A Killer Show by Israel’s Zvuloon Dub System

by delarue

Israeli group Zvuloon Dub System wound up their first American tour with a deliriously fun and deliriously received New York show at Meridian 23 Friday night. The band’s inimitable sound takes otherworldly, thousand-year-old Ethiopian riffs and makes reggae out of them – sort of. Ilan and Asaf Smilan, the bass-and-drum brother team who lead the band, give the songs a fat groove that’s heavier than you typically find in Ethiopian funk, and sometimes a lot closer to an anthemic rock sway than what the Barrett brothers did with Bob Marley, for example. This time out, there wasn’t a lot of dub – just a few bars of bass and drums, or echoey keys in tandem with the bass, maybe – but there was a lot of jamming and all of it was purposeful and spot-on. Everyone expects reggae bands to take their time and stretch out and get lost sometimes, but this group stayed on task and didn’t waste notes even as they took the dynamics up and down, with lots of solos and imaginative pairing off or harmonies between instruments.

There were a couple of ringers in the band. On their latest album Anbesa Dub, keyboardist Lior Romano relies heavily on creepy funeral organ. Onstage, their sub player chose his spots with precise electric piano, varying his textures for an extra psychedelic edge. Every once in awhile, the drums would hit one of those classic around-the-kit turnarounds, but most of the time Asaf Smilan hung in the pocket as the waves of dancers undulated back and forth at the edge of the stage. His brother ran catchy, hypnotic, sometimes almost macabre chromatic riffs over and over again, summoning the spirits from the lowest registers with nothing more fancy than a standard-issue Fender Jazz bass running straight through the amp without any effects. There were two guitarists, one playing mostly rhythm and adding woozy textures through a wah from time to time. The other delivered lingering, ominous chords and snaky fills on a vintage hollow-body Gretsch. Although the new album is mostly instrumental, many of the songs had vocals, delivered passionately in Amharic by Ethiopian-born singer Gili Yalo.

The songs took those ancient “bati” riffs and gave them body, the tight two-piece horn section typically leading off with them and then taking their variations further and further out into the stratosphere. The tenor sax player delivered a spine-tingling series of glissandos down the scale early in the set; the trumpeter took his time, finally hitting a menacingly incisive crescendo toward the end of the show. Most of the material was either older or brand-new. Of the songs from the new album, Endermenesh comes across on record as sort of an Ethiopian take of Marley’s Could You Be Loved: here, they expanded it and took it deeper into Jamaican territory. They did the opposite with the album’s opening instrumental, Alemitu, which was their next-to-last song. Energywise, the highlight was a darkly skanking Ethiopian ska tune. The most poignant moment was when Yalo led the group through an anthemic number dedicated to peace in the Middle East: he explained that it went without saying that everybody in the band couldn’t wait to see an end to the current hostilities in Israel. And the crowd agreed.

And the guy/girl team behind the sound board earned their pay and a lot more by doing something that more sound crews should do: they turned up the band. This was a chatty crowd, hell-bent on getting their drink and their smoke on, in a cozy venue on a Friday night, and it was good for once to not have to move closer and closer to the PA to get away from the crowd noise and go deep into the vibe of the music.