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

Posted by jeff on Feb 21, 2018 in Israeli, Other, Personal, Song Of the week, Vocalists

I landed in Israel in 1970, twenty-two years old, carrying a passport from the Woodstock nation, Uncle Sam in hot pursuit to conscript me to Viet Nam. I was carrying one suitcase of clothes (no winter coat) and one box of records without which I wasn’t going anywhere.

The music scene in my adopted country was as foreign to me as the backwards alphabet, the Bolshevik political climate and the Levantine cultural assumptions. The Big Deal in popular music back then in the interbellum years (1967–1973) was the army troupes.

The IDF (Israel Defense Force) was a civilian army. Everyone joined at eighteen, boys for three years, girls for two. They still do, actually. In those days, the IDF (Zahal in Hebrew) was at the center of the country’s mind, pocketbook, and Top 40. The dream of every young musician was to be accepted to an army entertainment troupe (lahaka tzvait), of which there were more than a dozen, and most of the future stars ascended through this farm system. Each comprised a dozen or more conscripts. They would develop a program of songs composed and directed by the leading lights of Israel’s popular culture, and spent their service performing for the troops.

These programs were the heart and soul of Israel’s popular culture. The music was innocent, the frame of reference communal rather than personal. Here are a couple of clips from Lahakat HaNahal, “The Officer Forgave” (with very telling photos) and “Comradeship” (an archetypical expression of the Zahal ethos).

Musically, I felt like I had been exiled to Goth from Medici Florence – Dylan, The Band, Joni Mitchell, CSN&Y, Janis, Hendrix at the height of their creativity. So I bought myself a little Phillips record player (paying 120% tax) and spent a number of years avoiding the native music by hiding my head in my box of 40 albums.

But then came the Yom Kippur War, with my new country tottering on the brink of extinction. In its wake, everything changed, including the music. The idealism of youth was shattered, and Israel began to awaken to the big world outside. Two new artists spoke to my ears in aesthetically mature and culturally engaging voices – Kaveret (Beehive) and Matti Caspi (b. 1949). His first two solo albums (1974, 1976) are still among my very favorites today.

Matti has travelled a long and bumpy road, musically and personally – an acrimonious divorce, self-imposed exile to Los Angeles, never reaching the same creative heights of those early albums. What has remained a constant is his sinuous, challenging, beautiful melodic and harmonic voice. You can invariably recognize a Caspi composition within a couple of bars. He’s primarily a composer (always using collaborators for lyrics). He’s a knock-out arranger (as our SoTW will show), a very honest and touching singer, an almost virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and a terrific performer. He also has the driest sense of humor this side of the Sahara (actually, we’re pretty close).

I really can’t do justice to the entirety of Matti Caspi’s large and varied corpus. Here’s one of my favorites, ‘How Dares the Star?‘ And another, ‘Here, Here’, using musical terminology to describe a song about a relationship. Here’s one of his most moving love songs, ‘Brit Olam‘ (Eternal Covenant). And here’s one of the funniest clips I’ve ever seen, ‘A Man Should Not Be Alone‘ (which also got its very own SoTW 150 all to itself, together with the Adam and Eve story). The text is from Gen 2:18. Matti was born and raised on a kibbutz, so he’s no stranger to the cowshed. Note the footwear. Towards the end, he says, ‘Kulam!’ (Everyone join in singing!).

In 1973 he was doing his reserve duty writing a program for the Air Force Troupe (my reserve duty, in contrast, usually consisted of planting mine fields—do you know how heavy anti-tank mines are?). There Matti (25) met Netanela (19), with the blackest hair on God’s earth, Uzbeki cheekbones and a timbre thicker than Nina Simone’s. Over the years he employed her voice as a unique color in his musical palette. Back then, a year before his first solo album, he composed a song based on lyrics by Shimrit Orr, ‘Shir HaYona’ (The Dove’s Song):

Way up above the towers
The dove spreads her wing, gliding afar, her eyes longing.

High above like bell-clappers (sic!),
At daybreak she coos, and at nightfall is dumb, her wings alight.

Onwards, onwards, above the water she hovers, still waiting.
Way up above the Hills of Gilboa, above the clouds, the road is long.

The allusion, of course, is to Noah’s dove, searching for dry land. The dove holding the olive leaf in its beak is Biblical. In early Christianity, the Hebrew ‘aleh’ was mistranslated as a branch. As a symbol of the peace of the soul, the dove appears in 4th century Christian art.  It referred to political peace as early as the 5th century, but was popularized by Picasso’s drawing La Colombe for the UN in 1949.

Matti orchestrated the song for a popular musical festival (when you watch the clip, remember that ‘music festival’ for me meant Woodstock), gave it to Netanela to sing, and the result was indelible. Here’s the memorable live performance; here’s the original recording (pay special attention to the beautiful orchestration).  Here’s a lesser, later version of Matti and Netanela dueting on it.

Netanela also had her ups and downs personally and musically. She had several very fine hits (‘We Haven’t Discussed Love Yet’, ‘White Days’), mostly penned by Matti. Then she married a Swede and split her life between the North and the Near East. Her career went off track, even though her version of  ‘Eli, Eli’ was used in the final scene of the Israeli version of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (‘Jerusalem of Gold’ was used elsewhere, but was too maudlin for the local audience). The words (original title ‘Walking to Ceasarea’) were written by 21-year old Hannah Senesh before she was parachuted as a Palestinian soldier by the British behind Nazi lines to try to save the Jews of her native Hungary. She was caught, tortured and killed. ‘Eli, Eli’ has become a secular Zionist prayer, obliquely pleading for the fundamental right to live freely. (My God, my God, may it never end, the sand and the water, the sound of the sea, the lightening in the sky, the prayer of man.)

‘Shir HaYona’ expresses a similar sentiment, a wish for transcendence, also a secular prayer. It struck a most responsive chord in the hearts of a people reeling from a national trauma, and gave voice to its deepest wish – to simply be left to lead a normal life in peace. In 1974, even though much of my musical tastes lay elsewhere, my heart was in Israel, recovering with everyone else from that national post-war shock, and this very beautiful song gave voice to that longing. I think the sentiment, and the song, are still very beautiful and truthful today.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 14: Woodstock, the event (Hebrew); Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’ (in English)

SoTW 044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

SoTW 086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

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150: Matti Caspi, ‘Not Good, A Man Being Alone’

Posted by jeff on Oct 12, 2012 in Israeli, Rock, Song Of the week

This week we synagogue-going Jews finish a month of holidays with Simhat Torah, finishing the annual cycle of reading the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. We go right from the end of Deuteronomy into the beginning of Genesis, just to rub in the fact that there’s no respite for the pious. It’s a particularly appropriate time to show you

LtR: Matti Caspi, Elsie

The funniest video I’ve ever seen.

Did you know that God created the world twice? Well, not really, that was just a teaser for all you fantasy buffs. But the Bible does tell us the story twice, in Genesis 1 and in Genesis 2. At first glance, they seem pretty similar—we get sky and earth and sun and moon and oceans and mosquitoes in both version. But if you look carefully, there are some pretty significant differences. (We discussed these stories in a recent SoTW).

(L to R) Man, God

For example, in the first version (1:27), on Friday afternoon Man is created androgynously, guy and gal all in one package (see SoTW 149), and given the job of ruling over the animals. All’s fine and dandy, God’s pretty darned pleased with His handiwork, so he takes Sabbath off and presumably goes fishing or watches a baseball game.

LtR: Tar Baby, Br’er Rabbit

In the second version (2:6–18), God makes this really cool garden, home theater and all, then out of the dust fashions Man to enjoy it – Man, all by his little lonesome self. God gives Man almost no limitations: to make his bed in the morning, take out the garbage, and “Just don’t eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge” (why does that sound like Br’er Rabbit?). He gets his first job, in the world’s oldest profession of course – taxonomist (see Zimmerman, R., ‘Man Gave Names to All the Animals’).

18ויאמר יהוה אלהים לא-טוב היות האדם לבדו אעשה-לו עזר כנגדו

And the Lord God said, “Not good, a man being alone: I will make him help opposite/against him.”

19 ויצר יהוה אלהים מן-האדמה כל-חית השדה ואת כל-עוף השמים

ויבא אל-האדם לראות מה-יקרא-לו

כל אשר יקרא-לו האדם נפש חיה הוא שמו.

And the Lord god created from the earth all the animals of the field and all the birds of the sky,

and He brought it to Man to see what he would call it,

and whatever Man called the living animal, that would be its name.

20ויקרא האדם שמות לכל-הבהמה ולעוף השמים ולכל חית השדה

ולאדם לא-מצא עזר כנגדו.

And Man called names to each beast and sky-bird and to each field-animal

But for Man He found no help opposite/against him


LtR: Man, Womb-Man

In other words, in God’s initial experiment, you and I would have been coupled with a cute zebra with streaked hair, or a hot little blonde chickadee. But no, somehow He in His infinite wisdom foresaw that that wouldn’t do the trick.

You see, God had created all the animals in pairs. But Man He created in a state of blessed bachelorhood. Why? You may ask. Well, here’s how B’reishit Rabba, the compilation of homiletic exegeses on Genesis from about 3rd–4th century AD, explains Womb-Man, Woman, Eve:

“’But for Adam there was no helpmate to confound him’–indicating that He paraded before Adam all the beasts and the animals and the birds, all in pairs. Adam said, ‘Hey, they all have mates! Where’s mine??’
Why did God not create a mate for Adam from the start?  Because The Holy One Blessed Be He anticipated that she would confound him, so He refrained from creating her (out of affection for Adam) until he demanded it.”

I’m not going to make any misogynist wisecracks here about how Adam should have kept his mouth shut. I just remember when my grandmother would be giving my grandfather a hard time, he would look at me wryly and say “עזר כנגדו”, a terrific Genesisical phrase describing Woman as ‘the one who helps against him’; or as my father used to refer to my mother, ‘my best friend and severest critic’.

Do you realize that if Adam/Man had kept his mouth shut, each one of us would be living in his own private fraternity house for eternity? Well, he didn’t, and we don’t, because apparently God hard-wired us to need Womb-Man, be she what she may. If only He hadn’t made them so darn pretty!

The Israeli poet and lyricist Natan Zach (b. 1930) put it like this:

Not good, a man being aloneBut he’s alone anyway.

And he waits, and he’s alone

And he dawdles and he’s alone

And he alone knows

That even if he dawdles

Oh, it will come.

לא טוב היות האדם לבדו
אבל הוא לבדו בין כה וכה.
והוא מחכה והוא לבדו
והוא מתמהמה והוא לבדו.
והוא לבדו יודע
שגם אם יתמהמה
בוא יבוא

James Thurber’s ‘Woman’

The wonderful composer/arranger/singer Matti Caspi (b. 1949) put these lyrics to music. Matti was born and raised on Kibbutz Hanita, a collective agricultural community. When he was growing up, he worked in the citrus groves, in the wheat fields, in the kitchen, and in the cow shed.

Hanita was one of the original Homa uMigdal (wall and tower) settlements, which we touched on in a jazz context in SoTW 109. We’ve also discussed another early Matti Caspi song with a more oblique biblical allusion, ‘Song of the Dove’ (SoTW 102).

Matti’s one very talented guy. His melodies and arrangements are among the most refined and sophisticated I’ve encountered in popular music. He also has a highly evolved sense of humor. He employs a poker face so dry you need to soak it for 24 hours before you can begin to detect the twinkle in his eye.

Here’s the original studio version of the Caspi/Zach composition ‘Lo tov heyot adam levado’ (‘Not good man being alone’), by charming young Yehudit Ravitz (who later became a big star) and the very annoying Danny Litani (circa 1977). Here’s the same song in a live performance.

And here’s our Song of The Week, the funniest video I’ve ever seen, Matti singing the song himself, serenading his childhood girlfriends. In the last verse he improvises ‘Not good the cow being alone’. When Elsie tries to French kiss him, he protests, “Dai!”, which means ‘Enough!’ or ‘Quit it!’ in Hebrew. Note the Wellingtons Matti wears on his date.

James Thurber understood it. Matti Caspi understood it. Even Elsie the Cow understood it. We’re hardwired. It’s inescapable. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. That’s just the way God made us.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

SoTW Israeli Songs
042: Leiber & Stoller, ‘Yakety Yak’ (The Coasters)
023: Tommy Edwards, ‘It’s All In the Game’


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