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Fool's Gold Band Takes a Shine to Blend of Israeli Afropop

September 14, 2011 By:
Mordechai Shinefield, JE Feature
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All that glitters is, indeed, Fool's Gold, due for a local performance. Photo by Pierre Auroux

The first time Jews and Afropop met in popular culture, Paul Simon was flying out to South Africa to lay down some tracks with the male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo about visiting Elvis Presley's mansion in Graceland.

Like Simon, Fool's Gold has done a bit of globetrotting as well, playng New York and Paris, and now they're heading to Philadelphia.

On Sept. 20, the sometimes-Hebrew singing, part-Israeli Afropop band will play Kungfu Necktie, a venue at 1248 N. Front St. The last time Fool's Gold played Philadelphia was 2009, when they appeared in concert with the First Unitarian Church alongside a cadre of hip indie L.A. bands that included Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

Since then they've released their critically acclaimed self-titled debut and recent follow-up, "Leave No Trace."

If it sounds like Fool's Gold has been busy, that's how singer/songwriter Luke Top prefers it. He and keyboardist Amir Kenon are both transplants who moved from Israel to Los Angeles at an early age.

"I feel disconnected from Israeli and American culture," Top says, explaining what first drew him to the idea of singing in Hebrew.

By marrying Israeli influences to African sounds, Top channels a type of Judaism that is scattered and diverse. "I've always been drawn to this sort of music my whole life," he says. "There's something very attractive about people reaching outside their environment, creating a sound that goes beyond their immediate surroundings."

The debut album was particularly diasporic in lyrical theme. The album opens with a bouncy tropical tone that sounds especially warm in mid September as summer draws to an end. Top sings in a thick baritone, stringing together carefully composed Hebrew lyrics.

From the sunny Afro-Caribbean opener, Fool's Gold stretches their palette globally. On the fourth track, backed by a sweaty guitar beat that sounds recorded in the Sahara Desert, Top intones, "haOlom zeh mah sh'yesh"; that gives the track its name, "The World Is All There Is."

When asked what links Jews to Afropop, Top muses, "We're communities that have had to historically deal with our identity. We're a nomadic, persecuted group trying to find ourselves in a strange land. I think there's a deep yearning and darkness to our music."

Top suggests that there's a "built-in melancholy and cantorial color" that pervades Hebrew "that somehow matches with African sounds," and, he adds, it "kinda works."

Which is not to say that Fool's Gold's music is dark and gothic. If anything, the bright, sunny melodies create an ironic distance between Top's personal anxieties about identity and life and the very danceable tunes found all over both his albums.

When Fool's Gold got to play with their Malian heroes Tinariwen in New York, Top was ecstatic. "It was one of those crazy fantasies," he recalls. "It was a beautiful kind of thing and so magical and powerful."

At the time, he had still been singing primarily in Hebrew and was concerned there might be friction, but he found "there was total acceptance."

One of the few hybrid Hebrew-English language songs on the new album, "Tel Aviv," finds Top dreaming of Israel: "I think of you, my Tel Aviv," he sings.

Though he has greatly decreased the amount of Hebrew on the new album, Top swears that he hasn't abandoned it entirely. "The next one could be Hebrew, English, French, instrumental -- who knows?"

Part of what makes Fool's Gold so compelling is Top dreaming of his home in Israel. Ironically, he laments, "there hasn't been a really big welcoming for us over there yet." He briefly despairs of ever playing his unique blend of Afroblues and Hebrew in his homeland. Then he collects himself: "I'd still like to make it out there soon. I at least need to get over there and see my grandmom."

Clearly hanging over "Leave No Trace" is Top's frustration with still being in exile, hoping that next year will find him in Jerusalem. "In L.A., I felt the air erase itself/I was a hunger pang, a deer in the street," he sings, mournfully.

"Now all I see is what's right there in front of me/I take a bow, and lock my knees/And think of you, my Tel Aviv."

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