Blues lovers from 'round world enjoy Challenge by Bill Ellis
"Just to be in Memphis where the blues is from in part is an honor for us," said Assaf Ganzman, leader of the Israeli group SOBO. Theyre one of about 100 groups competing next week at the International Blues Challenge (IBC). "To represent our country in such a high-profile competition is something weve always dreamed of doing," he said.
When the Israeli blues trio SOBO performs on Thursday at the 20th annual International Blues Challenge (IBC), they hope to advance to the finals, of course, though they have an additional goal in mind: They simply want to spread the music's good will.
It's a personal challenge for SOBO leader Assaf Ganzman, whose act (short for South Bound Train) performs at the two clubs he co-owns in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, both called Mike's Place. Seven months ago, a suicide bombing killed several people at the Tel Aviv premises.
"We lost some good friends in that," says Ganzman, 34, talking from Jerusalem. SOBO beat out five other Israeli acts for the opportunity to compete in Memphis.
"That's one of the things that has turned this band around and made us try so hard to get to the IBC. Because we really have a message of freedom. And we're being sponsored by an organization called Blues for Peace. That's our thing. We really want to show people we're living the blues down here. Things are rough. The flip side of that coin is that we believe people can get along."
Produced by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, the IBC contest - in which unsigned acts vie for prestige and prizes - is the nonprofit organization's other signature event next to its W. C. Handy Blues Awards and is to amateur players what the Handys are to the professional side of the blues industry. Contestants all won blues society competitions before advancing to the IBC; more than 100 blues societies globally belong to umbrella organization the Blues Foundation.
Various Beale Street clubs will host the IBC with quarter-finals Thursday followed by semi-finals on Jan. 30 (both from 7 p.m.). Solo/duo finals will also be held on Jan. 30 at The Pig on Beale while band finals move to 8 p.m. and the New Daisy Theatre on Jan. 31 (a $10 wristband applies nightly to Thursday and Jan. 30 performances; the New Daisy finals are $15). Some $25,000 in prizes will be awarded to the winners from booking, publicity and Web site design help to recording time and CD production to beaucoup gigs, including a slot on the April 29 Handys.
With nearly 100 competing acts from Australia to the Republic of Georgia, this IBC is the biggest yet, says contest chair Betsie Brown, who calls it "the largest gathering of blues acts in the world" and expects more than 1,000 people to visit Memphis for the contest and its slate of related events (last year's contest drew 68 solo and ensemble acts). The IBC is also the central activity of BluesFirst, a weekend of panels, networking and jamming for registrants (go to http://www.blues.org or call 527-2583 for more info).
All those aspects add up to a must experience for Michael John, 42, leader of Southern California band contestant Michael John and The Bottom Line, winners of the Santa Barbara Blues Society contest.
"The International Blues Challenge is not only a competition but it's a great way to meet the top players from all over the world just to see what everybody is about - to have some camaraderie," he says. "It's the best of the best; all these guys had to earn a spot to come to Memphis."
Holding it in the music-steeped town is but the icing on the cake.
"It's got to be my favorite place in the world," adds John, who will visit the Bluff City for the second time. "The hospitality, the music, oh, man."
Looking back over 20 years, Blues Foundation director of administration Jay Sieleman says the IBC helps keep blues music alive at the grass-roots level, improving the quality of the playing along the way.
"In most places, it's the blues societies and blues clubs in an area that really keep the music going," he says. "This event, different from the Handys, is the main event for those societies, for the little "B" blues guys. It becomes the Super Bowl for blues societies and working-class blues fans. It's a big, big event for those folks."
Just ask Gina Leigh, 40, vocalist for last year's IBC band winner Delta Moon. Since winning, the Atlanta act has become a favorite on the blues festival circuit, quickly building a name for itself.
"There were all sorts of high-profile opportunities that we got as a result of the award," she says. "Some of them we were expecting and some of them just sort of broadsided us. I think the band would have been reasonably successful if not for the IBC award, but it took us well beyond the region. It definitely sped our development as a band."
Or ask Assaf Ganzman, who lived in New York and attended college in Nashville before moving back to his native Israel.
"It means a lot to us," he says of the IBC. "First of all, just to be in Memphis where the blues is from in part is an honor for us. And to go represent our country in such a high-profile competition is something we've always dreamed of doing . . . When I was living in Tennessee, the blues was not on my mind. It's funny, I had to come all the way to Israel to discover it."
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