From Mike's Place to Memphis
By Daniel Ben-Tal
It's Friday night at Mike's Place, and the club is rocking. On the cramped
stage, SOBO's lead singer, Assaf
Ganzman, effortlessly breaks into a familiar bass lick, to pounding rhythms
from Eli Grundman's rudimentary drum kit. Daniel Kriman's whining slide
guitar and harmonica soar above, soaking the smoky room in good vibes.
By the end of its raunchy rendition of the Doors's "Roadhouse Blues,"
the audience of young Tel Avivans is on its feet. SOBO is about to leave
for Memphis, Tennessee, where it will represent Israel in the International
Blues Challenge January 29-31, competing with 95 bands from English speaking
countries for $25,000 in cash and prizes, and the title of "Best Unsigned
The annual battle of the bands is organized by The Blues Foundation
(www.blues.org), the Memphis-based umbrella organization for the worldwide
resurgence in blues music with thousands of members in 24 countries. SOBO's
trip will be sponsored by a body called Blues for Peace, which has been
recognized by UNESCO for "promoting the culture of peace."
Ganzman hopes the trip will open doors for the largely overlooked trio.
"We'll send a message of freedom and peace, and hopefully get some gigs
in Europe or the US. Maybe a booking agent will notice us. It'll be a chance
to show that Israel is not just about terrorist bombs."
For eight years, the Jerusalem-based trio has been playing the blues
at both the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem bars, both of which are operated by
Ganzman and his brother Gal. Last June, a suicide bomber detonated himself
at the entrance to the Tel Aviv premises, killing two patrons and a waitress.
The bar was reopened within days, and continues to attract plenty of support
patronage. "I'm not going to advertise what happened. We don't want sympathy,"
says Ganzman. "Mike's Place is still kicking. You can't kill our spirit.
Violence is not the answer, the bombing didn't change us - it just made
us more determined to get our message out there."
This will be SOBO's second foray into the overseas blues circuit. In
the summer of 2002, it was voted best band in the Neva Delta International Blues
Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. It played three wildly successful shows
and sold 500 copies of its Southbound Train CD.
"It was cool - we were treated like big stars," recalls Kriman, who
was born and raised in the city. He began guitar lessons at 12, having
already studied piano and trumpet. "I started playing slide as soon as
I learned to play the guitar - no one ever taught me. I always loved this
music. I think I was involved in the blues in my previous life."
Under perestroika, the former Soviet Union was flooded with Western
music, and Kriman accumulated every Howling Wolf record available. As a
student, he played in a rock band called Cosa Nostra and appeared in rock
festivals in St. Petersburg, Tallinn, and Moscow, but his heart lay elsewhere.
"One of the reasons I left Russia was because I had no one toplay the
blues with. I had to get out!", Kriman immigrated to Israel in the winter
of 1992, and soon joined the growing band of immigrant musicians on the
capital's BenYehuda pedestrian mall - until the day in 1995 when he wandered
into the recently opened Jerusalem Mike's Place and met Assaf "Sammy"
The two have been close friends since, both onstage and off. "Daniel
and I grew up in different places, both listening to rock and roll," notes
Ganzman. Haifa born Ganzman moved to New York with his family in 1972,
at age three. He started to play guitar at nine and went into the studio
when he was 12.
In 1985, the Ganzman family relocated to Jerusalem, where Assaf joined
a local teenage band called China Black. After his military service, he
put together another rock band, Noah's Ark, that regularly gigged at Jerusalem's
Underground club. He then spent three years in Nashville and Darien, Connecticut,
before returning to Jerusalem at 25.
Ganzman and Kriman used a series of drummers before linking with Eli
"Fish" Grundman three years ago. A solid, reliable percussionist, Grundman
was raised in New York where he worked as a studio musician and on several
Together, they have penned some two dozen songs, including seven of
the 10 tracks on their debut CD recorded in 1998. Over the past eight years,
SOBO (short for Southbound Train, their original name) has performed hundreds
of times in small venues throughout the country.
"We're not pretentious. Jazz is kind of pretentious. Ours is a laid-back
show," says Ganzman, who wears faded blue jeans and open-necked shirt on
stage. Though widely acknowledged as the foundations of contemporary Western
popular music, the blues represents a tiny segment of the vast entertainment
industry. In Israel, the market is infinitesimal.
"We're not in it for the money," says Kriman, a father of three who
also holds down a daytime job as Internet website graphics designer. "We
never aimed to be a hit band - do you see John Mayall on the charts? I
have no delusions."
January 26, 2004
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