Assumption is the mother of all mistakes. When I spoke with English producer Kevin “The Bug” Martin late last year, he admitted to having “never expected to find sound system culture in Israel.” It wasn’t until a fortuitous booking in 2011, when Martin stumbled into a bar in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa district and met Miss Red, an Israeli MC, that he discovered a thriving scene (the two artists have since become close collaborators). Martin’s tale is far from unique. Many of us harbor unspoken—and unfounded—assumptions about the cultures of other countries. When it comes to Israel, it can be hard to imagine a creative culture existing beyond the political realities of the country. Located on the Mediterranean coast, Tel Aviv is Israel’s second largest city but it's also its most visible in the global music underground; an island in a seemingly divided country.
In April 2014, live-streaming show Boiler Room did a three-day broadcast direct from Tel Aviv, showing a city brimming with musical excitement, with over ten DJ sets and live shows spanning house, psych, hip-hop, and dub. One of the featured artists in the Boiler Room broadcast was Garden City Movement (GCM), a trio made up of local producers Roi Avital, Joe Saar, and Johnny Sharoni. The latter is also the co-founder of BLDG5, a Tel Aviv-based label that has staked its own claim to the city’s growing electronic music underground. A long-standing local music journalist, Sharoni met his BLDG5 partner Udi Niv through local radio stations. The pair bonded over a shared interest in a new wave of instrumental electronic music emerging worldwide—productions from the likes of XXYYXX, Teen Daze, and Sun Glitters—which Sharoni, speaking over Skype from his Tel Aviv office, calls “indie beats.” In 2013, thanks to a private backer, the pair launched BLDG5 with a compilation titled Ground Floor and a split 7” featuring Sun Glitters and GCM, which Sharoni had joined around the same time as the label took shape.
From the outset, Sharoni and Niv opted to cultivate local talent while reaching out into the world to build bridges back to Tel Aviv, to establish BLDG5 as a label with a global audience. “The internet was our way to make international connections,” Sharoni says. Over the past two years, they’ve grown the label with solo releases from Israeli artists: singer Totemo, post-rocker turned producer Helfer, and GCM. In February, BLDG5 released Nightingale Floor, a second compilation that again balances international acts (Austria’s Mieux, London’s 22a collective) with local talent (Elian Mor, Niv Ast, Xen). Sharoni says the new release is a record of the label’s “evolving tastes. All the songs hold the same atmosphere we like.” I ask what this atmosphere is, but he remains elusive. “When we sit together there’s a factor at play I wouldn’t know how to describe,” Sharoni tells me, seemingly serious. “We just feel it, we know when something is right for us.” Perhaps, then, it’s a feeling of hopefulness rather than a genre that holds together the sonic world of BLDG5.
Considering the growing attraction of Tel Aviv to foreign ears and artists, the decision to position BLDG5 as facing outwards was timely. Chris “Free The Robots” Alfaro, a Los Angeles-based producer who featured on Ground Floor, first visited the city in 2014 after an invitation from Tel Aviv producer Cohen Beats, who had spent time in L.A. in the early 2010s. “I was impressed when I got there,” Alfaro tells me over email. “There was so much talent, activity, and collaboration happening everywhere in the city. The audiences were very open-minded and I felt a heavy sense of community.” Alfaro returned again in 2015, and is set for a third trip next month. He likens the vibe in Tel Aviv to California. “I never felt in any danger or sensed any racial animosity towards me,” he continues. “Even when venturing out people were welcoming and felt seemingly removed from the tensions in the country.”
“There’s a stereotype that Israelis want to be like us [in Tel Aviv] but still hate us for it. We’re more on the leftwing, more arty, more like a European city.”—Johnny Sharoni, BLDG5
Sharoni says that Tel Aviv has always tried to separate itself from the situation on the ground in Israel. “There’s a stereotype that Israelis want to be like us but still hate us for it,” he notes. “We’re more on the leftwing, more arty, more like a European city.” Based on Sharoni’s experiences as a journalist, he says the city is a lot more open than it was ten years ago with “more international artists passing through, which is helping break media stereotypes.” Alfaro has fond memories of his shows at local venue Pasaz alongside the Raw Tapes collective. “The audiences are enthusiastic and reactions intense,” he says. “People there aren’t on auto-pilot, they remain interested throughout a set.”
For all the joy and escapism music can provide, the reality of Israel’s short but tortured history is hard to ignore from the outside. “Israel has a bad image today and it’s not a pleasant place to be,” Sharoni admits. “But Tel Aviv is different.” Perhaps what makes Tel Aviv different is that it is steeped in a much older, and less charged, tradition. From Marseille to Barcelona, Naples to Beirut, Tangiers to Tel Aviv, Mediterranean port cities have always retained a more carefree and open attitude. Unlike the rest of their respective countries, these cities stay facing outward, looking out into the world.