As far back as Asaf Smilan can remember, the Lion of Judah has been present in his life. Growing up in Jerusalem in the 1980s and ’90s, the city’s symbol watched over him, and when he became interested in reggae music and Rastafarian culture around the turn of the century, the lion was there to greet him once more.
Around that same time, the Internet became more common in Israel and with it a rise in file-sharing programs. The technology afforded Smilan virtual travels to hear music from all over the world. With this digital passport, he found that some of the most appealing sounds came from Africa, specifically Ethiopia. Pursuing this interest gradually led to learning more about the country’s history, and in Ethiopia’s national symbol, the drummer again encountered a familiar face.
Three cultures come together under the Lion of Judah in Zvuloon Dub System, Smilan’s nine-piece Israeli/Ethiopian reggae band. Based in Tel Aviv, the group has previously toured Canada, but its current collection of shows marks its first time in the United States. The group plays Asheville Music Hall on Friday, July 11.
The band’s origins date to 2006 when Smilan and his guitarist brother Ilan were renting a space on Zvuloon Street in Tel Aviv. At their previous apartment, living room practice sessions with three musician friends were met with complaints by neighbors, but in their new quarters, they encountered a different response. “All the neighbors were into the music and what we were doing,” Smilan says. “Every time we were rehearsing, people would be listening and we got a very good vibe for the people up there. It felt right to name the band after the street.”
Since then, Zvuloon Dub System has grown from an instrumental roots reggae group to adding vocals and incorporating jazz, funk and Middle Eastern music into its sound. In addition to the Smilan brothers, the band now has saxophone, trumpet, a second guitarist, bass, keyboard, a five-stringed traditional Ethiopian instrument called a krar and two singers. Taking the lead on vocals is Ethiopian-born Gili Yalo, who stepped into the role in 2010 after Zvuloon Dub System’s primary singer left the band. “It took us a while to find Gili. Not many people can sing reggae and sound good, but after three to four months of searching, a friend said, ‘I may have found someone,’” Smilan says. “I met with Gili, and he played Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song,’ and I said, ‘All right, we should start making music together.’”
One day, the two were sitting in the studio listening to music for inspiration, when Smilan told Yalo of his affinity for Ethiopian music. Both were fans of Ethiopian artist Muluqen Mellesse and decided to put a reggae twist on his song, “Tenesh Kelbe Lay.” The rest of the band liked the results, requested another experiment in this creative vein, and they’ve continued down that path ever since.
The unified effort embraces the Lion of Judah, who’s prominently featured on the cover of the band’s latest album, Anbessa Dub, which takes its name from the Ethiopian language Amharic’s word for lion. “It’s the symbol that ties together all the cultures that are mixing in our music,” Smilan says.
The blending of these influences allows Zvuloon Dub System to stand out in the Tel Aviv music scene, which Smilan describes as diverse but lacking a strong reggae presence. He notes that Israel overall is fairly small and points to Jerusalem-based Sputnik Hi-Fi as the country’s other notable reggae group. Composed of four Ukrainian and Russian immigrants, the band mixes Soviet music and culture with reggae, similar to what Smilan and company do with Ethiopian styles.
The North American tour will also mark Zvuloon Dub System’s first trip to Jamaica, as the group plays Montego Bay’s Reggae Sumfest. Smilan did some digging into the festival’s history and was astounded by what he found. “They never bring in any reggae artists other than from Jamaica,” he says. “They’ve had some R&B artists from the U.S., but not any outside reggae groups. It’s pretty amazing for us to play for a Jamaican audience. It’s a big honor for us to get this invitation and bring this mixture.”
Firmly aware of the opportunities that await, Zvuloon Dub System looks to make the most of its time in the Caribbean, including some musical collaborations. At the recent Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in Boonville, Calif., Smilian and his bandmates made connections and exchanged telephone numbers with multiple Jamaican artists. Over the course of 10 days, they plan to travel the country and record with these new allies, all the while uniting their triune Lion of Judah facets in exciting and unprecedented ways.
WHO Zvuloon Dub System with Bruckshot
WHERE Asheville Music Hall, ashevillemusichall.com
WHEN Friday, July 11, at 10 p.m. $8 advance, $10 day of show