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Sample Track 1:
"Schuna" from Somewhere is Here!
Sample Track 2:
"Horah-Alien" from Somewhere is Here!
Layer 2
Isra-Alien, Somewhere is Here! Dual Sonic Citizenship:
Isra-Alien Finds Global Resonance, Guitar Grace in Israeli Roots

High-energy Balkan beats and mid-century Israeli hits. Russian lyricism and flamenco flourishes. Nylon and steel.

With two guitars and a second-nature connection, Isra-Alien finds the deep ties that bind rock and jazz, Israeli music and global sounds. Powered by the masterful technique and close friendship of jazz guitarist Oren Neiman and rock guitarist Gilad Ben-Zvi, the duo’s acoustic music moves effortlessly from rootsy to refined on their second album, Somewhere is Here! (release: November 2, 2012). They find wry, Gitano-esque twists on blazing dances (“Horah Alien”) and turn klezmer songs into sensuous feats of guitar nimbleness, inspired by everything from Astor Piazzolla to the Greek bouzouki.

Meeting on a remote base during military service and then reuniting years later in New York, Ben-Zvi and Neiman found an unexpected common ground in music that grew from the complexities of their shared heritage. By finding new sounds and settings for old forms and melodies, they hint at the diverse facets of Israeli music.

“For us, it felt like a natural synthesis,” explains Gilad. “It was in music we grew up with. It was a really organic thing.”

Isra-Alien will celebrate their release with concerts in New York and Toronto in November 2012.

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Ben-Zvi and Neiman bonded over music in an unlikely place: an army base where they were both stationed during their required military service in Israel. The Toronto and Israel-raised Neiman came with a guitar, determined to practice every day to keep restlessness at bay. Ben-Zvi eventually heard about the musically inclined newcomer, and before long, they were playing together regularly.

“It was a way to face that situation, to find yourself channels or escape routes,” Ben-Zvi explains. “When you find someone on that same getaway, you have something to talk about. You’re deep in the same shit.”

“We basically started a group with a few other guys,” Neiman recalls. “There were official army ensembles, but we created an indie army band.” They played gigs until their commander put the kibosh on the project, but their friendship continued, even after they both moved to Tel-Aviv and became hard-working professional musicians.

“We both were each doing our own thing,” recounts Neiman. “I was doing stuff that was more jazz oriented, and the trio I led that played all over the place. Gilad was a sideman in all sorts of rock bands, and had his own rock project that was fairly active on the Israeli music scene.”

While Ben-Zvi made a name for himself in Tel-Aviv, Neiman decided he wanted to push beyond small local jazz circles. He headed to New York, studying with John Abercrombie and other respected jazz players and teachers, and composing pieces that brought together Jewish traditions with jazz swing. Ben-Zvi eventually ended up Stateside, too, and found himself isolated. He began writing a new kind of piece.

“New York can make you feel very alone. I used to wake up in middle of the night and write. Just write things, things I wouldn’t have written in Israel,” Ben-Zvi remembers. “Oren was only person I knew here. One day, he called me up and asked me, “Why aren’t we playing together, actually?’”

The old friends got together and began to noodle around, exploring their one common ground: the guitar. Though they jammed on jazz standards and tunes by Balkan favorites like Goran Bregovic at first, the duo soon took on Ben-Zvi’s and Neiman’s originals and fresh arrangements of based on old melodies, flashes of insight, and other Jewish and Israeli tunes, striving to expand their sonic palette to its fullest. As a name, they adopted Ben-Zvi’s tongue-in-cheek adjectival form of his nation of origin, “Isralien.” The joke stuck.

Humor and a penchant for improvisation and storytelling open up the duo’s instrumental pieces, engaging audiences live and echoing in the little unexpected moments—the exclamations and counts—that grace the album, giving it a light and human touch.

“We’re just really trying to bring in whatever sounds we can produce from our two wooden boxes and twelve strings,” Neiman laughs. “Whatever sound can be produced, as long as it’s appropriate and we try to extend that as much as possible.” On originals like “Schuna,” a shout out to their gang of Israeli émigré friends, Ben-Zvi hints slyly at his rock chops, bringing out the pick sound and adding percussive touches to a klezmer-inspired, triplet-rich melody.

The driving, almost flamenco vibe behind “Eshes Chayil” began when Neiman received a photocopied manuscript of a melody from a friend, whose grandfather had led a local band in Poland in the beginning of the last century. “There were no chords, nothing,” says Neiman. “That left me free to do whatever I wanted. I wrestled with it for a while. Then I came up with some interesting rhythmic thing, as I didn’t want to do something straight ahead or klezmer but I wanted the melody to remain really clear.”

Neiman eventually discovered the melody had its roots in early 20th-century American Yiddish theater, revealing the kind of give-and-take that Isra-Alien has uncovered at the roots of Israeli music. “When people talk about Israeli music, sometimes it feels like we are grappling with whether there is such a thing, and if there is such a thing, what are the ingredients that make it what it is. Through our dialogue, we’re exploring that.

“Israel is a diaspora country, just like U.S. Some of the elements in the music are obvious: klezmer and Middle Eastern sounds,” Ben-Zvi adds. “But you also have the harmony of Russia, and the playing style of the Mediterranean, and the time signatures of the Balkans. It’s not just about singing in Hebrew.”

<< release: 11/02/12 >>