Can it be played in a club? It’s this one simple question that Ariel – one of several minds behind Tel-Aviv reissue label Fortuna Records – asks himself before putting any record out. "It could be new or from forty years ago” he says with a distinct certainty, “as long as there’s a beat and the groove is relentless, that’s what we look for.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is regular dancefloor heat, however. As far as Ariel is concerned, the more offbeat the track is, the better. A quick glance at Fortuna’s Boiler Room session from a couple of years back gets this point across perfectly: we’re talking completely out there, groove-heavy, psychedelic tracks from across the Middle East that are, at times, curiously danceable. And the tempo really isn’t all that important – the slower burning jams they throw into the mix have an element or two of beard-stroking brilliance about them.
Though flipping the script on the dancefloor is one thing, the attention Fortuna has gained in recent years is mostly built on an appreciation for the outright obscure. These previously overlooked Middle Eastern productions have been attracting people from all corners of the globe – Ariel and his crew have travelled as far as South Africa to showcase their mysterious records, and the reception is often surprising.
"People go mental for that type of sound" he confirms, "it was mind blowing in Cape Town and Johannesburg, but the most special one was definitely our trip to Greece – the immediate connection we had with the crowd there was amazing.”
Put simply, this unique relationship was no accident. Greek-rooted music features fairly heavily across the Fortuna catalogue – no doubt a contributing factor to this successful trip. The deep, powerful voice of Nino Nikolaidis, Mediterranean psych wizard Levitros and, more recently, the vastly influential Aris San – all three have had their music reissued and brought to the fore by the label.
As a result, Fortuna’s popularity in Athens and across the country is growing. As Ariel recalls, “we played Greek music to a Greek crowd, recorded right here in Israel, sometimes sung in Greek, sometimes in Hebrew, other times in a mixture of the two.”
Oddly enough, following the success of Fortuna favourite Aris San – whose tracks were rereleased by the label earlier this year – it became trendy to produce Greek music in Israel during the seventies. San’s infectious grooves swept the nation and a generation of producers began imitating his sound. However, not all the musicians who dug his style were fluent in Greek – many chose to sing in an bizarre blend of Hebrew and Greek.
Though it might sound strange for a crowd to have their native language reimagined and played back to them, Ariel found further bonds between the two nations. “There’s such a similarity between the sounds of these two countries, even if the language is, at times, not very accurate” he jokes.
This kind of cross-cultural music is exactly what makes Fortuna Records tick. While he cut his teeth reissuing the more hard-edged side of eighties dancehall records from Jamaica on his first label – Spring Hill Records – Ariel eventually heard a record that changed everything. After a friend working in record store nearby rang him up about an obscure private press single that had just been sold in, Ariel went straight to investigate.
“He played me that forty-five, ‘Soul Of The East’ by Tsvia Abarbanel, and of course it totally blew my mind” he recalls, “it isn’t just folk music, it’s some kind of weird hybrid between east and west – yemenite with jazz and funk. It felt like something that anyone from anywhere would be interested in.”
That one, earth-shattering record effectively shaped an entirely new project. Along with his close friends Zack, Yaov and Maor, the group tracked Tsvia down and, in no time at all, were speaking to her on the phone about the music she made decades ago. “It was as if she had been waiting for this call for forty years” Ariel remembers, “she gave us the original tapes and the ball was already rolling.”
After reissuing her work – which got picked up on by renowned record shops like Phonica and Rush Hour – the group began scouring Israel for rare records with that essential blend of sounds: a merging of folk styles from all over the area with more western instrumentation – referred to by Ariel as “all the impossible combinations.”
No one release sums up these cultural border crossings quite like The Jazz Workshop’s ‘Mezare Israel Yekabtzenu,’ a record deeply involved in two separate ideas – American jazz traditions heightened with the spine-chilling scales of Middle Eastern music. First recorded in 1973 and notoriously hard to find, Fortuna reissued the relatively unknown milestone in Israeli music and brought the record to a wider audience.
“It was the first instrumental jazz album ever recorded in Israel” he says, “and this group were pretty much the only jazz musicians in the country at the time. Albert Piamenta, the bandleader, had a traditional upbringing whereas the drummer, Jerry Grabel, was a student of Max Roach who’d emigrated to Israel from New York. At that point he’d played with (Theolonius) Monk, Sun Ra and all those guys.”
Although there was no jazz scene to speak of in Israel at the time, the group found themselves in a very interesting situation culturally, and the music is a very clear reflection of that. More literally, “the record was recorded in a place where the eastern world meets the west” – the ideal setting for a deeply spiritual jazz recording.
The quality of the record is nothing short of stunning – and make no mistake, the superlative is applicable to basically all of Fortuna’s music. But there’s an extra ingredient – a clear-cut weirdness that’s present in every release – clear confirmation that Ariel and the group consider each with painstaking precision.
Listen to any track on Grazia’s self titled album – a record oozing with an other-worldly magnetism – to be transported to a dimly lit tavern in rural Israel during the late seventies. Though folk music dominated these popular night spots, this isn’t straightforward music by any stretch of the imagination. “It was the disco time” Ariel reminds me – the all-consuming musical movement which, of course, even found its way into these clubs.
“People must have found it too strange” he says, dwelling on the lack of acclaim Grazia received at the time. It’s easy to imagine the futuristic, disco-driven synths on Grazia’s tracks bouncing wildly off the walls of a traditional looking tavern, while a crowd expecting conventional folk music, sway from side to side in complete confusion. “Sometimes it takes thirty or forty years to appreciate something properly,” Ariel concludes.
In a nutshell, expect the unexpected. More recently, the Fortuna crew have broken with the reissue formula and moved towards new pastures with Ariel’s own ‘Al Shark’ release – a slice of Middle Eastern-tinged techno produced on purely analog equipment. The propulsive kick drum bangs, darkened reverb scatters above the mix – this heads down dancefloor beat is, by all accounts, devastatingly effective.
Yet this is unmistakably a Fortuna release. The samples that Ariel – under his Kalbata alias – selects, allude to previous label releases perfectly, and these two tracks could just have easily been dug out from a dusty eighties tape found deep in the basement of a Tel-Aviv studio. Although new, the cohesion of the catalogue is always the first thought.
Asked about what’s up next for the label, Ariel’s excitement is evident. “It’s this heavily percussive, Mooged-out, freaky instrumental record from Lebanon in the seventies” he reveals, “considering there are no formal relations between Israel and Lebanon politically, this is something we’re very proud of.” “How freaky?” I ask. “Oh, definitely one of the freakiest records we’ve put out.”
Check Fortuna's SoundCloud out HERE.