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135: Kaveret, ‘Medina Ktana’ (Little Country)

Posted by jeff on May 11, 2016 in Israeli, Rock, Song Of the week

Kaveret, ‘Medina Ktana’ (Little Country)

Happy birthday to us, happy birthday to us, happy birthday dear Israel, happy birthday to us.

It’s our 68thtoday, and the few millions of us here are mostly out on the roads, visiting air force bases, national parks, waving flags and fanning the grill with our families and friends. But not far below the surface there’s a sincerity in it all, a true recognition and celebration of our very existence, something we don’t take for granted.

The Center of the Universe

Did you know that Israel is the only country in the world whose national anthem is in a minor key? Could be because after 2000 years of persecution it was built on the ashes of a near genocide. Israel has fought three existential wars in its 67 years, and hence lives with an acute sense of fragility. It’s the only country in history recreated by a miraculous act of will out of a tribal imagination, the only nation to return to its homeland from dispersion, reviving a dead language on the way. It’s also the only democracy in this part of the world, a bizarre mix of refugees from every corner of the world stuck in the middle of the Levant, hence a sharp sense of irony regarding our still-evolving national identity. People run around like crazy trying to be normal in the most abnormal of societies.

Kaveret

In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the country barely survived obliteration, a bunch of army buddies formed a band called Kaveret (‘beehive’), sometimes also known as Poogy (after the name of their first album, “Poogy Stories”). The leader and chief songwriter was Danny Sanderson, an Israeli who grew up in the US on rock and roll. In three years they recorded three albums as out of place and ahead of their time in the Israeli musical landscape as the country is in the Middle East – sophisticated in music, production, performance and content.

Patriotic symbol

Many of their songs have become cultural icons, still sung today by teenagers and recycled by rock stars. I’d like to share one with you, sort of a mock anthem, a modest little song that captures the spirit and ethos and self-image of this noisy, neurotic little country better than anything else I know of – ‘Little Country’.

We Israelis get pretty tired of seeing ourselves on the front page of the NY Times every day. On the other hand, we also see ourselves as the center of the universe. Go explain it. Well, Sanderson’s lyrics do it best – our wry perception of our very existence, our precariousness, our homey patriotism better expressed in self-effacing humor than in pompous parades.

Happy birthday, Israel. Here’s SoTW’s official nomination for our unofficial anthem.

מדינה קטנה

במקום די רחוק, קרוב לכאן
אספנו את עצמנו
הבאנו חברינו
ולא אמרנו מי ומה

In a pretty remote place near here,
We gathered ourselves up,
Brought all our friends,
Didn’t say anything.

בדרום בצפון או במרכז
שכרנו קצת שמים
דמעות הביאו מים
פתחנו ארץ חדשה

In the north, in the south, or in the center
We rented some sky,
Tears brought the water,
We opened a new land.

מדינה קטנה מתחמקת מצרה
את הכתובת לא תמצא
היא שמורה בתוך קופסה
בעולם כל כך קשה
להתבלט זה לא יפה
נתחבא כאן ולנצח לא נצא

A little country avoiding trouble
You can’t find the address,
It’s kept in a box,

In such a hard world
Sticking out isn’t nice,
We’ll just hide here and never leave.

שני בתים, שני סוסים ,שלושה עצים
נוסעים תמיד ברגל
שרים שירים בלי דגל
נושמים שנים ללא סיבה

Two houses, two horses, three trees
Travelling by foot
Singing songs without flags,
Breathing for years with no reason.

מלחמות אסונות חולפים בצד
אנחנו בתוכנו
וכל מה שאצלנו
תמיד ניתן למחיקה

Wars, tragedies, pass on by,
We inside ourselves
And all we have
Are always erasable.

יום אחד אם כדאי אולי נצא
כל עוד נעמוד לאורך
אני לא מרגיש ת’צורך
נחיה נמות ואז נראה

One day, if we should, maybe we’ll go out.
As long as we stand up straight
I won’t feel the need.
We’ll live, we’ll die, then we’ll see.

Additional Listening from Kaveret:

Medina Ktana (Little Country)

Shir HaMakolet (The Grocery Store Song)

Yo Ya

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

109: Daniel Zamir, ‘Shir HaShomer’ (Red Sea Jazz Festival, 2011)

 

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3

228: Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini (Noa)/Gil Dor, Vocalocity — ‘Zeh Po, Zeh Mugan’

Posted by jeff on Dec 31, 2015 in A Cappella, Israeli, Song Of the week

a-r-g-1‘Zeh Po, Ze Mugan’ – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)

‘Oh, How I Miss You’ – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)

‘Tumma’ – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)

‘Mishaela’ (‘בעיניה’) – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)

‘Zeh Po, Ze Mugan’ – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)–Extended Version

The Dream

A guy can dream can’t he? A person should dream. You never know…

For many years I’ve been living inside the music I listen to. Like any other devotee suffering from arrested development, I’ve played with my little tin soldier fantasy Dream Teams, even in my dotage. What if Bill Evans and Gil Evans had collaborated?  What if Laura Nyro had followed David Geffen to Asylum Records? What if John and Paul had realized their dream of playing with Buddy Holly? I recently had the very good fortune to play Dream Team for real.

a-r-4The Scene

I’ve been an avid activist in the burgeoning ‘modern a cappella’ scene, especially in its European flavor, for the past ten years. The Real Group, The Swingle Singers, Rajaton, Vocal Line, even Pentatonix. I do live in and for this music, so it is with great love that I say that its form and technical sophistication has far outrun the content. There’s tons of great technique and very little creative, new, substantial music. It so often comes down to very clever, very charming, very sophisticated covers.

The Masterpiece

a-r-1And then came “VOCAbuLarieS” under Bobby McFerrin’s name, but actually composed and scored and masterminded by Roger Treece. He coaxed motifs from Bobby’s improvisational experiments and architectured them into seven coherent compositions. Roger: “I was trying to harness the way Bobby takes ideas, sounds from all over the world and alchemizes them into a new language.”

Bobby: “I’ve never worked so closely with another writer who could create around what I do. As an improviser, everything exists only in the moment, and then you let go of it. But in this context, Roger would hear something I did once, write it down and build the material into a fully scored theme and variations form, and then say, “Here, sing this.” It was old and new, mine and not mine. It was a challenge for me.”

The Process

r-g-2I listened to “VOCAbuLarieS” a couple of million times, and it became quite clear to me that this was the first important creation to come out of the music I love so dearly. So I jumped at the chance to have a sit-down with Roger at the AAVF a cappella festival in Aarhus, Denmark in 2013.

We talked Bible and belief, vocalisms and musical vocabularies. I told Roger that it seemed to me that VOCAbuLarieS was (among many other things) exploring the very roots of the voice and music (to which he readily agreed); but suggested that the palette could be expanded beyond the African and classical sources of his masterpiece. I raised the idea that he should come to Israel – the crossroads of three continents, the intersection of African and and North African and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern and Near Eastern cultures, a country of immigrants in which young people are conversant in 70 different musical languages. Roger is very Bible-oriented, so the idea of visiting God’s home court was greatly appealing, and he readily agreed, in principle.

I went back home to the wholly holey Holy Land and had the great fortune to form (together with my partner Ron Gang) Vocalocity, a 40-voice modern a cappella group under the musical direction of Kevin Fox (UK, The Swingle Singers), conducted by Erez Tal.

a-1So now I have the ear of this likeminded mad genius composer/arranger and a vocal orchestra at my disposal. And I’m thinking “Israeli Vocabularies”. How to take the Treece/McF achievement a step further? What could be done to Israeli-ize the source materials? I started thinking of potential collaborators. And the name of one artist appeared as though it had been waiting inside the magic lantern to be conjured up—

Achinoam Nini, or as she’s known world-wide, Noa. Born in Israel to a Yemenite family, raised till her teens in New York, she’s a virtuoso singer defying categorization. She’s had a remarkably varied and sparkling career both in Israel and internationally for 25 years. Her music draws from the pools of American singer-songwriters to her Yemenite roots to jazz, opera, traditional Italian, and classical Israeli. Together with her long-time musical partner and collaborator Gil Dor, she’s displayed an exceptional mastery of a wide range of styles and genres in collaborations from Andrea Bocelli to Sting to Pat Metheney. She’s a warm and unpretentious person, an outspoken peace activist who provokes no little controversy in her home country for her relentless pursuit of her political agenda. A woman of the world, Made in Israel, a true musical polyglot.

picasso04The formula wrote itself:
Roger + Achinoam/Gil + Vocalocity = Something New
Not just new. Achinoam’s melodic and percussive inclinations, Gil’s harmonic and structural predilections, and Roger’s unique abilities to grasp the ephemeral, to ‘architect’ the fleeting moment of the magic that can only emanate from the (almost always, but not here!) ungraspably improvised. Together they could permanentize the moment. I think of Picasso’s ‘light paintings’.

Now all that was necessary was to move this meeting of luminaries from my imagination to reality.

Roger and Vocalocity met at the Aarhus festival in May, 2015. We talked about the actuality of The Project – later to be named by Achinoam “NotesAre”, a homonym withנוצר  (‘Created’) – based on bringing him to Israel for a series of workshops, presentations and rehearsals. Roger was game from the git-go. I spoke to Achinoam (the luxury of living in a small country). She heard “VOCAbuLarieS”, said “It’s a masterpiece”, and graciously agreed to make time between her extensive touring and personal commitments for her and Gil to participate in a series of three workshops with Vocalocity and Roger.

a-r-3A lot of people have asked me why Achinoam and Gil agreed to participate in such an experiment (gratis—because we could never have afforded their fees). After all, they are stars with a very demanding schedule and lots of obligations.

Truth be told–they’re musicians. Dangle a juicy artistic challenge before them, they can’t resist. In these first three years of managing the virtually unfunded Vocalocity, I’ve too often said to professional musicians “I can offer you an exceptional musical opportunity, a unique instrument to play on, but unfortunately no (or very little) money.” They always listen. They’re musicians. I hope the day will come soon when we can pay people their just rewards.

So with the backing of Mil”a (the Israeli choral organization which Ron Gang heads) and the US embassy in Israel, we set a series of three workshops together in mid-November, two at the beautiful Elma hotel/music center, the third in front of an audience on the lovely stage of the YMCA, almost unadvertised for contractual reasons. But that was okay—we called it a ‘happening’, an open workshop, as opposed to a concert. It was all about the process. Real musical engagement, not a show.

NotesAre

a-r-v-1Roger sent us all a batch of ‘palettes’ to warm up our ears and voices – extended phrases in gibberish, choral chord progressions with intricate interlocking rhythms between the voices – such as Bring Us Home and Du Mac Dum. Vocalocity went over them with Roger via Skype. We sent them to Achinoam and Gil, but they were off with the Pope and Andrea Bocelli, so we figured they wouldn’t have a chance to go over the palettes before the workshops.

At our first tripartite meeting, Achinoam walked into the room carrying her palpable charisma, her warmth and a pile of papers. Greetings and hugs. What are those papers? “Well, Gil and I were listening to some of Roger’s gibberish lyrics, and some words started to coalesce. Like in “Bring Us Home”, ‘zinko zemuga’ became “Zeh po, zeh mugan (זה פה, זה מוגן)”, which in Hebrew means “It’s here, it’s protected”.

a-v-1You have to remember—Israel’s a volatile place, tsuris by the barrelful, and Achinoam is a passionate, indefatigable peace activist. Words as simple as “It’s here, it’s protected” carry a tremendous valence. ‘Here’ is no generic center, it’s here in this wacky, wonderful country of Israel. ‘Protected’ is safe, secure—not from bogeymen, but from real threats. From Ayatollas with nuclear reactors, ISIS, and teenage girls carrying knives. Achinoam said that the song expressed her nostalgia for a different, a better Israel. I personally felt the words saying ‘Here, now, we have the ability to protect ourselves against adversaries’. It’s art, open to different interpretations. That I choose a different one from Achinoam is absolutely legit. In any case, we’re talking about the same subject.

השיר הזה מוגן מפני הפחד\השיר הזה מוגן מפני כאב\השיר הזה נולד הרגע\השיר הזה בוקע מן הלב.\השיר הזה ישן וגם מפתיע\השיר הזה רחב כמו הים\השיר הזה מביט בנו, תומך וגם מריע\השיר הזה שלי ושל כולם.

This song is protected from fear/This song is protected from pain/ This song is born at this moment/This song arises from the heart./This song is old and surprising/This song is as wide as the sea/This song looks at us, supports us and cheers/This song is mine and everyone’s.

The Music

v-1So we started singing. “Zeh Po” is nine minutes long, during the course of which my dream comes true. Roger assigns a bass riff. Then adds the baritones, then each of the other voices, in interlocking phrases whose interaction bouncing off each other provide the internal combustion driving the music forward. Gil Dor is coloring it in, providing a secure harmonic underpinning. Achinoam begins to improvise, providing a linear, melodic focus to the mix. This is our first time singing “Zeh Po”. You can watch the magic, the moment of creation, right here.

Here’s the same ‘piece’ several nights later. It’s been polished just a tad, (“choreographed” is Roger’s term). At about 5’50” and again around 9’00” you can hear that wonderful, mad clockwork complex of rhythms interacting.

JARG-2Achinoam coaxed one other distinct piece from a Roger palette. She cast a Yemenite spell on “Du Mac Dum 2”, giving us “Away You’ve Gone”. Achinoam and Gil and Roger and Vocalocity making the music I’d imagined three years earlier. I’m in heaven.

I wrote to Roger: “Well, the Achinoam/Roger/Gil amalgam worked. You can imagine how thrilling it was/is for me, especially when I learned that you’ve never really gone nose to nose with a solo voice in your weight class. I feel like I’ve helped facilitate a new kind of music being born in real time of the musical intercourse of two fine artists, each complementing the other, creating a whole neither could create alone.”

He responded more soberly: “Those two pieces are definitely working, but they’re two lines of a story that has yet to be written.”

I think we all feel that we’ve tapped a seam of gold. We put together a great virtuoso singer, the mad genius of modern choral music and a wonderful vocal orchestra. And we created Something New, something of beauty and substance, something that has never been done before, a new musical direction, one I passionately hope will continue to evolve in the future.

Sometimes dreams come true.

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7

154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’

Posted by jeff on Jul 9, 2014 in Israeli, Personal, Rock

I first published this posting two and a half years ago. Yesterday, again, 40 missiles were shot from Gaza at my city. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, right? But merrily we rock and roll along, whistling a happy tune and pretending there’s some coherence and logic on this orb. Well, at least routine. But in the interim I did make a new friend, a very talented young Danish singer/arranger/conductor named Line Groth. And just to prove that I don’t love Laura only when missiles are falling, I twisted this poor Dane’s arm till she gave me this gift.


Laura Nyro – Save the Country (Stereo Single)

Laura Nyro – Save The Country (Mono Single)
Laura Nyro – Save the Country (Album)
Laura Nyro – Save the Country (Live TV performance)

I learned something this week: you can appreciate music even when missiles are falling on you. Well near you, anyway. Certain music you can appreciate even because missiles are falling near you. I live in southern Israel. My city had 86 missiles shot at it over eight days from our neighbors in Gaza. There’s an Israeli-developed anti-missile system called Iron Dome. It detects the missile, sets off alarms in the targeted areas. This is what it sounds like from my room. Everyone runs for ‘safety rooms’ made of reinforced concrete. Poets in the heat of inspiration. Kids on potties. Barbers in the middle of a haircut. Couples in flagrante delicto. Everyone.

Iron Dome

After half a minute’s warning, the whoosh of the Iron Dome. Then we wait 10 seconds for the boom. It might not come at all. Or it might happen up in the air above an open field outside of town. Or it might be among the 1/3 of the incoming rockets that aren’t caught, and it might fall on your next-door neighbor, or on you, or on your children. That’s the bad time, those 10 seconds. There are people around the world who say that Israel’s at fault in this conflict. I’m here to talk about music, not to shout polemics, but let me just say that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza to the recognized international border seven years ago; that Israel’s rationale for the sea embargo is to prevent Hamas from stockpiling missiles; and that anyone who thinks one side is all wrong and the other is all right in a conflict as complex as this one is too biased to talk to.

Velvet Dome

On one level, I dealt with the 86 sirens and the explosions with equanimity. No tears, no screaming, no bed-wetting; I’ve had a pretty full life. But still, I do feel a certain indignation, deepening with each day of sirens and explosions. Stop shooting at me! I don’t want to hurt you! Stop trying to hurt me! This war stuff is crazy!

And a sound track emerged: I got fury in my soul, fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal – In my mind I can’t study war no more. Save the people, save the children, save the country, now!

It’s ‘Save the Country’ by Laura Nyro (1947-1997). I’ve known it intimately since for 44 years, but it never resonated as strongly as during those sirens and explosions. It’s a furious demand for an end to violence, sung in her unique street gospel style. ‘I will not tolerate this evil! I personally am going to fill this world with love, goddamit, and if you keep shucking your ugly, I’m personally gonna kick your ass!!’

I’m reminded of a story my college friend Steve told me. He was in a bad place, dropped acid in the worst possible circumstances, and took off on a Bad Trip. He told me that he felt The Devil was about to envelop him. But he did have the presence of mind to sit himself down and put on “Eli and the 13th Confession”, knowing that Laura would protect him; she knew all about fending off Lucifer.

That’s sort of how I felt this week. Laura’s unbridled love would protect me. Together with Iron Dome. Come on people, come on children, Come on down to the glory river. Gonna wash you up  and wash you down, gonna lay the devil down. The song and the atmosphere that evoked it sent me on a binge of listening to Laura Nyro (not that I need much of a push). I listen to her frequently and intently and passionately. She is one of my very favorite artists. I usually confine myself to her masterpiece “Eli and the 13th Confession” and to “Spread Your Wings and Fly: Live at the Fillmore East”, recorded in 1971 but released only in 2004. Here’s ‘Save the Country’ from that show.

While we’re at the Fillmore, here’s ‘Walk on By’, a knock-out ‘Spanish Harlem’, and the sublime ‘Emmie’. This time I revisited her entire oeuvre, particularly enjoying the 1970 “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” (including ‘When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag’ and ‘Up on the Roof’) and this hour-long low-quality video “Live in Pittsburgh” from 1994. It begins inauspiciously – overweight (from chemotherapy?); in Pittsburgh; in daylight; at a low point in her career and nearing the end of her life; on electric piano (why in heaven’s name?) accompanied only by 3 singers; and including songs dedicated to Animal Rights, Native Americans, and her own menstruation (no kidding). But amazingly, it’s a knockout.

Here’s ‘Save the Country’ from that show. And just for good measure, here’s ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ and from her first album ‘Blowin Away/Wedding Bell Blues’. Oh, and one I never appreciated before, ‘Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby (The Heebie Jeebies)’. And here’s a fine 10-minute film with and about Laura made by her long-time lady partner in 1995.

Up On The Roof

It reminded me just how much I love and admire and am inspired by Laura Nyro. She’s a major artist. Together with Joni Mitchell, the two most accomplished women to emerge from the rock idiom. Joni is an artisan, a craftswoman, a perfectionist, every song a finely cut gem. Laura is all soul and inspiration, a look-ma-no-hands roller-coaster trip. If Laura was too quirky to be fully appreciated during her prime years, recognition of her talent and influence has been growing by quantum leaps in recent years. Elton John, guesting on Elvis Costello’s TV show, said “This is music so far ahead of its time that it still sounds unbelievable – the soul, the passion, the audacity of her rhythmic and melody changes was like nothing I’d ever heard before.” Rickie Lee Jones told me how deeply indebted she is to Laura. This year Laura was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bette Midler. Mega-producer Larry Klein is working on a “Reimagining Laura Nyro” project with Dr Billy Childs, guests including Renee Fleming, Rickie Lee Jones, Yo-Yo Ma and Wayne Shorter .

‘Save the Country’ was Laura’s response to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy on June 5, 1968 (Keep the dream of the two young brothers). I remember the event and its context well. It was a trying time, difficult to maintain your equilibrium let alone envision peace. Not Universal Harmony. Just let-me-get-through-the-day-unscathed peace. The song was originally recorded  that summer as a single, her first release after her monolithic second album, “Eli and the 13th Confession”, then subsequently in a different version on her follow-up “New York Tendaberry”.

Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro

Laura was having a lot more success in the late 1960s as a songwriter than as a performer. She had bleached hit treatments of her songs by Three Dog Night (‘Eli’s Coming’); Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love”, and “Flim Flam Man”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with “And When I Die”; and especially The 5th Dimension with “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save The Country” and “Black Patch”.

Columbia President Clive Davis and Producer Bones Howe appreciated Laura’s talent and wanted to help her take off commercially. Bones Howe, on ‘Save the Country’: “She was excited about it when she did [the single version]. But when she stepped back she said, wait a minute, that’s not me. It was too produced, too pop for her. She wanted to do ‘Save the Country’ just sitting at the piano. She said ‘you make records that sock it to the people. I can’t sock it to the people. I just don’t do that.'”

I’ve always felt closer to the single version. I find it a finely fashioned pop funk production. To tell the truth, I’ve never succeeded in snuggling up to “New York Tendaberry”. I find her slow, rambling songs (‘December’s Boudoir’ and ‘Woman’s Blues’ from “Eli”, most of “Tendaberry”), hard to follow – diffuse, unfocused, less engaging than when she’s being melodic. The first half of the Tendaberry ‘Save the Country’ is solo piano, and is fine. At mid-song it shifts gears in typical Nyronian fashion, to my taste to too hysterical a tempo, the orchestration overbearing.

The version that grabbed me most strongly this time is the rare TV appearance (1968, I’m guessing), in unfortunately low quality. She takes beautiful rhythmic liberties, she swings and sings and rocks and smiles. She lays the devil down. She makes me believe – even as the sirens are wailing and the explosions are shaking my walls – that we can build the dream with love. That’s what music can do.

Thank you so much, Laura.

Come on people, come on children, come on down to the glory river.
Gonna wash you up  and wash you down, gonna lay the devil down.
Come on people, come on children, there’s a king at the glory river.
And the precious king, he loved the people to sing,
Babes in the blinking sun, saying “We Shall Overcome”
I got fury in my soul, fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal –
In my mind I can’t study war no more.

Save the people, save the children, save the country, now.

Come on people, come on children, come on down to the Glory River.
Gonna wash you up  and wash you down, gonna lay the devil down.
Come on people, sons and mothers, keep the dream of the two young brothers.
Got to take that dream and ride that dove, we could build the dream with love.
I got fury in my soul, fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal –
In my mind I can’t study war no more.

Save the people, save the children, save the country, now!

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

182: The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’
170: Laura Nyro, ‘Luckie’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)
036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)
 

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2

184: Arik Einstein, ‘Ruach Stav’ (‘Autumn Breeze’)

Posted by jeff on Nov 29, 2013 in Israeli, Song Of the week

Arik Einstein, Israel’s leading artist, died this week; and it’s hard for me to talk about it. But the media are flooded with profiles and obituaries and personal recollections, and I’m a music writer living in this country, so it’s expected of me to join in the chorus. I do so unwillingly.

Because it’s considered uncool in some circles, common, to join with the masses in eulogizing Arik. Cool people are recoiling from musical and verbal tributes because, I think, they don’t want to share their grief—they feel it too personally.

Because I prefer to talk about artists whom I can quantify and dissect and analyze. And I don’t feel all that comfortable with the nuts and bolts of his discography. I’m painfully aware of the corpus of nuance and reference and connotation and innuendo that are beyond the ken of a transplant such as me.

Because it’s impossible to talk about Arik Einstein as merely a singer, or as a catalyst of musical projects. Arik is too integral in the fabric of Israel to talk about him without talking about our brand-new little old-fashioned country with its oh-so-long history, its giant heart, its pain, its optimism, its cynicism, its blundering provinciality and its astounding sophistication, its utter belief in itself and its vehement denial of that belief.

Arik Einstein, Shalom Hanoch

Arik Einstein didn’t just reflect that well of complexities and complexes, he was an organic part of it.

Israel and the Jewish People: David established the Israelite kingdom about 1000 BC. Most of the Bible was composed in his world. By the time of Jesus, Israelites practiced Judaism as a religion. By 200 AD, most of Jewish life was mostly in the Diaspora. For 1600 years, Jews wandered from exile to exile, from persecution to persecution, living on the margins of host societies by rejection and/or by choice. With the rise of Socialist Nationalism in the second half of the 19th century, Zionism was founded as a political movement. Jews trickled back into the malaria-ridden wasteland that was Palestine. Hebrew was rejuvenated as a living language. Then Hitler came to power.

Palmachniks

When Arik Einstein was born in Tel Aviv in 1939, the city was 30 years old. The Jewish population of Palestine was little more than half a million, perhaps a tenth of whom were native born. A handful of refugees on a pile of sand in the middle of a sea of enemies and a language they’d just reinvented, struggling to build a country with their bare hands while six million of their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters were being murdered in the Old Country. Israel is the only country in the world with a national anthem in a minor key.

Arik’s father was an actor in the first native-born theatrical troupe. Arik was a passionate athlete (high jump, shot put), joined the army at 18 and served for three years in the Nachal Entertainment Troupe, the elite of Israel’s nascent cultural scene. In 1959 he joined The Yarkon Bridge Trio (Gesher HaYarkon). This clip gives you a great picture of where Israeli pop culture was at the time.  Then in 1966, he formed  The High Windows (HaHalonot HaGvohim) with the mad, gifted Shmulik Kraus and his American wife Josie Katz, providing Israel’s first peek out into the music of the world.  It wasn’t “Revolver”, and the texts ranged from bland to Biblical to militaristic, but drums had replaced the accordion.

Then came the 1967 Six Day War, and Israel’s overnight transmogrification into a member of the big world. In 1970 he made the album and film “Shablul” (‘snail’–in Israel connoting not slowness but reclusiveness) with young pal Shalom Hanoch, a quantum leap from the collective into the personal. Here’s ‘Lama Li Lekachat LeLev’ (‘Why should I take it to heart?’), in which you see Arik’s fully-bloomed baritone, his cool, his reserve, the twinkle in his eye. Here’s ‘Avshalom’, perhaps about David’s errant son (10th century BC), perhaps about the Palestinian Jewish spy for the British against the Ottomans Avshalom Feinberg (19th century AD). In any case, it includes the prayer for peace, “Why doesn’t it come now, what will surely come tomorrow?”

Did Arik really think political or utopian peace was imminent? I doubt it. Cynical optimism, that was Arik. And that was, and still is, all of us.

‘Uncle Albert’, relatively speaking

In 1970, I was already in Israel, a refugee from Nixon’s America. ‘Avshalom’ was the first Hebrew song I learned. My natural musical roots were ‘Twist and Shout’. I guess they still are. But like my grandfather, I chose to transplant myself to what I believed would be a better life, at the cost of being an eternal immigrant. Still today, after 43 years here, 20 years of combat reserve duty, 20 successful plays written in Hebrew, Israelis still sometimes mock my accent.

In 1973 Arik recorded the first of four volumes of “Songs of Good Old Israel”, songs either written in the pre-state era, or new songs that should have been–an invented nostalgia. These were often Palmach songs, arising from the ethos of that first fighting force, the New Israel, the Tzabar with the (later called Kennedy-esque) shock of hair and shy smile and casual heroism, that New Jew who was fighting to take the destiny of his persecuted people into his own hands.

Arik was the coolest, biggest star in Israel in 1973 (and remained so until his death this week). Try to imagine Frank Sinatra sincerely singing an album of cowboy songs. That just doesn’t work. Perhaps the closest parallel would be Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’. But Bruce (and Woody) were positing a world view. How many Americans had actually seen California and Staten Island and the Redwood Forest and the Gulf stream waters, let alone felt that they were his? Arik’s songs were building blocks in the very foundation of our world.

One of my favorite songs from that album is ‘Ruach Stav’, ‘Autumn Breeze’. Here are two lovely video versions, one from the time it was recorded, the other about 15 years later. The caption at the beginning of the earlier version says, “The audience is invited to join in singing.”

Don’t be ashamed, be sad.
Don’t be sorry if you’re sorry.
It’s that kind of season, pal.
It’s just the Fall, and it passes.

Walk alone at night in the city,
Look for a star up above,
It’s okay, it’s okay for a young guy
To be a little sad in the Fall.

It’s the Fall, with a cloud,
With a whimpering wind,
And if you’re just a little cynical,
Still, there is a twinge in your heart.

Here, in this kind of atmosphere,
You don’t say to a girl,
“Hey, cutie, c’mere and dance,”
But “Look, it’s a Fall night”

You laugh, “Nonsense.”
Excited? “Of course not.”
So why did you send her
A bouquet of fall flowers?

A tear? Don’t blush,
It won’t cause any harm.
Just say, “It’s rain, nothing more.”
But we both know…

It’s the Fall, with a cloud,
With a whimpering wind,
And if you’re just a little cynical,
Still there is a twinge in your heart.

Arik went on to record almost 40 albums. He rarely performed, because he just simply preferred staying at home. He wrote few songs himself. His modus operandi was to collaborate with talented young musicians, use their music with texts from the classical Israeli poets of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, and to croon them in his warm, sincere, honest, cynically optimistic baritone.

You know, there really is no Autumn in Israel. We’re pretty much a two-season climate. But with all our would-be hedonism, with all our pretending to be normal and happy, we have the Autumn blues all year long.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)
135: Kaveret, ‘Medina Ktana’ (Little Country)
109: Daniel Zamir, ‘Shir HaShomer’

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