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Blues For Peace

Johnny Mayer, blues guitar, blues harmonica

Oh Peace Blues, Take This Country

By Barry Davis

Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat might not know it but help is on way with the stuttering peace process. If Johnny Mayer has his wish, come next Friday at 3 p.m., all will be well in this part of the world. Mind you, with Barak's classical piano training and, no doubt, Arafat's preference for sounds of a more oriental flavor, the blues might not have been their first choice of musical accompaniment for their political efforts. But that's what Mayer has to offer.

Jerusalemite Mayer's contribution to solving the regional crisis is Blues for Peace, a three-hour event due to kick off at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine on December 1 at noon. "There are two aspects to Blues for Peace and what it could become," Mayer explains. "One is music - you know, let's just play." The other element has a historical-educational angle which Mayer is keen to highlight before and during next week's event.

"All that stuff about blues musicians migrating from the South, people like Son House and Muddy Waters, and the history of slavery. What was apparent to the early bluesmen of the modern era, like Alexis Korner, was that blues music was in a social framework," Mayer continues. "It was fantastic music but it also had a reference point in things that are not so obvious today, to people who are just discovering the blues music. That's civil rights, human rights, the black history of slavery. It's the same for Blues for Peace."

Simply put, Mayer feels that if we all devoted more energy to blues music things around here would be looking a lot rosier. "Isn't it time people stopped fighting and learned to play 12-bar shuffles instead?" he proffers.

The Blues for Peace (BFP) program covers a lot more than music although, as Mayer explains, that will be the core activity. There will be a house jazz band, comprising vocalist Yulia Feldman, keyboard player Yitzhak Yedid, bassist Assaf Hakimi and drummer Ronen Itzik, as a permanent feature on the stage, and any blues musicians who want to join them can do so.

"It'll be a sort of blues free-for-all," says Mayer. There will also be a photography exhibition and poetry readings, ncluding some by Mayer's daughter, Liat, who has had her work published. "Basically, anything goes. Anyone o wants to do something they feel can contribute to the cause is welcome to do so. They just need to turn up a couple of hours or so before the event starts so we can get a schedule worked out," Mayer adds.

The idea for BFP started three years ago when Mayer decided to set up a Web site about blues in Israel to disseminate the word about the blues and educate the masses about its history. "I set up the site which I thought I would use to put in information about blues clubs I like in Israel, a bit about the history of the beat movement, something about the peace process, that sort of thing," he says. So, the germ of the idea was there but Mayer felt it needed beefing up.

"Yeah, I had a message on the site: 'Blues for Peace was set up in Israel to honor the roots of blues music and promote peace.' But, I thought there must be something else to it. What's the real thing behind it? So I added: 'and the understanding that all peoples have had their share of the Blues.' That's the thing that made the site."

Given his religious Jewish background and his place of residence, it wasn't long before Mayer embellished his message with a little - albeit improvised - biblical wisdom, with apologies to Isaiah. "The next thing that came out off the top of my head was 'And they shall beat their swords into guitars.' It happened as a total accident. It wasn't planned."

Mayer is pulling out all the stops to get his message out there. He has produced BFP T-shirts for the occasion and has even written and recorded a Blues for Peace song in Hebrew based on his version of the verse from Isaiah which now runs: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war anymore. And they shall beat their swords into Guitars, and their spears into pruning hooks." "I think it's a good message," he declares. "I'd like to make a full CD of this kind of material some time."

Growing up in the US in the Sixties, Mayer was exposed to much of the civil rights movement and the protest against American involvement in Vietnam. Mayer was particularly inspired by one person who unwittingly sparked off a civil-rights action which snowballed right across the States.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, defied a local segregation ordinance in Montgomery, Alabama. She refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man and move to the back. The incident led to a wave of protest that ultimately led to the end of segregation laws in the south of the United States.

"Here was one person, Rosa Parks, who wasn't trying to make a political statement, or anything like that. She just didn't want to move to the back of the bus," Mayer says. "It just shows how one person, or one action, can make a big difference. The world can find something like that and do something with it. Maybe Blues for Peace can contribute something too."

So, December 1 also became BFP Day. "I was looking around for a date for the event. I thought I'd use BB King's birthday but then I thought there might be people who'd prefer to use Muddy Waters's birthday or Eric Clapton's birthday. Then I remember the Rosa Parks story and knew that was the date I wanted to use," Mayer explains.

MAYER WOULD also like next Friday's event to produce some positive public relations for Israel in these troubled times. "Due to the situation here, tourists in Israel right now are invited guests to the event, free of charge. All they need to do is bring some proof of the fact that they are tourists," he says.

Mayer hopes his initiative will encourage other cultural establishments to roll out the red carpet to vacationers in Israel. "It would be nice if this started a wave of other places which can afford to, to treat tourists as honored guests - to show our appreciation of the fact they are here. There aren't many of them here at the moment and it's a nice way to say thank you."

Meanwhile, the BFP Web site seems to be getting the job done. "I get so many letters [about the site] from people right around the world," Mayer says proudly. "This site is seen in Yemen and Iraq. Most visitors are from the US, Israel and Europe, but someone even sent me blues from Korea."

It is this universality which Mayer wants to leverage to create a more cohesive atmosphere in this part of the world. "People are always redefining and rediscovering their own identity. Just like Afro-Americans, and the Palestinians and other people in other areas of conflict around the world."

Mayer is confident that the blues can transcend all political differences anywhere, even in such a politically charged place as Israel. "You can bring people together who do not speak the same language. But they will all play the same blues songs in the same way and in the same key," he says, adding that there is a universal educational message to be had too.

"Teachers and youth groups and camps around the world can build on this to make a very creative program. BFP is about making the virtual reality of the Web site into an actual reality. The blues feels right."

November 26, 2000

© 2000, The Jerusalem Post - All rights reserved

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