Interview with Israeli Blues artist Dov Hammer, embody the spirit of the Blues with intense and passionate

"The Blues is a language, a means of expression. It's a way to tell your story, to unload all the troubles that are on your mind, the frustrations, anger and happiness."

Dov Hammer: Dr. Harpman plays the Blues

Singer, harmonica player, songwriter and band leader, Dov Hammer has been a major force on the Blues scene in Israel for over 20 years, as well as playing on the biggest stages in Europe and the USA. Dov Hammer has been playing the Blues since the mid 1980s. After a time travelling and busking on the streets in the USA and Ireland he joined the Ted Cooper band for 4 years. After a short stint with a reggae band ("Kaya"), he formed "The Daily Blues" - who played many clubs and festivals, as well as backing several great American Blues Artists (Including King Earnest, Zora Young, Paul deLay, Deitra Farr).The Daily Blues recorded one album before the band broke up in 2000...and then Hammer met guitarist CG Shorer, with whom he formed "CG & The Hammer" - who have played many great international festivals, recorded four albums of original songs and have toured the US 3 times, playing in Ohio, Chicago, Memphis, Alabama and Florida. In 2013 the band released it's 4th album "Something good - the Memphis sessions" (recorded at historic "Sun" studio in Memphis TN) and embarked on it's first tour of Germany, playing sold out shows in Blues clubs in that country. They have also recorded a TV special with Israeli pop artist Arkadi Duchin.

In between, Dov Hammer also recorded a unique album of acoustic music "Going deep", mixing Blues Rock, country and Bluegrass in a soulful combination. As a solo artist he has performed at the Rochester International Jazz festival in NY, and the "Blues Nights" festival in Lithuania. In 2012 Dov Hammer joined forces with guitarist Andy Watts,to form " The Blues Rebels", a Blues -Rock "Supergroup" -with whom he has played sold out shows backing American Blues artists Lucky Peterson , Joe Louis Walker and Bernard Allison,as well as performing as a warm-up band for Johnny Winter in Tel Aviv. Before breaking up in 2018 the band recorded 2 great album, "Open road" and "Voodoo land" (produced by Joe Louis Walker who also makes a guest appearance on the album.) Dov Hammer has appeared on the recordings of top Israeli artists including (among others) Arkadi Duchin, Yahli Sobol, Shai Gavso, Iggy Waxman, as well as TV and film soundtracks and commercials. Dov Hammer has now returned to his solo career, performing as "Dov Hammer's Blues power" - as a full electric band or a 3 piece acoustic unit - and released a new album titled "BLUES SOUL" (2019).

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The Blues is an artform developed by African- Americans, so I have to be honest and say this: when I play Blues, I am expressing my admiration for all the great Black blues artists who inspired me, and I am "using" their language to express myself. When I first heard the Blues I immediately felt such a strong connection to it, and it just feels most comfortable for me to speak in this "language". The Blues is a language, a means of expression. It's a way to tell your story, to unload all the troubles that are on your mind, the frustrations, anger and happiness.

The most important ingredient to making good Blues (and any good music) is honesty. You have to be telling your story from the heart; you have to really mean it. You cannot fake it.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

Every person has a story to tell, and even people who seem, from the outside, to have no troubles – even they feel burdened by something. Songwriting and playing the Blues are just ways to tell your story. Having emigrated from the US to Israel, I experienced the feeling of being a stranger, an outsider in society, and I think that is something that influences my Blues to this day.

"I try to be honest and write from the heart. I think that's most important. People can relate if they feel you are telling the truth. I try to tell my own story, what is on my mind, in an original way, and avoid cliché’s." (Photo by the Rolling Photographer)

How do you describe Dov Hammer sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

My music is a combination of several styles that I love: Classic Chicago blues, Rock, folk, and soul music. I guess you could say my "philosophy" is to carry on the tradition, but make it your own. In the same way that Muddy Waters learned from Son House, but updated his music to the time and place that HE was in, I love Muddy Waters, but I use his tradition to INFLUENCE my playing, but I don't try to imitate him.

How has the Blues influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

 I Was first turned on to the Blues at the age of 12 or 13 and ever since it has been my one big obsession. The music of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and others has been my great love, because of it's passion, it's honesty it's connection to daily life of anyone, anywhere. The Blues is about individuality, and respecting that people can be different and unique and choose their own path. It has made me more attentive to listening to all sides, to accepting different people for who they are and not judging them.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues and harp researches and experiments?

As a kid I fell in love with rock'n'roll, and then the Blues. When I first heard John Lee Hooker, and then Muddy Waters I just immediately fell under their spell and wanted to play those things, they were the coolest sounds I could imagine. At first, I was playing bass guitar in rock bands in high school, but after school, I was drafted into the military, and as a soldier I couldn’t carry a bass and an amp with me everywhere. I became frustrated that I couldn’t play music. That's when I decided to play harmonica - it was an instrument I could carry in my pocket easily and play anywhere - and it was the perfect sound for Blues, the sound of all those Muddy Waters albums. So, I listened to Muddy, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, and I tried to imitate the sounds they were making, and understand the meaning and logic of the Blues.

"The Blues is an artform developed by African- Americans, so I have to be honest and say this: when I play Blues, I am expressing my admiration for all the great Black blues artists who inspired me, and I am "using" their language to express myself."

How do you describe your songbook and lyrics? Where does your creative drive come from?

I try to be honest and write from the heart. I think that's most important. People can relate if they feel you are telling the truth. I try to tell my own story, what is on my mind, in an original way, and avoid cliché’s. The creative drive comes from the love of music, but also from the need to have my own unique voice, to write songs that no one else but me could write - I don't want to sound like 100 other guys....

Are there any memories from new album (BlueSoul, 2019) studio sessions which you’d like to share?

This album took a long time to make, but I have really enjoyed working with many different musicians, creating different sounds. I used 4 different studios, lots of friends helped out, but I think the most fun was that my daughter Naomi Jo sang with me on 2 songs, and on one of them we made a video clip ("I'm gone") with my daughter Shira acting in the clip! It was the first time I worked with my kids, and that was great fun!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I wish more people could see beyond the cliché’s and stereotypes about Blues and understand its full meaning, it's depth and its joy of life. And use it to express REAL feelings - the deeper meaning of the Blues - rather than try to copy the superficial aspects of it.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

Unfortunately, not enough...too many people have taken the form and forgotten the substance. You have to always remember and respect the roots of the Blues, remember that it first came from the Black experience in 20th -century America, and its universal message has to respect that origin. You can take it and make it yours, use it in your original and personal way, but always remember and respect what it is and where it came from.

"I think people always want to hear honest emotion in music, and the Blues delivers just that, with a very catchy kind of rhythm and basic music. You don't need to be an expert to enjoy the Blues, even people who hear it for the first time immediately connect."

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The most interesting time of my career might just be the present…I am involved in several different projects, playing a lot of good shows, just released a GREAT album ("Something good" by CG & The Hammer), and have a few nice surprises planned for the future. I don’t really think I've had a "worst" moment – there are always ups and downs in life, but I have been very lucky, and I don't ever remember really suffering in music, playing music is ALWAYS good.

The best moment? Hopefully it is ahead of me still happy but here are a few that stick out in my mind: Playing at big international festivals (the Rochester international jazz festival in New York 2005 and the "Blues nights" festival in Lithuania in 2007), playing with King Earnest Baker, playing with - and learning from – great harmonica masters like Billy Branch and Paul deLay. My favorite moment recently is from this June when I opened for Johnny Winter. During the sound check I sang "little by Little" (a song by one of my idols, Junior Wells) and when we came off stage Johnny Winter said to me "You sounded great – you sounded just like Junior Wells up there…" – that was a great compliment, from a legendary musician.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think people always want to hear honest emotion in music, and the Blues delivers just that, with a very catchy kind of rhythm and basic music. You don't need to be an expert to enjoy the Blues, even people who hear it for the first time immediately connect.

Do you remember anything funny spending a year on the road, busking on the streets of USA and Ireland?

Ireland was a lot of fun – the people are very friendly, and they love good music. We would set up outside a pub and play, and people would come out and bring us beers and throw down money. It worked really well in the smaller towns, but when we got to Dublin it was harder, because you need a license to play on Grafton Street (in the center of Dublin). The police would come by and make us stop, and we'd wait until they left and then we'd start again….but the Dublin police were the most polite policemen I ever met, they'd just ask  us really nicely to pack it up and stop…

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I played at a really memorable gig – my band "CG & The Hammer" was invited to play for a dance group that wanted to dance to the Blues. We played for about 2 hours, fast, slow, all our regular stuff, but instead of politely sitting and listening, the entire audience was dancing, for the entire show! I wish I could always play for crowds like that.

"Songwriting and playing the Blues are just ways to tell your story." (Photo by the Rolling Photographer)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

First I'd have to mention my mentor, Ted Cooper, a great Canadian Blues and folk musician who lived in Israel for many years. When I was just getting into the music, he was the only one around playing what I wanted to hear, so as a teenager, I'd just go watch him play all the time, and he was the first one who gave me a chance to play, took me to gigs when I was just learning to play. The 4 years I spent in his band were my musical education, even if he never gave me any formal lessons. I learned how to sing, jam, write songs, arrange a setlist, many important lessons from him, but the MOST important lesson was to LISTEN, all the time, to the singer and to the band. He never told me what to play, but sometimes, in the middle of a song, if I was playing too many notes (as young musicians often do) he'd just turn around and put his finger to his lips:"Shh…" – that was the best lesson: don't play too much. To this day, the most important quality I look for in a musician is if he listens

Are there any memories from King Earnest Baker which you’d like to share with us?

After Ted Cooper the most important part of my musical education was the tour I did (it was 8 or 10 shows) with "King" Earnest Baker. He was an INCREDIBLE soul-Blues singer born in Mississippi, raised in Chicago, moved to Los Angeles by time I met him. From him I learned the importance of giving an exciting performance, of respecting your audience, and everyone you meet in the business, always giving 110% even when the gig might seem bad or unimportant, and always dress your best to play. The first night we played with him was unforgettable: The band started a shuffle rhythm, I introduced him, and he cane on, dressed in a flashy suit – and just DANCED for about 2 minutes before he began to sing. He was 60 years old and the best dancer I ever saw. He went down and sang to ladies in the audience, he changed suits between sets – he was just a GREAT performer, as well as a very special person. He died about a year later in a road accident, and I truly miss him.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Israel. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

The Blues scene in Israel has changed a lot in the last few years. It used to be just Americans who immigrated to Israel and played, and now lots of young Israeli-born kids are starting to play. Seems like I hear of a new band each week! There is a Blues society which organizes local Blues jams, and more and more American Blues artists are performing in Israel – Johnny Winter, as I mentioned, and I also had the pleasure of playing (with "The Blues Rebels") with Lucky Peterson and with Joe Louis Walker, so I'd say it's a good time for the Blues in Israel.

"The harmonica has a warm sound, almost like a human voice that people just love the sound of it. It's relatively easy to learn (at least at a basic level) and you don't need to be a virtuoso genius to make an enjoyable sound on it…" (Dov Hammer & Lucky Peterson / Photo by Tomer Shinfeld)

From the musical point of view what are the differences between an American and Israeli blues musician?

The Blues is an American artform, you really have to hear the source to get the right feel. Many Israeli musicians now travel to the US to hear real Blues, and they are learning the language. As I said before, the most important part is the honesty – learn to "let it all hang out"

What do you miss most nowadays from the Blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of Blues?

I think that as time goes on, it's harder and harder to survive playing live music (not just Blues) – People used to go out to dance to live music, and now people bring a DJ and recorded music for that, there are fewer and fewer venues and lower pay for performing musicians. I am not too worried about "the future of the Blues". Even now, many young people want to play the Blues, and as long as there are good musicians playing the Blues, there is no problem "keeping the Blues alive" – just come out and pay to hear your local Blues artists, and buy their music, so they can keep doing it!

Which memory from Willie Kent, Lucky Peterson, Billy Branch, Steve Freund, and Charlie Sayles makes you smile?

Every chance I get to meet a good harp player I do my best to learn from them. I've had the fortune to learn from great players like Billy Branch, Paul delay, Charlie Sayles (among others) and each one gave me something I could use… Charlie Sayles is a really cool guy, a typical Blues man. The first night Charlie Sayles was in Tel Aviv, A friend of mine was in the band and told him he should get me up to play. Charlie wasn't too enthusiastic but did it out of politeness, and we had a good time together. He thought I was just some guy from the neighborhood…that night he went back to his hotel, turned on the TV and at 2 AM Israeli television was broadcasting a concert of my band at that time ("The Daily Blues") from a local festival. The next night when I came to his second show he grabbed me as soon as I came in and said "Why didn't you tell me you were a big star here!" after that he'd get me up to play and introduce me as "A big TV star in Tel Aviv"…

"The Blues is an American artform, you really have to hear the source to get the right feel. Many Israeli musicians now travel to the US to hear real Blues, and they are learning the language. As I said before, the most important part is the honesty – learn to "let it all hang out"" (Photo by the Rolling Photographer)

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

The Harmonica became a favorite instrument for Blues artists, because it was a cheap instrument and easy to carry – early Blues artists had little money and travelled a lot by train or hitch hiking, so they needed small, easy to carry instruments. The harmonica has a warm sound, almost like a human voice that people just love the sound of it. It's relatively easy to learn (at least at a basic level) and you don't need to be a virtuoso genius to make an enjoyable sound on it…

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Reggae and continue to Eric Clapton music and beyond?

After Ted Cooper left Israel, I had a hard time finding a gig as a Blues harp player, and a friend of mine asked me to join his reggae band. I said "I don't know how to play reggae" and he told me "just come and play the Blues" – and he was right! Both styles come from Black music; African music that was brought to the west, so they share a lot of the same scales etc., just the groove is a bit different. Bob Marley even had some Chicago Blues guitarists in his band sometimes (Donald Kinsey, of The Kinsey Report).

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

For a Blues harp player like me, the answer is almost obvious: the south side of Chicago, mid-1950's, where you could go from club to club and hear Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and all those great musicians who invented the music that I love. From what I have read, it was a wide open scene, with people jamming with each other, lots of interaction between bands. I'd have loved to see and learn from all those great musicians!

Dov Hammer - official website

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