Medieval by nature

Some people like to know what they’re getting. That’s quite understandable, given the all-too-mercurial nature of global events these days. With that in mind, the long-running Jacob’s Ladder Festival – nigh on 40 years since it sprang into life at Kibbutz Mahanaim and still merrily kicking away – is tailor-made for the thousands of Anglos and others who have been faithfully making the trek to the Galilee (post-initial Golan Heights stint) year in year out.

By and large, you see the same artist names and the same mix of musical genres and sub-genres across the three days for the main spring event and for the winter two-dayer, which has also been held at the Nof Ginnosar site for the past 15 years. Visitors to this weekend’s festival (May 10 to 12) will be able to groove, sway, clap, boogie – and should the mood take ‘em, even sashay to the outpourings of acts across a stylistic swathe that takes in folk music, rock, bluegrass, world music, country, jazz and the blues.

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BUT ONCE in a while, you get a whiff of some other cultural ingredient in the Jacob’s Ladder brew. The primary semi-extraneous musical offering in the forthcoming program comes all the way from the Ukraine, in the form of the Spiritual Seasons troupe. The sextet will appear twice at the festival. The first appearance, on Thursday, will be a peripatetic affair, described in the program as Medieval Parade around the Festival Grounds. The Ukrainians also have the penultimate festival slot on Saturday, when they will proffer a beguiling, and seemingly disparate, mix of Irish and Viking folk music.

Victor Smirnov, the front man, certainly provides a decent spread of sonic textures, playing guitar, bouzouki and munnharpe – a sort of Nordic version of the Jew’s harp – as well as singing. Other instruments in the band’s lineup include tin whistle, flute, bagpipes, banjo, drums and violin. And in case you need some more visual enticement from this pretty animated bunch, there’s a dancer on board, too.

Current folkie-ethnic output notwithstanding, Smirnov’s artistic imagination was initially fired by very different sounds.

“When I was 13 years old I first heard the Beatles. It seems to me that this predetermined what is happening now with me,” he notes, adding that it was rock and pop music that pushed him toward his current line of work.

“I was passionate about rock music, especially bands like The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Pink Floyd and Queen.”

Formative high-octane musical diet notwithstanding, Smirnov says he has always had at least one ear trained on roots material, in various guises, and incorporates that in the group’s oeuvre.

“Along with folk music in its pure form, we use its fusion with rock music and even had in our playlist a small block in the style of folk metal and a corresponding CD – Metal Age – recorded in this style, which we will surely bring to the Jacob’s Ladder Festival.”

Celtic lore is prominent in the Smirnov mix, too.

“I love Celtic culture, history and of course such legends as stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table,” he says. That led to other interests, and he soon began delving into medieval fare and other ethnic baggage, too.

“It’s about the same as with Celtic music – the legends of King Arthur and Richard the Lionheart, as well as the history of the Vikings. They are all directly related with the Middle Ages and all this is very strongly interrelated. Hence our passion is not only for Celtic culture and music, but also for the Scandinavian and medieval ones.”

While the Ukrainian band leader appears to be the adventurous type, always looking beyond his own horizons for inspiration, he also maintains a strong bond with his own native milieu.

“Recently, we are increasingly beginning to pay attention to the Slavic folk music and Ukrainian, Russian and Serbian folk melodies and songs have already appeared in our repertoire. We also plan to expand this repertoire because, after all, we are Slavs in our origin.”

In fact, despite roaming far and wide in his musical mind’s eye, Smirnov says he and the rest of the band never stray too far from home, often filtering adopted sounds through their own cultural prism.

The band’s spread takes in numbers from a wide range of sources, as well as original and adapted scores.

“We play folk songs and music of the peoples of the North of Europe, but at the same time we make our own original authorial arrangements,” explains Smirnov.

“Also, we have several compositions in our repertoire that we composed ourselves, but stylized these to folk music.”

Lyrical content is also central to the Spiritual Seasons message.

“Basically, we sing folk texts. The most important thing for us [is that] we do not have calls for violence and for national and religious differences.”

As the band performs across Europe, the paying customer may not always be conversant with the source language. Smirnov says that is not a problem, and that people tend to get the message of the songs.

“I think we manage to do this through music, our energy and our emotions.”

The band members generally appear in medieval-looking attire and, besides their musical charm, they appeal visually too.

The bottom line for Smirnov, naturally, is to provide his audiences with right royal entertainment, but also to spread goodwill.

“We will be in Israel for the first time. It is a great honor for us to participate in such a wonderful and great festival and to visit a country where people with different religious views and faiths live peacefully. Our group wishes you happiness, prosperity and peace.”

Amen to that.

OTHER SLOTS to look out for at Nof Ginnosar this weekend include the intriguing Ukus in Fabila ukulele trio from Italy; Dov Hammer’s Blues Power; Jacob’s Ladder perennial Shay Tochner; Celtic Fusion; Tarante Groove Machine; and raunchy rock act Libi & The Flashback.

Naturally, there will the usual, ever-popular offerings of dance and instrumental workshops, yoga, kiddies’ activities – and what’s left of the Sea of Galilee, just a stone’s throw (or two or three) away.

For tickets and more information: (04) 685-0403 and www.jlfestival