Now playing in Jaffa, the yearning, hopeful music of New Jersey
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Now playing in Jaffa, the yearning, hopeful music of New Jersey

Originally from southern New Jersey, and inspired by Bruce, Bob et al, Ami Yares brings Israelis and Palestinians together under the banner of Americana rock

Ami Yares performing at Xoho Cafe in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Danielle Shitrit/Courtesy)
Ami Yares performing at Xoho Cafe in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Danielle Shitrit/Courtesy)

On Friday afternoons at the Dancing Camel brewery in Tel Aviv, golden hues of sunlight trickle in from the dusty windows behind the bar’s makeshift stage. The soft light adds to the glow behind the musicians performing in the venue’s weekly song series. There’s the low-key, spontaneous vibe of an open-mic night.

It’s the weekend. The mood is mellow and perfectly lazy.

Children chase each other around the bar and couples embrace over pints of pale ales and dark ambers. Although it’s located next to the Ayalon Highway it could be Nashville or New Orleans, with plenty of Neil Young and sultry-soft chords by fresh female vocalists and lots of guitar and wistful renditions of old folk ballads.

These Friday afternoons are largely the brainchild of Ami Yares, a musician/social organizer/educator/activist from southern New Jersey, now living in Jaffa.

Yares has started several social-minded music projects over the years. He used to play in “HOLLER!”– a bluegrass band with a Jersey soul that amassed a large following during its heyday in 2008 but is no longer formally together, save for occasional concerts. Recently, he also teamed up with Maya Johanna, who went on to become famous when she participated in the Israeli version of “The Voice.” And, together with an old college friend, Yoni Avital, he started the Shuk, a traveling music outfit that taught people about Judaism and Israel through songs.

Singer-songwriter Ami Yares (photo credit: Gidi Meir Morris/Courtesy)
Singer-songwriter Ami Yares (photo credit: Gidi Meir Morris/Courtesy)

What Yares, 33, is really good at is bringing people together. He’s an innovator and a capable social organizer. It’s hard to say that about someone for whom music is involved in every aspect of his life, but for Yares, it rings true. It’s not so much that he’s a singer-songwriter belting out his own rock tunes in Haifa and Jerusalem (which he is), or that he’s teaching Bedouin, Arab, Jewish, and at-risk kids about the social struggles of the American civil rights movement (which he does), but that he’s constantly attracting eager, new minds — people captivated by his projects.

Yares’s mission is simple and pure, almost naïve in a country rife with cynicism: It’s to bring Israelis and Palestinians together and to reach out to youth through the timeless tool of music — particularly the socially conscious verses and guitar riffs of the Americana folk and rock singers he grew up on. (Americana is a broad style of music that reflects the “American musical ethos” according to the Americana Music Association, and which combines folk, blues, rock, country, bluegrass, R&B, and other forms of roots music.) He’s here to bring people together via the very blues ballads and gospel traditions that created the “soundtrack of his life.”

When he talks about the musicians who inspired him, his eyes light up. “I grew up on these guys [Pete Seeger; Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Eddie Vedder, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others],” Yares said in a recent interview. “And in college, we started playing music again that didn’t have words. We’d hang out and pretend we were MMW [Medeski, Martin, and Wood] and John Scofield, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra – but then I heard Astral Weeks [by Irish-cum-American icon Van Morrison] and Nebraska [by Springsteen] in college when I was 20, and it was so inspirational,” Yares added. “That’s when I started writing music that had words again. It’s then that Americana music really started to fit me and who I was becoming.”

Jersey to Jaffa

Yares calls the community he’s part of (which he credits for creating a supportive environment that enables him to pursue his outreach-through-music projects) his “family of musicians.”

Two cornerstone members of the so-called “family” would be Lilach Bonanni (who currently runs the Dancing Camel sessions) and Gary Bonanni, also from Jersey, who together comprise the “Just Married” music duo, and who perform with Yares as the rock outfit “The Old Cities.”

Other core members of la familia would surely be his friends who run Café Xoho, a Tel Aviv vegetarian eatery and venue space that’s reminiscent of the artist-friendly cafés of the West Village of the 1970s.

So how is it that a Jewish boy from a traditional home in Jersey became Jaffa’s very own American folk music guru?

Even Yares, who’s been in Israel for eight years, didn’t plan this. He hadn’t intended to stick around for so long. He came to learn Hebrew, study oud (the Middle Eastern forerunner to the lute) and Arabic music, and compose some of his own stuff, but he quickly saw that he could do more. He felt Jaffa was the kind of place he could make his voice heard, where he could use his passion for music as a positive tool, and saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a critical place to impart positive ideas, especially for the younger generations. So he went back to his roots and reconnected with his musical forefathers — the music legends he once idolized, the ones that helped him create his own narrative.

Ami Yares at a retreat with the Israeli-Arab social music project, Heartbeat (photo credit: Alon Gelnik/Courtesy)
Ami Yares at a retreat with the Israeli-Palestinian social music project Heartbeat (photo credit: Courtesy Alon Gelnik)

For example, Yares was recently on tour in Berlin (as a guest of the US Embassy in Germany) for his flagship music education program, FocUS Music, through which he teaches youth about US history and its social struggles via American folk and popular music. (The program was started by a grant from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and was later taken on by the US Consulate in Jerusalem.)

As Yares put it, FocUS music bridges communities together in Israel through the study of American music. It encourages youth to learn about the American experience – from the struggle for women’s rights to the story of Martin Luther King — through the lens of music, creating a space for them to think critically about what’s happening in Israel.

“It’s an avenue for seeing how music influenced and changed American society, and to see how music can play a similar role here,” he added.

One of the many songs he teaches teenagers in Israel is Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”: It’s been a long / a long time comin’ / But, I know a change is gonna come / Oh, yes it will.

Cooke, a black musician from Mississippi, is better known by his nickname The King of Soul. He was an American musical pioneer, active in the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, before he was fatally shot at the age of 33.

Yares’s choice of Americana also tunes fits his mission and his message — especially when it comes to universal themes about oppression and redemption.

Old folk songs and Americana gave the US and the world countless hits, and yet, they weren’t mere love poems set to jingles. Indeed, the nascence of early Americana — and particularly the rise of soul and the blues — spawned some of the country’s first political songs. They weren’t love poems set to jingles. They were about the political system, in the tradition of old southern slave songs and spirituals. They preached a respect for humanity, and a desire to rise up against oppression. They were also about struggling with the fragile identity of a nation in chaos, beset by segregation and postwar emptiness. The songs were, in that sense, extremely political. And yet, they touched on ideas that extended far beyond the era’s contemporary politics. They transgressed divides and borders, and advocated equality and love in the face of obdurate hardship.

“It’s not just that American folk music is bittersweet and speaks about sadness and loss and yearning for freedom — but that it also has hope, and it’s open and proactive,” Yares said. “I think that’s what makes it so powerful and what makes it so resonant with people here, in this time period. It’s that idea of forward movement in the songs that makes them so powerful.”

At a moment when violence and distrust can easily fill newspaper headlines about Israelis and Palestinians, another project Yares works on — Heartbeat, an Israeli-Palestinian social music project that was started in Jerusalem by Aaron Shneyer in 2007, and which toured in the US last spring and fall — seeks to show its audience another side of the conflict: one that exists in harmony and in tune.

Heartbeat sings about tearing down walls, a reference to the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank, and breaking down stereotypes. Its members don’t just sing about shared values; the group embodies them. It comprises singers from all parts of Israel — Arabs and Jews — and unites them in a common purpose of making and performing music. Yares said they were trying to get more West Bank Palestinians involved in the project but that securing permits from the IDF was time-consuming and that Heartbeat still didn’t have enough manpower to handle it, but “Inshallah [God willing], one day we will.”

Meanwhile, however, Heartbeat continues to expand. Aside from the All-star group, which contains more of the group’s veteran musicians, new Heartbeat projects are starting in Jaffa and Jerusalem, and the group’s also gearing up for an encounter with German musicians.

Through his teachings and his songs, Yares brings a little slice of his Jersey home — that Springsteen ethos about the common people and other hymns that uplift the soul — to his new Israeli homeland. And, like his icons before him, his humble walk and soft-spoken manner seem to belie his devotion and relentless energy.

Fridays on the rooftop

Yares’s sprawling rooftop in Jaffa has housed many concerts and gatherings for activists and artists. Alicia Keys dropped by, for example, before her big show in Tel Aviv last summer to meet the members of Heartbeat.

Most notable, however, is his low-key Friday afternoon series. It’s best described as Jaffa’s version of a Parisian salon.

Ari Miller, a chef friend, used to import cheap Taybeh Beer from the Palestinian town of the same name and served up his popular soft-baked Philadelphia-style pretzels with fresh mustard. Under the sunset, before the calm of Shabbat and in between the muezzin’s calls to prayer, small crowds would flow in and out to hear a few songs, drink arak and grapefruit with nana (mint), or just soak up the refreshing breeze.

Performing at the Friday on the rooftop series at Ami Yares's Jaffa apartment. From right: Ami Yares, Avi Salloway, and Jason Reich (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Performing at the Friday on the rooftop series at Ami Yares’s Jaffa apartment. From right: Ami Yares, Avi Salloway, and Jason Reich (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

On those summer days, before the sun turned a shade of blood-orange behind the blue-domed mosque a block away, guests could really feel they were a part of something fresh, something inclusive. A lot his friends, including the leftist +972 Magazine clan, were often present, as were visiting yeshiva students he’d met along the way, or musician buddies, and of course his friends or parents of friends of friends from Camp Ramah or Rutgers University, his alma mater. And, if they had the guts, they too could get up to sing a song or two.

It’s through events like these that Yares, like the warm southern twang he pays homage to in his own music, personifies a folk artist. They’re quintessentially Yares: open and eclectic, socially conscious but not ostentatious, and political, but in a broad, universal sense.

He put his his style this way: “I think there needs to be more musicians writing about social issues and engaging on this basic level with people. And I also try to break that idea of musicians being people you see on stage, and teachers being people you see in school.” Of course it’s not that black and white in real life, he noted, “but I’d like to see that divide bridged. It can be in a classroom, a synagogue, or a bar… That’s not what matters to me.”

He explained that the work he does with youth is what inspires him; it’s what fuels his passion to write songs. Indeed, Yares regularly tours across Europe and the United States. Last summer, for example, he performed as part of the famed SXSW alternative rock concert in the indie-mecca of the world — Austin, Texas — through the Jewish activist ROI community.

Yares’s sound, like his story, traverses the spectrum of Americana folk music, and yet, it aptly fits to the path he’s set upon. His voice resembles that of an old-time crooner. You’ll hear acoustic guitar riffs a la Woody Guthrie in songs like “Queen of Zion.” In “Jerusalem,” you’ll hear echoes of an ancient Middle East and a testament to the painstaking conflict of our time.

As his road and mission widens, so does his repertoire. In his albums, you’re just as likely to hear the flare of an Irish bagpipe and the delicate sound of an oud as you are to notice a harmonica and a fiddle. Yares is no longer a bluegrass devotee bringing Americana twang to Israel like he was when he was in HOLLER!.

Sure, he’s bringing a bit of Jersey to his new Israeli self. And like his Jersey Boss, his soundtrack has stayed true to the simple, eternal values of his folk music roots. His message is evolving — it’s a different tune for a generation at a newer time — but his goal of bringing people together through music remains the same: It’s to overcome, and it’s from and for the people.

Ami Yares often performs solo or with his brother Gavri Tov Yares in the family roots duo, The Brothers Yares, around Israel and the US. For more information about upcoming social-music events, visit www.amiyares.com

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