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July 17, 2013

Israeli DJ ‘U-Recken’ flees expensive, exclusive trance scene in Israel; starts festival in Turkey

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DJ U-Recken was one of 10 Israeli artists that played "Tree of Life" — a full 10 percent of the week's lineup.

You haven't really done Israel if you haven't raged for 24-plus hours at one of the country's famous "nature parties," or giant trance festivals held out in the deserts of the south and forests of the north. They're kind of like mini Burning Mans, with less art and more beat. And, as this type of event goes, the majority of the nature-party crowd is widely understood to be on hard drugs — but they'll tell you they're more just high off the energy of the people, the music and the land.

Whatever the source of the vibe, it's quite a spiritual experience, and only adds to the lure and mysticism of the Holy Land for the under-30 Diaspora.

However, Israeli psy-trance DJ U-Recken (real name Yaniv Ben-Ari) says that although Israel is "considered one of the cornerstones of trance in the world," the scene has become so over-saturated, and the cost of throwing an event so high, that he has looked to neighboring Turkey as the ideal place to start a new festival line from scratch.

Just call him a rave entrepreneur.

Ben-Ari's weeklong "Tree of Life Festival," which turned two years old this year, grew from a crowd of 2,700 in its first year to 3,500 in its second. And according to Turkish friends that attended the event, it's already one of the most well-oiled, well-vibed events in the country.

So I sat down with Ben-Ari at a cafe in northern Tel Aviv — just a few weeks after this year's "Tree of Life" — to talk to him about the international trance scene, its ability to unite people from different cultures and how that led to his own decision to set up camp in Turkey.

SW: Can you start by telling me a little bit about your career so far, and how you got started with the "Tree of Life" festival?

YBA: Around 19 years old, I started to get into the world of psychedelic music, trance. In 2006, I released my first album — and after that, this is all I do. I travel around the world, I play festivals, I pretty much know everybody everywhere in this scene. Three years ago, I started to work on my own festival in Turkey. Actually I did it because I have an Internet project I work on, and I thought to myself, 'How can I attract people?' In all the aspects of the scene — not only music, but also stage artists, graphic designers, clothing designers, photographers. I understood that as only an artist, even as a famous artist, I cannot attract all these people to me. So I was thinking the best way to do it is to make a festival.

And then a week after, I went to play in Turkey — I have a friend that invites me every year for five years, his name is Tim. He's my partner. And we looked at the pictures, and we saw the place. He knew this area — he did like small local parties there, 200 to 300 people. He's also an amazing artist: He's a painter, and he did the decorations this year. I run the festival, he's working with me, and we have a lot of good people working with us from all over the world. People from Australia, from South Africa, local people from Turkey, Israeli people.

SW: Do you think there's something about Turkey that makes the festival so successful?

YBA: First of all, it's much more easy to access from pretty much everywhere — it's the gateway to Europe. Even from South Africa — it's really the gateway to everywhere. The weather is good; the food is great and cheap. They are very welcoming — the hospitality is very good. If you show them tourist money, they will love you forever. And pretty much everywhere else is too difficult. They go against you. Five years ago in Israel, it was really hard [to get the permits] — and today it's very expensive. I know the organizers here, I work with them, and I know the cost is simply not worth the effort.

SW: Is Israel at the forefront of this kind of festival scene, or not?

YBA: Israel is huge. Small country, but it's considered one of the cornerstones of trance in the world. But what's special about this community is that because there are no lyrics in the music, it brings together people from all over the world. And the great thing about our festival that is special — that you don't see in other festivals — is we bring people from Iran, from Lebanon, from Jordan. They can go to Turkey without any problems with visas. This is what's also special about Turkey. In our festival, you can see Israeli people working together with Lebanese people, Iranian people, and they are happy together. It's great. It's something that I enjoy watching. It's like the overtone of what we do.

SW: At most of the festivals here, is it mostly all Israelis? Or do people come from elsewhere?

YBA: All festivals in Israel are made by Israelis, and mostly it's an Israeli crowd. I'd say not even 5 percent is international.

SW: What are the big differences you see between the Israeli crowd and the more international crowd? 

YBA: The Israelis are very enthusiastic. They jump, and they scream, and they're really getting into it — it's nice to have some Israeli crowd, because they really put everybody in excitement. The Europeans are more, like, holding themselves together. But also they are quiet, they are clean, they will not scream in the camping area and make a mess. But the ideal thing is to have small groups from every country, and this is what we get. This way everybody feels they have to show themselves, to prove themselves. So everybody shows their best qualities. When you have a big majority of one group, they're just taking over. They talk in their own language — they don't care about other things. So it's very important to keep the balance.

SW: Did the riots in Istanbul affect the festival?

YBA: This year, we had a little bit of bad luck because of the riots. The riots started June 1 and our festival was on June 12. So 20 percent of people who bought tickets didn't show up, and still we had like 3,500. And the festival was completely isolated from the riots. Only the local people, the local Turkish crowd, didn't approve — they said, 'Why don't you postpone it?' But I couldn't change it. I had booked like 100 international flights, a sound system, paid advances.

SW: Did you feel the spirit of rebellion at the festival at all?

YBA: You felt it, but in a good way. Because they tried to suppress the Turkish people not to drink alcohol outside, and that's what we do, you know? We pretty much used it — we promised all these people that we will show the world that this is the Turkey that they want. And we did.

SW: So you would never consider setting up a festival in Israel?

YBA: It's just not business-worthy. It's not profitable. There's too much competition here as well. It's saturated. The biggest companies today are Moksha, Groove Attack and TFN (Transformations). Every holiday there is a festival — Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Easter, Shavuot. Doof Festival is the oldest one. And as an attendee, I have a problem that [the crowd is] not aware of the environment. They don't clean — it's always dirty in the dance floor. And I don't like that. I'm looking from the stage, and it always looks dirty to me. Our festival is clean, always. It's important.

SW: What are the biggest countries right now where you think the most exciting stuff is going on in this genre?

YBA: It's changing all the time. Before it was Hungary — there is still a very good festival called Ozora. And in Portugal, there is Boom Festival. That is one festival that I'm very inspired from. Their system, how they work, how they clean, the stage artists, the decorations they do, the vibe of the people — is by far the best. Boom Festival is the one I go to and learn. We're also in good touch with them — they're a very good group.

SW: What was your initial vision for the festival — visually, and the vibe?

YBA: The location is amazing. It's very isolated, but very close to the city — one hour out, and 40 minutes into that hour, you drive up the mountain, and it's completely isolated. The structure of the venue is perfect for a small festival of 5,000 people. You get there, and the first 15 minutes you don't realize what's going on — you are like shocked — and then you just let go of everything. Because you just came from the city, from the airport, from whatever. But then you just let go. Your cellphone doesn't work there — nothing works there — so it's just you, and the music and nature.

SW: So no one could follow the protests on Twitter.

YBA: No. They're just trapped there. And they love it. There are a lot of connections being made in this festival. Twenty people from Tree of Life came to Israel after. People from Canada, from Australia. Because Turkey is close to Israel and they met Israeli people there. Bonds are made between people. When I'm doing the festival, I don't enjoy it, because I'm busy making it work. But when I saw the pictures yesterday and I saw the small things that happened in the festival, it's like I'm watching it for the first time. I was really happy, because you only see happy people. Happy colorful people from all over the world. This is what I wanted, and I'm very happy I got it.

SW: Is it more difficult to throw this kind of event in Israel?

YBA: It's possible, it just costs a lot of money. To rent the land, to get permits, the tax, the alcohol prices. Pretty much everything. Super expensive. No country in the world has 18 percent VAT. It's crazy. ... You always have to lower yourself to bring in more [money], but this is not how they see it.

SW: Do you think there's resistance because of any conservative feelings against this kind of party here?

YBA: No. Israel is one of the most open countries. Everybody here knows what trance is — you can hear it from every window. It's very popular. We've been through that phase that the media and the government are against us. They accept us now. Which is great. But for me as a businessman, when I look at the numbers, it just doesn't work for me.

SW: I heard that you also brought over Israeli food vendors to "Tree of Life." 

YBA: [The food was] very international. You had pizza from Italy that's very famous pizza. It's a bunch of nomads, they live in the mountains in Italy, hippies, and they build their own oven and make like really proper pizza. And we had a lot of Turkish food, which is good. The Israelis cooked Indian food and chai. Basically it's a group of people that I work with in Israel — they attract the more hippie side. Jewish people with dreadlocks, and they live in a green community. ... I just blasted the place with food from everywhere I could get.

What makes the festival good is not the lineup, or the musical content, or the decor. The most important thing is to keep the people comfortable — to keep them happy. You become unhappy when you're missing something vital. When you need to go [to the bathroom] and you don't have a proper place to go, then you become unhappy. So that's the main thing we care about. Because what makes the festival good is the people. It's not you, it's not anybody else — it's the people you bring and how they react to the festival.

SW: Do you think that the festivals in Israel skimp on some of that quality?

The Israeli crowd is not very picky. They just want to come and dance. They care about the alcohol rates... but they are not picky. You can not do toilets at all, and they will go find a place in the woods, and that's it. That's Israeli. Europeans are more picky.

SW: Do you have any competitors trying to set up similar things in Turkey?

YBA: We did have a festival in Turkey, another one, that happened a week after us in a different location. We didn't compete with each other — we worked together. Because for me as I saw it, it's more economical for people to get one flight to Turkey and make two festivals out of one. ... So we made shuttles from us to them afterwards. They started right after us.

People do that the whole summer. People live for that. I don't know, it's fun. The same people are traveling everywhere — you see them in Goa. Goa is the mother base.

SW: Is it possible to do that without being on drugs the entire time?

YBA: Most of the people I know are vegan people, are healers, they work with crystals, they do therapies, they're artists. So they're serious people in my opinion. I don't think [they're all on drugs]. It's just a way of living. Just like you have your job, that's their job. There are people who create their own jewelry, their own fashion T-shirts, they make food stalls — very special ones. If we supply them with space and electricity and build them a gazebo and stuff like this, then we charge minimum rent for it, just for the cost. But we give the option also to make free market. So we have like a big road. Everyone puts their cloth on the table. Such nice things — handmade jewelry, letterwork — amazing, amazing. And this is free. I think it gives a really nice color to the festival. You always see the same people sitting [at their booths], and you can come and sit with them and talk with them, ask them where they're from. That's why I tell you that the people are making the festival. We just give them the space.

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