“We’re fighting to bring the blues from Israel to the world,” says Ori Naftaly, the 25-year-old leader of the only Israeli group to advance to the semifinals of the International Blues Challenge. Ori and his band, Eleanor Tsaig (vocals), Eren Szendri (bass), and Yam Regev (drums), have been busy since the IBC in February and are currently back in the U.S. touring through parts of the Midwest and South. It has been a busy five months, and American Blues Scene sat down with The Ori Naftaly Band before their gig at Uncle Bo’s Blues Bar in Topeka to catch up.
American Blues Scene: When did the Ori Naftaly Band come together?
Ori: Three years ago I started trying to find musicians for my own project. I called a bunch of musicians I knew, thats how I found Eran. He is the first bass player I tried, and I fell in love with his bass playing. He is the best in Israel. Yam, we were friends for awhile. We played blues together in his basement. I got him to be on the record. Eleanor is an amazing singer and has her own material. She started singing the blues only like 3 years ago. From there we started getting invitations to play more clubs in Israel. There was a nice buzz after our first album in Israel. We have a keyboard player in Israel, Niv Hovav. and we have one in Holland. We have lady harmonica player, Ofir Ventura. So we’re playing together for 2.5 years in this combination.
Growing up a kid in Israel, how were you exposed to American music like blues?
Ori: How many states are there in USA, 51?
Ori: We’re the 51st. We’re American 100%. The music, TV, radio, the hits, the pop music, and the commercials.
Eleanor: We’re American consumers.
Ori: It’s not like Russia, it’s really very easy to get American culture. My father had a big CD collection for blues and rock, 60s, jazz – a lot of jazz and fusion, Miles Davis. I grew up with a lot of styles of music but blues was always something that reached deep down in my heart. Eleanor and I know each other since we were or 11 or 12, from 7th grade. We listened to Led Zeppelin together and Jimi Hendrix, you name it. Eran has kind of the same story. His dad is a great bass player in Israel. He grew up with the blues, too. Yam – when did you start?
Yam: I think the first beat I learned in drums was the beat of the blues, 6/8 [time signature]. Like Ori said before, we played a lot of blues in my basement. I think that was my start in the blues.
You were listening to Led Zeppelin – did you look at who inspired them?
Ori: When I finished high school, I didn’t draft to the army. I went straight to Rimon Music Academy. They work with Berklee, so it’s kind of the Israeli branch. I did a year there. While I studied there, I learned a lot about jazz and progressions, chords and notes. I felt I don’t really play what I liked, so I started listening to everything that has to do with what my idols listened to. If I listened to Led Zeppelin when I was 6 and 7 (I started playing when I was 5), by 13, 14 I listened to Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. When I was 19, 20 at Rimon, I listen to Robert Johnson, [Mississippi] Freddie McDowell. I listened to all of them. Now when I’m 25, I kind of find myself listening to new artists because I’m in the business now. I really enjoy that.
It’s like an archeological project.
Ori: Yeah, I did that! I have more than 200 hours of just listening to Delta Blues and all these guys. Try to take the licks. I did it for many hours. It’s a lot harder than what I thought. Learning notes took me a month, but to understand Robert Johnson takes a lot of time.
When you’re in Mississippi, are you going to visit his three gravesites?
Ori: Three gravesites!
Eleanor: We’re going to go to the crossroads for sure in Clarksdale.
I want to hear about your influences. Ori said you just started singing blues in the last few years. What were you doing before that, and when did you discover you had this voice?
Eleanor: I started playing music on the cello; I played classical music for 12 years. During that time I discovered it’s not the right thing for me, but I continued with my final exams when I was 18. During that time I taught myself to play piano and guitar and started playing rock and folks songs. When I started playing guitar and piano and singing along to songs that I love, I realized that I can sing. I started singing rock. When I was in 7th grade, we already had shows in school and we played “Father and Son” together, you and me, Cat Stevens, remember, Ori? That’s probably the first song we performed together when we were 12. I developed my singing along the years, then I started writing my own songs. We started this project and I just came along to sing. In the beginning, I didn’t analyze, am I singing blues? Am I singing rock? I grew up on Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix; I listened to Led Zeppelin with him. I heard Koko Taylor. I knew Big Mama Thornton. I just never analyzed blues too much. I never thought about it as something I could sing. I just went with the flow, After the first album, I think something changed. On that, I did “Almost Cut My Hair” which is blues rock. I do “A True Friend is Hard to Find,” which is “Grinning in Your Face,” by Son House – that’s blues. After that CD something definitely changed with my approach, and I just found I so connected with the whole thing. I feel that my voice has transformed a lot.
Who do you look to as far as female artists as influences?
Eleanor: There are a lot – Koko Taylor, Etta James, Janis Joplin, Big Mama Thornton. Because I’ve been into rock for so many years, I also grew to love Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell. Robert Plant is a huge influence. It’s like a mixture of all of them together.
You all have day jobs, to? What do you do in your other life?
Eleanor: I’m a marketing department manager of a financial websites that provide mainly news and service that helps people find a broker for their online trading. I do the whole logistics and operational side of the company.
You do this touring on top of that?
Eleanor: I’m working from the road. My boss is an angel with wings.
Yam, what do you do in your other life?
Yam: I have another band in Israel. It’s a roots Reggae band. I’m a singer and guitar player in this band. I have an album in Hebrew, 10 original songs. Now I’m focused on this [the Ori Naftaly] band.
So there is reggae in Israel. Are there are other reggae bands?
Yam: Yes, there are a couple of bands, some very good, but it’s not a big thing in Israel.
We haven’t talked with Eran yet. What do you do in for your day job?
Eran: First of all, I am a professional musician, and I have a small business as a sound man. I have a day job, also…how do you say it?
Ori: He climbs buildings and fixes things – by rope!
Eleanor: He hangs by a rope off a building.
And you’re the only one who’s married? You have one child on the way.
Eran: And one already – one year.
You’re going to be busy. Do you not like to sleep?
Eran: I sleep here.
Ori: I give him the sleep he needs. I’m the break he needs.
You’re the only musician who goes on tour to get some sleep. Ori, you were telling me last night everything you’ve done since IBC. First, tell me how you got to IBC.
Ori: I told the band that our first goal is to tour Europe; that’s my target. I built a website; I started marketing, promoting, designing. Everything’s in English and international. My goal was to come to Europe and specifically Holland; to be the first Israeli band to book shows and make a tour. We released the album in January of 2012, so in September I finally had enough invitations to make a 3-week tour in Holland. I was extremely happy that I succeeded in booking those clubs; it was very hard, time consuming, and not easy for a bluesman, but I did it. We didn’t have a resume. Eran didn’t come with us; we played with a local bass player. That was a great moment for us, because we accomplished something that no one has ever done, and we did it a lot faster than expected.
How did you hear about the IBC?
Ori: When I started the band, and we recorded the album, there was a blues competition in Israel for IBC which I heard about from the Israeli Blues Society. I thought, for me to get to Memphis is my childhood dream. But we weren’t ready for it yet. We came back from the Holland tour really broke.
When you tour, you’re supposed to earn money.
Ori: When you’re from Israel, you don’t earn money because of the flight tickets. There’s a lot more expenses than every other band from Europe or the States. Tickets from Europe to the US are a lot cheaper than from Israel because of security problems. We don’t take the normal routes. But we came back from Holland feeling amazing. After a month we felt amazing, so we just went for it knowing that we deserved to win. We took first place out of ten bands. In Israel there’s maybe two or three other bands in blues who take themselves seriously. We’re like the young cats that make them worried.
Eleanor: We’re the first ones to go on tour; we’re the first ones that made these decisions about aiming for international. A blues band in Israel has never aimed for international. The only Israeli blues guy is Guy King who’s lived in Chicago for 8 years.
Ori: We didn’t move to anywhere; we booked from Israel. So we won the competition and realized the Israeli Blues Society does not support us in any way. That means we can do whatever we want; we need the money. We needed $15,000 to come and break even. I knew deep down in my heart that this is the time to do it, and there is no other time. I am a very spiritual person and a very positive person, but I do believe we have to grab the moment and not wait for whatever. We made an Indie GoGo campaign and raised $4000 from fans all around the world. That gave us the first push, and families, friends – I had a birthday so we had a party. My parents tried to raise more than we sold. We did four fundraiser shows on our own – producing them, booking them, promoting them. I barely slept. We raised about $9000. For the rest, I took a loan and everyone grabbed from their own. I told everyone, “I’m getting you there.” My father helped a lot. When we got there, it was already feeling that we won. We had to go through so many things. We didn’t get support from the blues society – we were on our own.
Eleanor: We contacted all the agencies we could think of in America, Jewish agencies, musical organizations.
Ori: None of them replied. But when we got, there we felt so blessed. I bought a flight from Holland for Willem van der Schoof. He played keys on our tour. I knew he was the right guy, best keyboard player in Holland. We invested a lot. When we got to the IBC, we played the International Showcase, and we felt not any other band has gone through so many things to be in that spot. I don’t know.
Eleanor: We don’t know.
Ori: Of course I respect everyone, but we really appreciated that moment. Every show we had on Beale Street we felt divine. We felt this was something that was meant to be, and we were doing our best.
What venue were you in?
Ori: BB King’s and then Club 152 for semi-finals. Crazy ride.
Eleanor: I think selling the largest amount of CDs was just as great [as winning IBC]. We were like the people’s choice, and that was even a bigger compliment. It’s one thing when we pass onto the semi-finals, out of 200 bands from all over the world, that is a huge honor. We were so happy to be in the semi-finals, but we didn’t care if we went to the finals. We just unloaded at Club 152. We had so much fun.
Before you went to Memphis, had you ever seen a live blues performance? Do they come to Israel?
Ori: Yeah, to Haifa.
Eleanor: But it’s not the same audience, and it’s not the same feel.
Ori: I’ve seen more than 200 jazz shows. Jazz musicians from all the world come to Israel to play. Blues is kind of a niche. Johnny Winter was in Israel a week ago, so things are going good with the blues nowadays. More producers bring bands to Israel, and we’re fighting to bring the blues from Israel to the world.
So now you’re back and touring around. You’re going to Clarksdale and the crossroads. You haven’t been to Mississippi or the Delta before. Do you have in your mind an image as to what that might feel like to be there?
Ori: When we were in Memphis on Beale Street and then in Chicago in those blues clubs, I felt the blues and the connection. It’s more the musicians playing the blues in a place then being in the place. Going and seeing a blues band playing, that’s more emotional for me than seeing maybe where Robert Johnson was or the old hotel where those people were.
Eleanor: When we came to Memphis we felt like we were home. Everyone made us so welcome.
Ori: When we came back to Israel, we knew we needed to get a new product out. A CD of original songs that we wrote for IBC and a few others. We knew that we’re not a cover band. When we play covers, we always change them. In March and April we recorded the album.
Your new album is called?
Ori: Happy for Good
That is a very positive title. You tend to have a positive approach.
Eleanor: Happy blues!
Ori: Life is good and everything happens for a reason, good and bad. We’ve been through a lot, each one of us.
And as citizens of Israel you have certain stressors.
Eleanor: Yes. You have to suppress it in order to feel like you’re leading a normal life. People in Chicago were talking about the violence going on down south in the same way, kind of like, “It’s over there; we know it, but let’s focus on ourselves and our lives and just do what we want to do.” That’s a bit like our approach in Israel. Of course we feel very connected. A few months ago there were bombings in the southern area of Israel. We went down south to play on the radio and cheer up the soldiers and all the people at the shelters. We wrote a song on our new album during that trip called “I Feel Fine.” We have to focus on what we want to achieve and want our lives to lead to in order to live a normal life.
Ori: We don’t try to be something we’re not, singing about cotton fields or train stations. We write about feelings.
Taxi Driver – my favorite song.
Ori: It’s about the fact that she’s forgetting stuff.
Is that autobiographical?
Eleanor: It is. Everything is really. It’s our stories as a band for the past year.
Ori: This is the real debut album of The Ori Naftaly Band as we did the arrangements together. Eran and Yam did a lot to influence how this album sounds.
The rhythm section is the backbone of the band and you can tell how these two [Yam and Eran] work so well together.
Ori: You have to think, is this composing or arranging?
Eleanor: The line is really thin. We don’t define them all the time ‘cause we’re a group. In some of the songs we wrote that we composed them all together.
Are you going to submit this for a Blues Music Award?
Eleanor: We already did it. I’m taking care of that.
You guys are real organized. Ori, what’s your day job?
Ori: I have four jobs. I’m a guitar teacher. I work for my dad’s construction company doing the internet marketing, running the website. I also work as a computer technician for a computer laboratory. This is why we’re very independent, ‘cause Eleanor knows a lot about marketing, and I know more of the technical stuff.