Gonna Take You Higher
Uriel Kramer, along with his band, Tawil, wants to make you happy
After over a decade traveling the globe, Uriel Kramer finally has peace of mind. “I live in Jerusalem and I love it,” he says. “It’s so quiet. I have my rooftop, which is like my private living room, and I don’t have to move out to the countryside or leave the city to find that.”
Given the urban environment, Kramer’s Rehavia apartment is a surprisingly ideal place to create music, although, he also doesn’t make a lot of noise. “I don’t play a lot of music—isn’t that weird?—and when I do, I don’t need to do it so loud. I have a computer, keyboard, and guitar. I don’t have to plug it in. I am not one of those musicians who needs to practice an instrument—like a drum or a saxophone—that would cause problems. I can sit quietly with the piano and compose a song.”
But Kramer is more than a good neighbor. He’s also an optimist, and positivity is the primary ingredient informing his music, which is hopeful, and, as he sees it, a tool for celebration and joy. “I am not into trying to make people see how brokenhearted I am,” he says. “Music should always be with some kind of message of hope in it … It’s like using music as this very powerful instrument, it should raise people, give them hope, or make them happy.”
That’s also the energy behind Kramer’s band, Tawil. Tawil, which is Hebrew/Arabic slang for “tall”—Kramer is six-foot-two—is a seven-piece ensemble that plays his groove-centric, and imminently danceable, compositions. His music is hybrid of East and West, and incorporates things like funk, Balkan, reggae, Arabic, and Mediterranean feels and sounds. That fusion might seem counter-intuitive, but given Kramer’s background—plus the multicultural reality of Israel—sounds obvious and organic.
“I am that combination,” Kramer says about his disparate influences and experiences. “I am that combination of East and West. I am a combination of English and Hebrew. I am the combination of the city and nature. I am the combination of modernism but also loving tradition. Those are combinations that you sometimes can hear in [my] music.”
I spoke with Kramer from his home in Jerusalem, and, in addition to his experiences bridging East and West, we spoke about his years of wanderlust and discovery, his incredible video project that features him collaborating with some of Israel’s outstanding artists, his thoughts about positivity and music, and how he managed to assemble his band, but with musicians he considers way out of his league.
What’s your background?
I grew up in a religious family. My father is from Philadelphia—he grew up in a secular family, but did teshuva and became Breslav—and my mother is from London. I was born in Jerusalem, but when I was six years old, we moved the West Bank, to a settlement called Ofra. We moved there during the first intifada.
When I grew up, I was this kid who didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to be religious. I didn’t want to do what I was told. It wasn’t easy for my father. He didn’t know how to deal with me. He used to burst. He was from a different generation. He didn’t know how to handle me. I suffered some violence from my father. I started stealing and not going to school and smoking pot and going to Jerusalem, to the streets where all the kids who dropped out of families and systems are. The police used to chase us—that was more than 20 years ago—I am 37 now.
Eventually, I left my house. When I was 15 years old I took a backpack and left. I went to Jerusalem. The government was looking for me, because you can’t just be [on your own] when you’re 15. If you’re not at home, the welfare people have the authority to take you to court, and put you in an institution. Eventually they sent me to a youth farm, which was a settlement, too, next to Tekoa. It was in the desert, and I lived there for years. I went into the military at the time of Operation Defensive Shield (2002), and I was in the Nahal Brigade.
After I finished the military, I started traveling the world. For many, many years I was lost and traveling the world. I was a little bit of hippie and I played my music on mountains and near oceans. I visited many countries. I was just lost. But that finished five years ago when I returned to Jerusalem after there was nowhere else to go. I suffered a lot being lost around the world. I started a video business and finally, now, I have a nice home and a band and business. But it was a long story. It took me 32 years to stop moving, and another fours years to build a home. Only now, at this point in my life, I can tell you I have an apartment and it’s not a temporary apartment, but it is a place that I really want to be. I have a plant. I put a picture on the wall. I have my own closet and a washing machine and everything [laughs].
When did you start playing music?
My parents sent me to a teacher when I was in fourth grade. I was never good at doing things I didn’t want to do, or listening to information I wasn’t interested in. Some people call it ADHD. I don’t know. They tried to give me pills for it.
My parents sent me to this teacher, and after a few lessons, I already knew all the chords I wanted to know, in order to play the songs that were on the radio. For me, it was great, I could actually play a song I heard on the radio. I was so happy. I didn’t want to learn anymore, and since then, I haven’t really learned anything. I don’t know a lot of music theory. I don’t know a lot.
You still managed to develop good technique.
I think I developed some kind of technique. It is like in the cooking world, I only know how to make my amazing scrambled egg. But that’s it.
What are those videos of you online playing with musicians like Omri Mor, Ofer Mizrahi, and people like that?
Those are a combination of two things. First of all, back in 2012, I was in Israel for a couple of years, and I was the booking agent for a music club. I got very well connected with the whole music industry. I didn’t want to book pop stuff, I wanted interesting things, and I met all these interesting musicians. I had a beautiful farm in Pardes Hana next to Caesarea—I lived in an old renovated train wagon made from wood—and amazing musicians used to come and play. In Israel, we’re not good at making movies, but we have amazing food and amazing musicians. I don’t know what happened or why that is, but for the amount of people that we have in the country, we have so many amazing musicians.
I also do video. I used all these little gadgets traveling the world, and I thought, “Wait, I can take the camera, connect everything together, make some kind of beat or a song, and talk to all the people that I know, and tell them, ‘Do me a favor, you owe me one.’” I want to play my music now, and when I started, I wanted to use those videos to promote my music.
What songs are you playing those videos? Are they yours?
All the songs you hear in those videos is music that I write.
How does it work? Do you send them a demo or spend an afternoon working out an arrangement?
It depends. For example, with Omri Mor, it takes exactly 10 seconds to teach him the most complicated song ever, and I gave him a simple song. The song is on Ableton, on the computer, and they can see. I put some bars for them to see. With Omri, you can see, he’s looking at the computer. I taught him the melody in a second. He didn’t know it. It took five minutes.
I try to keep it very simple. Some of them were hard. Max Oud was filmed at Kibbutz Gat, which was somewhere in the south, and going to film Quarter To Africa in Jaffa and trying to find parking—I worked very hard. I try not to work so hard on music anymore. I pay somebody to help me. I just want to focus on the music. I worked so hard I almost collapsed.
Do you do any editing afterwards?
I do a little bit of mixing. I didn’t think the sound had to be studio level, because it was all for Facebook and YouTube, and for drawing attention.
Tell me about your band, Tawil.
Tawil in Arabic means tall. It is slang in Hebrew—a lot of words from Arabic are in Hebrew—and Tawil is slang for somebody who’s tall. I am 190 centimeters [six feet, two inches], which is pretty tall. Tawil’s music is supposed to be happy. It is supposed to make people smile. I have this ideology about music. I am not into trying to make people see how brokenhearted I am. Look at me. Music should always be with some kind of message of hope in it. I could use the analogy of, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear know evil, because you are beside me [Psalms 23:4].” It’s better in Hebrew. We’re not denying the fact that life can be hard, but there should be hope there. I don’t listen to music when the message is that everything is bad. It’s like using music as this very powerful instrument, it should raise people, give them hope, or make them happy. You know how sometimes, in the blues, people say, “I feel bad and I want to shoot myself or shoot my wife…” How does that make the world a better place? I don’t know.
Sometimes with musicians, their whole career is about how people don’t notice them enough. They want to make music in order for people to notice them. But a lot of musicians feel very down after the show. That’s because they’re coming from a place where they’re lacking self confidence or love. They go on stage and get all this love for an hour and a half, and then when it’s over, they get back into the car, lock the door, “click,” and suddenly they’re alone again. You can feel very down after the show. Music should not be about you. It is about giving, not taking. Some people they think that they give, but don’t realize they are actually taking.
What languages do you sing in?
English and Hebrew.
Do you write lyrics in both languages?
It is hard for me to find lyrics. Melodies are easy for me, but when it comes to lyrics, the deepest lyrics that I have are things that were composed by poets. The first single we released is a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Breslav. When it comes to lyrics, I have one song, “Pink Lady,” which is about an apple. I don’t write music about women or stuff like that. it’s not my thing. I have another song that goes, “Why do you, why do I, want to move, want to fly.” That’s all the words. It’s kind of deep because it asks why do we always have to move from one place to another. But the deeper words that I have, which are not humorous, are words that I take from poets, and I compose music to it.
How about musically? Your music has a Middle Eastern vibe, but you’re also taking from the blues and reggae?
In Hebrew we say, “The structure of a person is what he’s born into.” In Israel, it is so much a combination of East and West. When you grew up in the West Bank, you hear the mosques. I grew up with that. But also, my father is from America and my mother is British. It was also very easy for me to listen to Western music. That’s how I grew up.
Meaning that you’re not making a statement when using Middle Eastern music. It’s in your DNA.
Yeah. It’s weird because people think it has to be either this or that. These musics do contradict each other in a way. They are very different kinds of music. But it’s very simple if you grow up in Jerusalem and have all these things. You are saturated with all the things that go on around here. That is who you become.
And a lot of these types of music do work together as well.
Yeah and it is beautiful to combine them. I like doing that combination. I am that combination, too. I am that combination of East and West. I am a combination of English and Hebrew. I am the combination of the city and nature. I am the combination of modernism but also loving tradition. Those are combinations that you sometimes can hear in the music. I really like that fusion. It sounds good to my ear.
Who is in your band?
I got to Jerusalem and I am this guy who knows three chords on the guitar, and I got the best musicians in Jerusalem. People say, “What? He plays with you?” It is funny because I am not skilled five percent of what they are on their instruments. They studied for years. They are all jazz musicians. I wanted to create something that would remind people a little bit of Snarky Puppy. But less complicated and more fun. There are not too many bands that are into just making people happy. I really give the musicians room, too. There is a structure of a song—very compressed into a song—but also a lot of room for solos. I really wanted to give them that. The music is for people who like to dance, but it’s also for people who like amazing musicians and want to see them play around on their instruments.
Do they have other gigs too?
They all play with the biggest musicians in Israel, and with me [laughs]. With this street kid who has a broken guitar. It’s funny.
Do musicians have to have multiple gigs like that to make it in Israel?
Yeah, it’s very hard as a musician to build your house over a career of playing music. I wouldn’t know. I don’t play with anybody. I just play with my band. I don’t know how to play other people’s music. I sit for days and curse a lot [laughs].
You do video production as well.
That’s what I do for money. I am so happy about it, because I don’t want to depend on my band to make money. That would be taking a lot of the holiness out of the quest.
Do you want to play overseas, too?
The world. Why limit it only to Israel? I want this thing to work like a machine that has enough budget to eventually make it worth it for the people who play in my band. Me, I don’t need to make money out of it. Although I am trying not to lose too much. I’ve already invested a lot of money and work into it. But I want it to be self-sufficient.
Subscribe now to our premium tier. It’s just $5 a month or $50 for an entire year (that’s two free months!).
The premium tier does not replace the great content you already receive, rather, it gives you even more.
Specifically, paid subscribers get:
Deep, probing essays about the spiritual nature of music.
Incredible curated playlists. These playlists include more than just music from the artists featured in the Ingathering, but also things we stumble upon in our research, and amazing things we need to share. If you’re a paid subscriber, you’re someone who needs to hear this.
The opportunity to support the Ingathering. The Ingathering is fun to produce, but it takes a lot of effort and time to research and write. A paid subscription is an amazing way to show your support.
Become a Founding Member. If you love the Ingathering, and you’re looking for a way to show even more support, become a founding member. The suggested founding donation is $180. You can give less if you want—as long as it’s more than the cost of an annual subscription—and obviously, you can always give more. The amount is up to you.
If you’d rather just give a donation, you can do that, too. The Ingathering is a project of Vechulai, a registered 501(c)3 tax exempt organization. Go here to donate and learn more. You can also Venmo us @Vechulai
If you don’t want to be a paid subscriber, that’s not a problem. Stay a free subscriber and keep enjoying the great content you already receive.
As always, if you have any questions, hit reply and we’ll get right back to you (or email us at: email@example.com).
Thank you being a regular reader and part of the Ingathering family. Your support at whatever level—founding member, premium subscriber, or free subscriber—is invaluable, and we can’t do it without you.