It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it isn’t.
A Syrian, an Iranian and an Israeli walk into a concert in Turkey... and surprise! They get along.
That unlikely scene repeats itself whenever veteran Israeli progressive Middle Eastern metal masters Orphaned Land plug in on their frequent visits to Turkey for sold-out shows. The utopian – some say naïve – outlook that touts music as a bridge for conflict between nations boasts some formidable ammunition in the guise of the five-piece outfit led by vocalist Kobi Farhi and guitarist extraordinaire Yossi Sassi.
Through the course of a 22-year career, ambitiously planned and executed albums and uplifting live shows, they’ve established a following around the world that rivals any Israeli musical export. But what sets them apart is their blend of Arabic motifs and instrumentation, lyrics of religious universalism, and, let’s face it, some monster riffs and grooves, which have magnetized young metal fans from Arab countries who prefer guitar solos to imams’ sermons.
“I just got back from Turkey where I did a signing session for fans and some interviews,” said the 36-yearold, tattooed, long-haired musical ambassador Farhi last week from his Tel Aviv home.
“I met a lot of fans from Syria, and was surprised to see so many Syrian refugees and immigrants who showed up. Most of our audience in Turkey is secular and so similar to us in so many ways.”
In Turkey, Orphaned Land are celebrities, able to attract thousands to shows, and according to Sassi, they’re identified more on the streets of Istanbul than they are in Tel Aviv. The band even recorded a version of the title song of their new album All is One in Turkish.
“I had to spend the entire day in the studio with our Turkish manager who walked me through the lyrics line by line. We just wanted to show our appreciation to the fans there and to the fact that Turkey and the Jewish nation are really so similar in a way.”
Through the recent years of deteriorating relations between Israel and Turkey following the 2003 election of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which reached its nadir in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara affair, Orphaned Land has represented an oasis of normalization between the two countries.
Aside from a 2010 cancellation of their appearance at an Istanbul festival with Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth due to security concerns of the promoter over safeguarding an Israeli act, the band has successfully performed in Turkey over a dozen times. And each time, Farhi said that more and more fans from neighboring Arab countries, including Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, are showing up, communicating with the band via Facebook and Twitter and accepting the fact that they’re following the music of an Israeli band.
“The connection we have with fans from all over the Muslim world show us that it’s all beyond politics and religion,” said Farhi. “When we go back to Turkey in October for two shows in Ankara and Istanbul, our support act is going to be a band from Jordan consisting of Palestinians.
It’s all about the music. We live in a place where huge amounts of people who consider themselves enemies still share one thing in common, they are all fans of Orphaned Land, and in these lands of orphans and bloody holy wars our only weapon is music, and hopefully we will grow to understand that ‘All is One.’” When the members of Orphaned Land first got together as high school students in 1991, it wasn’t to promote world peace, but to play heavy metal. But according to Farhi, they quickly tired of the standard fare, and realizing that being Jewish and Israeli set them apart from almost every other metal band in the world, Orphaned Land began to reflect on the region they lived in and on the impact that religion had on its residents.
By the time they released their second album in 1996, El Norra Alila, the band was incorporating Eastern and Oriental influences and included lyrics based on Yom Kippur liturgy in its exploration of the commonality between Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
The band’s 2004 album, Mabool, depicted three sons (one for each Abrahamic religion) trying to warn of an impending flood, and incorporates Yemenite chants and quotes from biblical verses. And 2010’s acclaimed The Never Ending Way of ORWarriOR, continued the epic themes, featuring the Arabic Orchestra of Nazareth, and traditional Middle Eastern instruments such as saz, santur, arabian flutes, cumbus and bouzouki.
IT’S STILL the same lineup since the beginning with Farhi and Sassi joined by bassist Uri Zelcha and drummer Matan Shmuely. Only guitarist Chen Balbus is a newcomer, replacing founding member Mati Scatizky last year for personal reasons.
“It’s a great feeling to be with a band for 22 years and still feel that you’re getting better,” said Farhi.
“I would have thought that after that long, I would just be more tired, but we’re actually becoming more ambitious and the albums are getting better and better.”
For All in One, Farhi said they tried to simplify things a bit – while at the same time going overboard in the opposite direction by utilizing over dozens of guest musicians, including a string orchestra from Turkey and 25-member chorus from Israel. The big difference, said Farhi, was an attempt create a piece of work that would appeal to a wider audience. The cover artwork was created by French artist Metastazis, who incorporated the symbols of Judaism, Islam and Christianity into one piece of art.
“We’ve had some albums and songs with such long titles, that this time we wanted to create something that was more accessible and people could easily understand, whether it’s the album cover or the song titles like ‘Brother’ or ‘Children,’” he said. “What’s ironic about the album is that while the title is All Is One, the lyrics reflect the complete opposite.
“The front cover is some kind of utopian dream, showing the small movement we’ve succeeded in forging in Turkey and other places, but if you look at the big picture, nothing is really changing – there’s no coexistence or peace and barely any talking going on.
Our message is one of hope and showing how we succeed where politicians fail, but the lyrics on the album focus on the opposite – a tragic and bitter path.”
For the first time, the band recorded the album in part outside of Israel, venturing to Turkey to record the string orchestra and to Sweden’s famed metal studio Fascination Street to lay down the bulk of the album.
Farhi credited Orphaned Land’s label Helicon for realizing they were attempting to reach a new level of proficiency and providing them with their biggest recording budget yet.
“It enabled us to do almost anything we wanted to do, from booking the choir of singers here to finding these amazing string players in Turkey,” said Farhi.
“With respect to all the string players in Israel, the ones from Turkey have something really special going on in the way they use scales and combine quarter tones.”
Spending over a month in the Swedish countryside isolated from the rest of civilization while recording the rest of the album proved to be a perfect setting for the band.
“It’s one of of the best heavy metal studios in the world, and you can tell the difference,” said Farhi.
“Fans still consider [2004’s] Mabool to be our best album – it was recorded in the best studio in Israel with the best equipment, but you can tell the difference – it doesn’t sound as good as the new album.”
With the album in the can and out on the streets, Farhi said he’s looking forward to two solid months of touring in Europe – including the Turkey dates – as well as playing extensively at home, including an album release show on Thursday night at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv, and a performance at the closing ceremony of the Maccabiah Games on July 30 at Teddy Stadium.
Realizing that using music as a means to not only make a living but to achieve some sort of harmony among people in conflict is only reaching a small segment of the public, he ruled out expanding his passionate and articulately expressed ideology to its next logical station – politics.
“It’s tempting on one hand. But on the other, I have never seen a politician be able to do what I’ve done in Orphaned Land. I always see politics as something that divides – the word in Hebrew is miflaga, pilug, which mean ‘separation.’ I’ve been able to succeed in uniting people.
“I would only go down the direction of politics if I was sure to be not separating people or taking sides – and that’s nearly impossible. I have friends from Iran and I have friends from West Bank settlements – which politician has that same privilege?”