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An Interview With David Broza | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

An Interview With David Broza

David Broza

(Photo courtesy of Eli Silver, CC 2.0) 

Salon did an interview with me about some of the mishegas in which I have been involved here of late regardeding Israel, Palestine and The Nation. I found it narrowly accurate but generally misleading, so I posted a response. You can read both here.

A few years ago, I did a lengthy interview with Israeli singer/composer/national treasure David Broza about music, politics, life, etc., and it was never published. David is a great guy, though, and he’s got a new album he recorded in East Jerusalem with Palestinian musicians that is produced by a friend from Altercation Records, Steve Earle. It’s called East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, and you can read all about it here and can read a profile of David here.

So let’s hear what David had to say way back when.

Eric Alterman: Have you had much involvement with the American Jewish community?

David Broza: Yeah. Uninspired by those who are in their 40s, two or three kids, and they have to teach the kids something. I would have to maintain some kind of relationship with them. In order to maintain something of what their families went through, they have to maintain some form of identity besides being a citizen of America. And the Jewish community offers that. It offers it through all kinds of programs. Whether it’s education… tours, trips.

To me, a big problem with the American Jewish community is that it lives through Israel. In part, through the memory of the Holocaust, in part, through Israel. And it’s not an inauthentic expression of Judaism, it’s one of the ways… That’s why I find Jewish education in America so distasteful because it’s not, it doesn’t strike me as imparting anything authentic. I don’t mean the Orthodox, the Orthodox have their, you know, they know what they do. I’m talking about, well, not the secular Jews…

I think it all depends on the leadership; the leadership is not always excellent. But where it is excellent, I’ve seen… There are incredible leaders within the Jewish community of America which therefore give a different tone and a different meaning to the modern-day needs of young Jewish families that are not going to be religious. That don’t even think of Israel as the promised land, they think of Israel as another, literally, as another society, and yeah there are a lot of Jews there and it’s really interesting and I’d love our kids to go and experience, you know to Masada, you go to Tiberias, go to Tel Aviv, go to the Kotel. That’s the kind of Judaism that I see. And that I believe is a very open-minded, free spirited, but with, but with an identity. You know? And it’s not, die for Israel. Israel is a strong country now. Israel doesn’t need the Jewish communities to donate, Israel exists now, after sixty years of independence, Israel is actually shining like a really hard diamond on its own merit, on its brain power. And because it’s so critical of itself, which is not what Italy is, it’s not Spain, and it’s not France. It will survive all the problems, even the fact that the peace is taking longer to come and eventually everything will have to come. If Israel does survive—Israel doesn’t have coal mines, it doesn’t have oil, it does have gas now…

You mentioned Masada a few times. You have this weird relationship with Masada.

I know, I do.

Describe that.

Well, I don’t think of it historically when I go there.

First of all, well, we can mention this. You did this famous concert there.

I do it every year.

You do it every year, okay.

Since 1993, I’ve been doing a sunrise concert.

And who has come with you to do it? I know Jackson Browne, and Shawn Colvin.

Shawn Colvin. But other times I’ve had Manzanita, Spain’s top pop Flamenco artist. And Jonathan Geffen and Meir Ariel. May he rest in peace.

It’s very expensive and it’s not lucrative as far as income for the artist, but it’s really cool. Really have to just…it’s a really positive vibe and really attractive for me and for the audience. The reason it’s not such a lucrative money-maker is because it only seats 1,500 people. And it starts at three in the morning. So if you want to have a lucrative one you’d want to have 3,000 people. In any case we do it, and we look for sponsors, otherwise I do it by myself, I take on all the expenses, and the idea is to play 3 or 3:30 in the morning until sunrise at 6:30. It’s three hours straight and it’s an exhilarating experience.

And why do you pick Masada?

Masada picked me. I used to play in this pop-song festival, called Arad festival. Arad being a city in the desert just above…I used to go to the festival, and after three years of playing in the festival in the theater at three in the morning, I [looked for] another venue for me the following year because I was kind of tired of playing in the theater at three o’clock in the morning. So he said, why don’t you come next year to Masada. And I said, wherever that is, wherever it is I’ll come. So the following year, I came, I didn’t check where it was, I didn’t know…I mean I knew Masada, but I didn’t know where the theater was, the amphitheater. Only when the sun came up, and I filmed this, by coincidence, but only when the sun came up, honest to God, and I looked behind me, and I saw the sun coming up on the Dead Sea and I look at the audience did I realize what an incredible place we were playing in. That was 1993 and since then I’ve been doing at least one if not two concerts a year. Since then, sixteen years later. I’ve been hooked. And then in late 1995, I was playing at the PBS station in Chicago WTTW Channel 11 and they had, after I did my concert, which was a Hanukah concert, on PBS, the producer asked me, they were very impressed and really taken by my performance, and they asked if I would do a project for them. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I said, “Sure.”They said, “Well, what would you do if we asked you to do a special concert?” I said, “Masada.”They said, “What is that?” So I explained it to them. And they said, “Wow, how can we do that?” And about ten years later, ten years later, I called up and said, “We’re ready for you.”

So that’s how we brought Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin. Okay, moving along with it. Is there much relationship between, musically, between Arabs and Jews in Israel, and is there any relationship with Palestinians? I know you work with Arabs in Jerusalem.

No. I work with Palestinians in Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem. I work with Said Murad and he is actually the head of an organization that’s called Sabreen. They have a studio, and they have a band, and they do a lot of music for movies, and they do a lot of workshops in the refugee camps and in the West Bank. They have to do with music and building self-esteem for kids through music.

And what do you do with them?

To start with, we drink a lot of coffee, and have a lot of barbeques and spend time together. That’s how our relationship started. I was originally introduced to them as a pro-Palestinian musicians in the year 2000. And I came over to East Jerusalem, and we really established our relationship as a friendship. After, honestly after maybe a year, or maybe more than a year, of just hanging out and maybe sometimes more, I suggested that we write some songs together. And the first song that we wrote was called “BeLibi.” Which was a song that I started in Hebrew and I told them to continue in Arabic. And we actually sang them with identical lyrics, but me in Hebrew and him in Arabic, as a love song to our land, to our country. And actually referring to it as our motherland.

When was this?

This was in 2002, while the intifada was going on. And we developed it to the point that one day I was approached by a group called Search for Common Ground, which is actually a very established Washington-based organization, and they were doing a movie about the prospects for peace, and asked me if I would do the music. And I’m not going to say no to that, so Said and I became for the first time partners for writing music, and we wrote the score for this five-chapter documentary about prospects, and we included that song that we had written. And after our job was done, I actually used my public relations person to go to PBS—the Palestinian Broadcasting Systems, or whatever they call them there, and got them to agree to air simultaneously our song, which is four minutes and forty-four seconds long, simultaneously with Israeli IDF radio. This was very unusual for them to even agree to having a military radio do it, but the Israeli National radio wouldn’t do it. So, oddly enough the Israelis wouldn’t, but the Palestinians would. So we had the whole Middle East for four minutes and forty-four seconds listening to this one song sung by Palestinians and Israelis together and it was beautiful. And that established my relationship with Said Murad.

We did one concert for the Ford Foundation in Nevai Shalom Rachav Salam and we found that around the same time. But normally, Said and Sabreen at large are reluctant to play with Israeli musicians live. They have no problem recording, doing videos, doing photoshoots. For some reason, the live thing on stage is still a big problem. Although they have had a member, for example, Ibrahim Aid, who is a wonderful musician, who actually lives in a village to North in Israel, but is a member of Sabreen, was a member of Sabreen, and at the time, they would send him to play with me. And it didn’t matter that he was a member of Sabreen representing them, but they, personally, were not there to play with me. So there is a lot of collaborations, more and more Israelis and Arab musicians. But you have to distinguish between Israelis and Arabs and Israelis and Palestinians.

Okay. But you do collaborate on record and in this case with Palestinians?

Sure. But that’s unusual.

Okay. Is there, is there much… Israel, it seems to be having a particularly rich cultural moment, at the moment, with theater and film. Is this true in music? And to what degree, what are its sources? How much of it is the situation and the politics? And how much of it is the incredible richness of Israeli society at the moment?

I think there are more and more festivals that have budgets that enable Israelis and Arabs to sit together. For example, there is the Lod festival. So for the Lod festival, they have to have players and Arab musicians and they would normally, they would try to, at every festival they would have one if not two or three performances written and catering especially for the festival and that budgets for it. So that enables the Arab musicians from Arab villages to come and play with Israeli musicians. So that creates a fusion of the music. But there is more and more use of Ud and tarbukas and Arab, that’s Arab music, Arab musicians bringing in their, their music and, and incorporating it into Israeli music.

Do you hear Israeli musicians other than yourself incorporating Arab themes?

Sure, of course.

Is there a cultural ferment in Israeli folk music and pop music right now? Is it a good moment in Israeli music?

Yeah. You know, it’s amazing. Well look, record companies are going down, but all musicians have studios at home, so everybody’s recording themselves…with their files and creating fusions. We have Mira Awad who’s working with Achinoam Nini known better as Noa, Awad is an Arab actress and singer. Wonderful. They’re creating music. Amal Murkus, who is actually the pioneer and is really, I would say, the greatest singer, Arab singer, in the Middle East today and with a very strong Arab identity, and she collaborates with Israeli musicians. And, you know, she definitely has an opinion and she can be very difficult if we’re going to start having a political discussion, but if we’re talking about music, and sharing nice moments as musicians and artists together…talking about artists discussing a certain direction in music and not discussing about the identity of being an Arab and a Jew.

How do you see artists, musicians, even visual artists, film-makers, theater, in inspiring Israel to meet up to the problem it’s facing, particularly since that problem needs to be solved sooner rather than later?

If Israel was a country that did not openly criticize itself, then I would tell you that we’ve lost. Whether there’s a right, or there’s a left, to the pro-peace movement that I’m so, such a spokesman for and support so much, do we exist? Do we not exist? We are openly criticized, we openly talk about things, and as long as that society allows itself to do so, then there will be a future. And that, in my opinion, that is the one aspect of Israeli society that has brought Israel to where it is and will take it to the next level. And so, in the arts, when you see a movie like Ajami, for example, it’s a killer movie. It’s got flaws, but my God, it put the reality about my backyard, and this is Tel Aviv. This would be like New York facing those issues.

Also the movie Jaffa. Have you seen that?

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Yeah. So strong. So like you’re talking about, the story you’re talking about, which I haven’t seen, makes you wonder…how bad is that society if it allows itself to question itself and look itself in the mirror the way it does? It can’t be that bad. Bad is when you don’t see it. Bad is when you know the priest has been molesting children for generation upon generation and you turn the eye away. I can’t live with that.

But it makes me depressed…

You know you met, last year. Listen, they have their issues, but they are holding on, they’re holding up and they’re moving ahead. I have never seen Said, who in the past has been very depressed, so open with me. And I think it’s a reflection of what’s going on on the other side. In Ramallah there’s building, there’s a future, there’s young couples that can move into new apartments that are being built in Ramallah and all over the West Bank for the next few years. They have a future. And they’re not going to give up on that. And in order to really get to that future, to the promised future, they will have to compromise with Israel as well. Israelis will have to compromise. So I believe like Peres has said in the past, and I think he’s a visionary, that the economy holds the key to the future. And this is not for me to say, because I’m an artist, and I can’t, but I do believe in collaboration. And collaboration means working, and working, means making money, and making money you’re not going to give up. And making money, if that means collaborating, let it be collaborating. Don’t call it by any other name, because, it’s not peace. I don’t care what it is.

Okay, that’s all. Well I really enjoyed this.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the controversy behind Chile’s Palestino soccer club.

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