in Tel Aviv.
Why did you think you needed to do that?
I felt that I needed more tools to help me to get ideas in my head down onto a demo good enough to send to other bands. Before that, I would do that but it wasn’t to my satisfaction. I felt that I needed to learn more.
Muzik’s programs emphasizes the creative applications of music technology. The program cover songwriting, arranging, programming, recording, mixing, and mastering.
You learn music production. They teach music composition, but it’s very basic and you have to go home and teach yourself again. I’m a self-learner. I learn a lot on my own. From trying stuff and doing mistakes and a lot of YouTube videos and a lot of research. I really enjoy that.
You began to work at Israel’s largest music publishing company, the Media Men Group (MMG). Did those skills help you there?
The same time because when I started at Media Men Group in 2009 was the same year I went to that college.
At Media Men Group you entered the mainstream music industry world, working directly with such international music publishers as BMG, Warner, Universal, Kobalt Music and Peer Music which MMG represented.
Exactly. When I came there I was supposed to manage everything that had to do with mobile and media in the Arab world for the Media Men Group. From there I got promoted to being a full-time music supervisor, and head of the music supervision team and A&R.
What were your first impressions in entering that world?
It was fascinating to learn how things go in the scene.
You reported to Media Men Group’s founder and CEO Ran Geffen-Lifshitz?
Yes. Ran is the visionary behind Media Men Group. It represented every big name (international music publisher) from Universal to BMG; all those guys. For a Palestinian to end up doing that job as head of the music supervision team, where almost every third Israel TV show on the TV at that time I had something to do with it as a source for the music that they chose, was truly amazing.
At Media Men Group you learned about contracts, copyright, sync licensing, and music placement. None of which had been part of your world previously as a musician.
Yeah, definitely. I didn’t know anything about any of that. Seriously, nothing. People in Palestine, even today, they don’t know music rights management or about music publishing. That is one of the things that the PMX is working on is to educate Palestinian musicians about the music industry. It’s not just about holding your guitar and getting onstage and rocking out. There’s a whole world behind that that you have to know as a musician if you want to survive as a musician.
Your Media Men job must have given you incredible connections locally as well as internationally.
Definitely. It was like a really like a huge learning experience and it was about building connections and things like that. Back then to today, I try to share my knowledge with fellow musicians that I meet, whether it’s in L.A. or in Palestine.
At the same time, any international act that Media Men Group represented you’d been able to see them live.
Yeah. I got VIP tickets for Madonna, for example, which was really cool.
You left Media Men Group in 2014.
I had an opportunity to leave after being there for five years to move to Ramallah for six months to build Indiepush. That meant leaving my wife in Akka for 6 months. She visited every weekend. It was me and Mahood from DAM, and Nihad AW, the programmer from the Palestinian reggae group Toot Ard Reggae Druze Band. We went to Ramallah, and we started to build Indiepush. We got our seed funding from a company called Fast Forward. Indiepush then started to develop.
In Tel Aviv, you had grown accustomed to working in the best studios whereas in Ramallah you might be asking, “Do we have electricity today?”
Exactly. “Where did the internet go?” I remember talking to Ran and telling him that I had this opportunity. He said, “You have to take it.” I was like, “I don’t know. It’s risky leaving everything that I have built here.” He said, “You aren’t leaving anything. Just go there. Don’t say no to a new opportunity.” He told me one thing that I will always remember, “What would make a better story for your children or your grandchildren? That you stayed at Media Man or that you just left everything, and moved to Ramallah for six months.” So I was like, “Okay.”
How did you decide to come to America in 2015?
At the time my wife Nina had her graphic design studio Kanaba and within one year the studio became very well known. For me, after being one of the top music supervisors in Israel, and building Indiepush, it felt like, “What’s next?” After that, it was like, “Okay, let’s give the U.S. a chance.” Nina and I had been talking about that for a few years. We felt that if we are going to it (go to America) do it now or it’s never going to happen ever. We wanted to take our careers to the next level, and we knew that if we stayed there that we couldn’t do that. So we decided to come to the U.S., and give it a shot. Nina is now working as head of product design at a company called hiphopdx.com.
Nina is from Texas.
Nina was born in Texas to Palestinian parents and later moved to Haifa with her family. We met in 2003. She saw me playing in Haifa with the band. We were sitting in the bar and she came to the table and told me that she wanted to learn guitar. She wanted a lesson. I said I’d do it. Then we went for our first date. She brought her guitar, but we never touched the guitar. I’ve never given her any lessons to today.
For Americans discovering that you were Palestinian what was their initial reaction?
I didn’t encounter anything weird. Much of reaction is, “That’s cool.” That’s what I like about the States. It’s not that people will start treating you differently because you are a Palestinian. At least I didn’t encounter those kind of people.
How about in Texas?
Oh no. That’s a whole different story. The last time we were in Houston we didn’t speak one word in English. There’s an Arab community there where even the signs on the shop, everything is in Arabic. It was so freaking weird. We didn’t speak one word of English. Everything was in Arabic. I was like, “What’s happening? There are a lot of Palestinians and Egyptians in that community.
Yelp lists dozens of Arabic clubs and restaurants in Houston providing Mediterranean food and hookah lounges.
Nina’s uncle has Cafe Mawal in Houston. It’s a big famous restaurant there with Arabic food. They have Arabic parties almost every night.
Los Angeles is a global entertainment center for music for film, TV, and games. Has it been hard for you to gain a footing there?
Of course, it’s really hard coming from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big pond. It is hard because as you said it’s a big city, and it’s a big industry, and there’s many more people here doing the same job that I did back home. The good thing is that there is work. There are clients. You have to be more out there. You have to put more effort in getting clients and stuff like that.
Are you currently producing any acts?
I am working with a band called Seasons Call, which I play with, and produce. My main focus now is composing for film and television. I am joining the UCLA Scoring Program in January (2017). The same thing as when I wanted to learn studio production. I want to have more knowledge about film scoring.
Do you have a local manager representing you for film work?
I don’t have a manager in L.A., but I work with a couple of companies in Canada. Mainly with music supervisor Koo Abuali, (head of the California office of Montreal-born music production and songwriting house Apollo Studios, in Marina del Rey). We met through the Palestine Music Expo. She’s a Palestinian too. She’s from Australia. An amazing person. She’s really cool. So Apollo sends me different commercials that I submit music for. Koo helps me a lot in that field.
How do you balance being in Los Angeles with your activities in the Middle East?
I’m still connected to the Middle East and the people there, especially to Akka. Akka is a magical city. It’s one of those places like California. The same vibe. You fall in love with California and you can’t leave California.
What is the status of Khalas?
The band is still going on. We are working on new material. I send them demos and ideas for new songs. We transfer files. I compose everything and send it. They work on that, add their ideas, and send it back to me. When we have a finished demo, I go back there, and we got into the studio and record that demo.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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