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Interview: Zvuloon Dub System

Interview: Zvuloon Dub System

Interview: Zvuloon Dub System

By on - Photos by Noam Chojnowski - 4 comments

"Jimi Hendrix made dub before King Tubby and Scratch Perry"


Zvuloon Dub System are a band based in Tel Aviv with a passion for all-analogue seventies style roots reggae. But their second album Anbessa Dub attempts something else - merging it with the near-parallel “golden age” of Ethiopian music. Angus Taylor linked with drummer Asaf Smilan and Ethiopian-born singer Gilli Yalo on the road in Washington, D.C. and L.A. to discuss their unique merging of Jamaican, Ethiopian and Israeli culture.

Zvuloon Dub system

The group’s debut US tour is in full swing when we speak to Asaf, their co-founder, producer and engineer. They’re building towards an appearance at the prestigious Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in California before taking it up another level with a set at Reggae Sumfest in Jamaica.

“It’s pretty exciting” says the shaven-headed, mahogany-bearded Asaf. “We’ve been received here pretty well. Yesterday we played here in Washington DC in Tropicalia – really fun, a lot of people, great vibes. Before that we played in Woodstock and Northampton. On Sunday we’re going to play in New York City at SOB’s. So it’s quite amazing for us - this unknown band from Israel coming to the USA for the first time.”

Part of the reason for their warm welcome is the distinctive Ethio-reggae fusion of Anbessa Dub. While cultural reggae artists singing about Ethiopia are nothing new, cosmopolitan, music-hungry Americans are unlikely to find Zvuloon’s cascading Addis nightclub horns and swinging one-drop rhythms with Amharic and Tigrinya lyrics elsewhere. “Yes,” Asaf agrees “I believe this special mixture has opened many doors and brought us to this amazing tour that is going to end on July 17th in Montego Bay.”

When the door to reggae first opened for Smilan, a 15 year old jazz freak in Tel Aviv, he didn’t want to go inside. “I originally heard reggae on MTV when Bob Marley Iron Lion Zion came out” he recalls, referring to the plastic-sounding 1992 remix – the rootsy original not being deemed current enough at the time. “And to tell you the truth I said “If this is reggae music I don’t really like it! I still don’t like this production too much. For the next five years I was under the belief that I didn’t like reggae. I was deep in jazz and hard bop. When I was about 20 I started to discover more musical styles and listen to King Tubby, August Pablo, Prince Far I. Then came Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and the older Marley stuff which I really liked. I discovered the real roots of reggae and fell in love.”

I discovered the real roots of reggae and fell in love

Of course, if you consider that Horace Silver’s Song For My Father was covered by Roland Alphonso, the roots of reggae were already in the hard bop Asaf was listening to. Asaf concurs and expands on the theme. “Besides reggae and jazz I really like funk, Afro-Caribbean and African music from Afrobeat to traditional north eastern. I think what’s common to those genres is they all came from Africa, no? Each place people from Africa came to, they met some other influences and different genres were created. But the basic groove is there and it’s all the same to me.”

Asaf and his guitarist brother Ilan formed Zvuloon Dub System in 2006. “We really liked reggae and in Tel Aviv there was no band that played it really. We thought if we could play in other people’s bands – why not form our own? Back then we were five people playing instrumental dub. A horn section, guitar, bass and drums. After that we added a vocalist and a keyboard player and expanded a bit.”

By 2008 Asaf wanted to record them on his own productions featuring veteran Jamaican artists. They started with the deejay Ranking Joe who they voiced while he was in Israel – but the collective were unhappy with their playing and the resulting tune, Nah Give Up, was shelved. Four years later it would see the light of day over a reworked backing for their first album Freedom Time. Another cut became the B side to their 12” Weed Out with the singer Cornel Campbell. This year they achieved their third Jamaican collaboration Love Is Stronger, sound-tracking the harmony trio the Viceroys.

“I grew up with these artists as my idols” Asaf enthuses “To have your own productions and mixes with those big artists - I feel very blessed to have the opportunity. We’re really looking forward to going to Jamaica to meet all the people in person because apart from Ranking Joe, Cornell and the Viceroys were recorded remotely. I think being with them in the studio it will be very different.”

Asaf lists his reggae drumming heroes as Sly Dunbar, Santa Davis, Horsemouth Wallace and Carlton Barrett, alongside jazz legends Art Blakey and Tony Williams plus Fela Kuti’s sticks-man Tony Allen. “About a year ago I was recording a song for British producer Felix Dub Caravan where half the album has Sly playing drums. It’s really nice to be named in the credits next to Sly Dunbar.”

His production and engineering inspirations are: “Definitely King Tubby and Lee Perry. I think King Tubby was the dub greatest engineer. His work with Yabby You is so amazing. When the Jesus Dread compilation came out for two years I was listening to the whole album. I taught myself how to mix dub - watching the video from [Howard Johnson’s] Deeper Roots where you see Jammy mixing at King Tubby’s studio 1,000 times to understand how it worked and how to build our own studio! We work with analogue tape machines and vintage microphones because we are trying to create the sound we like to hear. This is why all our albums come out on vinyl as well as CDs and digital files. It’s really important to continue the heritage of reggae music so it can be played on sound systems. We have taken the reggae and mixed it with Ethiopian music but we are still a reggae band and another link in this big chain.”

Zvuloon Dub System have stayed true to Asaf’s teenage purism for organic live instrumentation. So it’s ironic that his introduction to Ethiopia came through modern technology. “Maybe 12 years ago when fast internet and the file sharing culture became popular in Israel I would use software like Soulseek to go on virtual tours around the world. I’d type the name of a country that interested me. One day I wrote “Ethiopia” and started downloading music without knowing what I was going to hear. What I liked I kept and what I didn’t like I deleted. Then I found the Ethiopiques series. One of the singers that I really liked was Mahmoud Ahmed who has a guest appearance on our album”.

Vocalist Gilli’s exposure to music was very different. In 1984 his Jewish family left Gondar, North Ethiopia and crossed the desert on foot in search of a new home in Israel. “In the 80s there were rumours in Ethiopia that there was a land called Israel and the city of Jerusalem still existed” he recalls, “They thought for 2000 years there was no Jerusalem. Back then the Ethiopian people dreamed that Jerusalem is a milk and honey city.”

His father had a dream that he was climbing some cliffs and saw leaves glistening with dew. “The rabbi for the Ethiopian community told him “You should try to go to Jerusalem - this is the translation of your dream”. So we walked through the desert for two months until we got into Sudan. We stayed in a refugee camp called Al Qardarif for a month and then the Israeli air force landed one night. I just remember the lights. We went up on a Hercules plane and that’s how my family got to Israel.” During the trek, four year old Gilli sang on his father’s shoulders. “The people told him “This boy is going to be a singer”.”

Unsurprisingly it was Bob Marley who introduced Gilli to reggae. “When I was eight or nine I joined a choir singing Hebrew songs. I heard the song One Love and thought “OK I want to be like him”. His voice and this rhythm got into me and I decided I should try to learn this song. I didn’t know what the words meant exactly. I think this was my first exposure to reggae music and the English language.”

I heard Bob Marley and thought “OK I want to be like him”

Despite the connection between Ethiopia and reggae through Marley’s faith in the divinity of Haile Selassie, Gilli didn’t listen to the sounds of his birthplace. “I came to Israel and I really wanted to be an Israeli. So I told my mother “I don’t want to hear Amharic music or Ethiopian music.” Ethiopian music wasn’t fashionable – I just heard it back at home so I didn’t listen to it. I wanted to hear Israeli and English music.”

Yet the resistance would not last. While Asaf was downloading and devouring Ethiopian rhythms in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, Gilli slowly began to rediscover his heritage. “When I was 25 I started to ask myself a lot of questions about my roots, who I am and where I come from. I started to talk Amharic with my parents. I told them I didn’t want to talk Hebrew any more – because I wanted to learn the language. It was still inside but you think you don’t know it. As soon as you start to talk with your parents you remember - because until 4 years old I only spoke it.”

And so the stage was set for Gilli to join Zvuloon Dub System, who in 2010, were looking for a frontman. “Our first lead singer, Tomer Harrary, got married, had kids and had less time for music” says Asaf. “We started to search for a new singer but we were in Israel not Jamaica so not everybody could sing reggae and sound good! It took us months until we found Gilli. One of my friends said “I know you are looking for a singer and I think I may have someone for you”. I took Gilli’s number, called him and asked if he could audition by sending one of our rhythms as a demo. Gilli told me “I’m not so strong on computers so I’ll come to your place and show you what I can do”. I didn’t really believe I was going to find anyone because I had been looking for such a long time. But when he took a guitar and sang Redemption Song by Bob Marley I said “All right – you are in!””

Zvuloon Dub system

Having an Ethiopian friend with whom he could share his burgeoning love for the country’s musicians was a fresh experience for Asaf. “Because the situation is not everybody likes the Ethiopians in Israel. Not everybody knows them because they live in their own neighbourhoods and hadn’t yet become part of mainstream Israeli society. Growing up in Tel Aviv I never met an Ethiopian person until I was about 20. Maybe if you went to the shopping mall and you saw the security guy you might see someone but you wouldn’t know him personally. In my school there were no Ethiopian children.”

On the group’s initial full-length project, Freedom Time, they stuck to traditional roots reggae with English lyrics. However, Gilli’s Judaism gives reggae themes of Moses, Zion and the promised land an added dimension. Is he singing about a physical or a metaphorical place?

“I think it is a state of mind” says Gilli after some deliberation “I really love Jerusalem and grew up there with all my friends. But when I sing about Zion I don’t think it is one place like Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It’s a place where all the awful things in the world are not there. Something very pure for people who want to do good for each other and not for all the things in this world like wars, racist people and people who want to do bad things to other people.”

Asaf is similarly numinous concerning his spiritual beliefs. “There are nine people in the band so everyone has their own. But personally I can tell you I believe in unity. I am really connected to the message of roots reggae when it speaks about one love, one heart, one music to unite the people. Peace, love, justice, unity – this is the message I believe in and try to spread through our music. On our first album, this is what we are talking about.”

Peace, love, justice, unity – this is the message I try to spread through our music

There was a hint at the experimentation of Anbessa Dub in Freedom Time’s daring reinterpretation of Jimi HendrixVoodoo Chile. But this is all part of Asaf’s holistic view of the diasporic conversation. “I believe Jimi Hendrix made dub before King Tubby and Scratch Perry. His use of echo and reverbs in the studio – it is a kind of dub before dub was invented in Jamaica! I had been into Hendrix since I was 12 or 13 and one day I was walking the street thinking how Voodoo Chile could fit very easily on a reggae rhythm. I came to the next rehearsal and said “Play this bass-line. Let’s try to do it” and it was there! The day before yesterday we were in Woodstock and we played a Jimi Hendrix cover in reggae!”

Likewise there was never any big plan to make an Ethiopian-music-meets-reggae follow-up. Asaf, Gilli and the others were in studio listening to Tenesh Kelbe Lay by the singer Muluqèn Mèllèssè. “I said to Gilli “Listen to this song. I think we can make it in a reggae style pretty easily. Gilli told me it was a good idea because he had never sung in Amharic since he left Ethiopia and all through that time he felt like he had denied his roots.”

Gilli had never sung in Amharic since he left Ethiopia and all through that time he felt like he had denied his roots

“I told Asaf “That is a wonderful song”” says Gilli ““Maybe we should do it in shows”. So we tried it and every time the crowd went crazy and loved the rhythms, the language, the groove. So we said “Let’s try another one” and another one and another one until we had a show in Amharic.”

Several tracks on Anbessa Dub are covers. Yacov Lilay, who is on tour with the band, plays the Krar, the Ethiopian “Harp of David” on Tisbukti Fetret originally sung by Okbay Mesfin. Ethiopian born, Israel-based Zemene Melesse guests on Endemenesh “which he recorded back in 1986 in Ethiopia which the Roha band who are the most famous Ethiopian band – the equivalent of the Roots Radics.”

Original compositions include Ney Denun Tieshe featuring none other than Asaf’s idol - the legendary 73 year old Mahmoud Ahmed. The collaboration didn’t happen by chance. “I heard he was coming to Israel and thought that we must bring him to this album. It was pretty hard just to get in touch with him. He used to live half of the year in the States and half in Ethiopia. It took me about two months to get his phone number. He asked me to send a demo. I asked for his email address and he said “Sorry, I don’t have email!” So I put the CD into an envelope and sent it the old fashioned way. After two weeks he said he’d received it and we should make a date in a studio in Israel. Until I actually saw him walking into studio I didn’t believe it was going to happen. But he was really professional. He recorded two takes and came out and listened to every single detail of his vocal, searching for how to make it better. He told me “Don’t be shy. If you don’t like something I did just tell me and I’ll go in and make another take – it’s all right”. To see this man with such a long career behind him doing it like he’s doing it for the first time was a big lesson for me. It was great to have such a big artist on this album and I think it’s going to help us get more recognition in Ethiopia.”

And how much does Israeli sonic culture inform Zvuloon and the latest record?

“A little bit because we are Israelis in Israel so of course we had some music that we heard here. But Israel is an immigrant country so we have people from Ethiopia, Europe, and the United States, everywhere that Jews came from to Israel. Also we have some influences from our surrounding neighbours. In some songs you can find Middle Eastern music influences. Just four months ago we released a song in Hebrew in Israel called “Melody”. It’s tells of the journey of the musician who looks spiritually for the perfect melody and the people and the places they encounter to search for the right sound.”

Does Asaf listen to Ethiopian reggae such as Teddy Afro and Eyob Mekonnen?

“Yeah because we have a big Ethiopian community and lots of Ethiopian friends right now. But to tell you the truth I don’t like the production so much because it’s all computerised and not the kind I like to hear. But the song we made on the album Yehoden Aweteche Lengeresh by Tilahun Gessesse – this song is originally in reggae. You can search it on YouTube and when you hear this great singer from Ethiopia sing it in the original way, it is a reggae rhythm! It’s pretty interesting how back in the day in Ethiopia they already knew reggae. The person who made this arrangement listened to Bob Marley for sure. It can’t be a mistake. So this connection between Ethiopia and Jamaica and for us in Israel is something that existed in the music naturally. You just have to look from the right angle.”

This connection between Ethiopia and Jamaica and Israel is something that existed in the music naturally

Indeed. There’s a similarly uncanny resemblance in chords and shuffle between Alèmayèhu Eshèté’s catchy Ayalqem Tèdènqo and In The Summertime by England’s Mungo Jerry. Both songs were released in 1970 so who knows which inspired the other? “In music you can often find strange connections like this.” says Asaf “There is a reggae song called Never Too Young To Learn [by Roman Stewart] which has the same line as a pretty well-known Russian song from the USSR. So you wonder how did Jamaicans back in the early 70s hear songs from Russia? I went to a record spinning session in Tel Aviv where one of the DJs played that song and we had a discussion about whether there was an original because it’s definitely not a typically Jamaican song. I went home and started to dig around on the internet and I found this Russian song. You can find those kinds of links all the time.”

One of the great things about Anbessa Dub is it shows that it is possible to be an analogue equipment and vintage music purist and yet make something new. Many bands can play classical reggae perfectly who are bereft of ideas once you take away the old masters’ instructions. “Yeah, when we made the first album and tried to create the roots reggae sounds and sang in English it was like how a baby imitates his father and learns to speak. For the second album we can develop it, make our own contribution to the music and build our next link in the chain and expand it to other places. Reggae music was made in Jamaica but it became international after Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Peter Tosh exposed it to the world. You find reggae music all over, from South America to Africa to Israel to Europe. We just expanded it to our culture and our influences and made something new.”

To be a band from Israel for the first time in Jamaica to play at the biggest reggae festival is a dream come true

Even though he is not a fan of modern production Asaf is looking forward to meeting some of the exemplars of Jamaica’s recent so-called “reggae revival” when he plays at Sumfest. “We’re going to meet artists like Chronixx. I really like his works and how he connected to the vintage Jamaican music. I just saw the remake that he made of [the film] Rockers in his last video and liked the vibe. I really hope we can maybe record something together. I also want to meet Addis Pablo and all of the new roots movement. To be a band from Israel for the first time in Jamaica to play at the biggest reggae festival is a dream come true.”

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Read comments (4)

Posted by gebre on 07.11.2014
Sincerely this interview deeply disappointed me in its lack of critical approach especially to issues of racism, repeating mantras of unity love don't erase racism, some real information and real questions would have been appreciated. This is an Israeli band and there is no mention of person mentions they never met an Ethiopian til lthey were 2o no follow up on that. You have an Ethiopian singer who admits for a while was ashamed of his own culture. This doesn't happen in a vaccum. No real discussion on this. I much rather here these musicians talk about the reality of life in Israel to broaden our over standing of life in Israel than listen to the standard platitudes about roots music... Reality first...

Posted by Zala on 07.12.2014
Thanks for this great interview. I recently discovered the band and enjoyed to learn more.

Posted by Predan on 07.12.2014
Zvuloon booom !

Posted by srid on 07.12.2014
Big one! Thanks.

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