Even if you are not blessed with a particularly well-developed imagination and have only sketchy knowledge of the landscape of California, desert and sea seem to be apt elements for the West Coast state. The same, naturally, could be said of the Dead Sea region, so having Long Beach, California-born singer Suzy Miller perform at this year's Arad Festival sounds, well, perfectly natural.
The 32nd annual free Arad music bash will take place from August 18 to 21. The star-studded program includes a concert featuring Miller alongside fellow former Brothers and Sisters band member Moni Arnon. The Miller-Arnon show repertoire will largely feature songs based on the works of late poet Natan Yonatan, who maintains the natural element continuum. The recurrent themes in the poet's work include the sea and the desert.
Arnon's admiration for Yonatan and his writing began more than 40 years ago.
"It was around 1973," recalls the singer-guitarist.
"[Brothers and Sisters founder and composer] Gidi Koren met Natan Yonatan at [iconic singer] Shlomo Artzi's apartment in the Bavli neighborhood of Tel Aviv. It was a few months after Natan Yonatan's son had been killed in the Yom Kippur War, and Natan allowed Gidi to write music for his poem ‘Kemo Balada’ [like a ballad]." “Kemo Balada,” which also feeds off a desert ambience, became one of the Brothers and Sisters' staples.
“Gidi did a wonderful job with the song and with other poems by Natan Yonatan, like “Kemo Tzipor” [like a bird], “Hofim” [shores] and “Al Anfei Shitta” [On the branches of the acacia]." It was the start of a long love affair with the poet's texts.
“Over the 10 or so years that I was with the group, we did lots of other Yonatan poems in other records, songs like ‘Shirim Ad Kan’ [songs until now]. Gidi wrote beautiful music for that, too," he says.
Clearly, for Arnon the upcoming Arad Festival concert is going to be something of a heady nostalgia trip. Miller admits to have similar feelings about the gig.
"I was 17 when I met Natan Yonatan," Miller recalls.
That encounter took place only a few months after Miller made aliya with her family.
"We [the Brothers and Sisters] were the first ones to make a whole album with Yonatan's poems," she says.
Miller was very moved by her rendezvous with highlights events movies television radio dining the celebrated poet, although Yonatan had some serious misgivings about entrusting his lyrics to a band with a vocalist who had only recently set foot in the Middle East.
"He heard my accent, and he wasn't very happy about that," she says.
There was also the matter of the Californian's lack of life experience.
"’Kemo Balada’ is the most famous of Natan Yonatan's songs, and I didn't even know what I was singing there," Miller continues.
That was not just because of her poor command of Hebrew at the time.
"I was just a kid, and there I was singing words like ‘With a painful wreath of thorns, that's what you love.’ I didn't have any idea what that was all about. I was just a young girl," she says.
Fellow American-born Israeli vocalist Josie Katz, a member of the seminal late 1960s High Windows threesome along with Shmulik Krauss and Arik Einstein, was in a similar position when she started out here, too.
Miller eventually came to appreciate the depth and emotion of Yonatan's work.
"I knew he was a revered poet and, when my Hebrew improved, I began to understand that every word he wrote was like a whole explanation of how Israelis lived and the pain Israelis have experienced. It is only when you grow older and you have lived life a bit, that you can understand the pain and love in his words, the beauty and the pain of his losing his son," she explains.
Like Katz, Miller is very much a product of 1960s America, so presumably it must have been quite a steep learning curve for her to get a handle on the vibes of Israeli music at the time.
"I am a musician, and I have been singing from a very young age," she notes. "I came from a very diverse background. My father sent me to a black school because he said the world is like a rainbow of colors and we have to learn from everybody and that everybody has a story and has something to teach us." Miller's American accent may have been a problem – she subsequently modified that by taking Hebrew elocution lessons at Tel Aviv University – but Arnon and the other members of the group certainly dug where she came from musically.
"I was used to singing country music and folk," she says. "I sang Dylan and Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen, and when I joined the group they liked my style. So Gidi Koren did a lot of arrangements that were folk style. We had a very American sound." Forty years on, Miller is very excited about teaming up with Arnon again for a Natan Yonatan show.
"I have four kids and six grandchildren, and I have lived a lot since I first sang ‘Kemo Balada.’ The words are so deep and so beautiful, and now I can really appreciate their meaning," she says.
The audience in Arad should also get that.
"Suzy brought something else to the group," adds Arnon. "She came with her delicate American style, which really offered the Israeli public something new. But she had that heavy American accent, which she still has, and we had to work quite hard to moderate that in the recording process." Judging by the sonic end result on, for example, “Hofim,” Arnon and the rest did a pretty good job making Miller's mellifluous vocals sounds more local.
Elsewhere in the four-day Arad program there are plenty of other stellar acts across the generations, including Alon Olearchik, Zvika Pik, Oshik Levy, Harel Skaat, Yael Deckelbaum and Rivka Zohar. There will also be tribute shows to the work of Arik Einstein and Shlomo Artzi.
For more information: (08) 995- 1776 and www.arad.muni.il