Country music comes from the American South, bhangra comes from India, reggae comes from Jamaica and so on, right? Right?
Well, not quite.
In this age of blurred cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, music that was once regional is finding new homes. Take the duo Axum, which just released its self-titled debut album on JDub records. A quick listen reveals touches of hip-hop and dance music — international genres by any standard — but at its heart, this is a reggae and dancehall record, the latter being the modern, electronic evolution of the former.
But Axum isn’t Jamaican. It’s Israeli, and members Judah (Gilor Yehuda) and Tedross (Reuben Aragai) met each other in Netanya, Israel, as street kids, quickly fusing their backgrounds — Tedross hailing from an Ethiopian immigrant family and Judah born and raised in the Jewish state.
The duo began releasing radio hits in Israel two years ago, but Axum’s debut album is the first recorded evidence of the group’s musical mayhem to touch down in the states.
To judge if the album is any good, we put it to the “Can we enjoy it in Hebrew?” test. In other words, with lyrics that aren’t in English, and thereby can’t be understood by most listeners in the states, is the music still an entertaining, engaging listen?
The answer is yes, but not a resounding one.
The album begins with “Hakshivu Na,” opening with some twisting, Middle Eastern-flavored guitars before launching into a fairly straightforward Israeli hip-hop song. It’s a fun, bouncy if not groundbreaking introduction to Axum.
With “Bo Be Easy,” Axum’s dancehall roots begin to take hold of the album, with better results.
Dancehall traditionally takes the upbeat, meditative rhythms of reggae and speeds them up, recasting them in electronic blips and bleeps instead of crunchy guitar strokes. Axum does dancehall well, as featured singer C.le’s chorus on “Bo Be Easy” is as kinetic as a bouncing ball, bounding quickly over the thumping dancehall beat.
The album hits its peak midway with “Ma Im HaKesef,” diving deep into reggae territory with a slow-rolling, straight-from-Jamaica guitar backdrop for Judah and Tedross to toy with — and they do, chanting the album’s catchiest chorus.
Both MCs keep the songs moving with engaging styles, Tedross’ rasp a perfect fit for the album’s grimier dancehall numbers and Judah’s more melodic flow floating atop the breezier numbers, like the positively Caribbean “Noten Lach Zman,” which features a toes-in-the-sand chorus from guest Asaf Shalem.
The problem is that Axum fits in too well with so much of the dancehall music emanating from scenes all over the globe. While both Judah and Tedross are skilled rappers, they don’t stand out among in the genre. Most songs here are catchy, but not enough to stick around after the record ends. Axum falls headfirst into the classification of ‘good,’ neither amazing nor horrid, leaving them in the indistinguishable dancehall masses.
For many fans, the duo’s Israeli heritage is enough to give them a spin. But if you’re not such a fan, Axum is a worthwhile, if not altogether memorable, listen. Your foot will be tapping, meaning the music is doing something right.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)