It’s been 10 years since an angelic-looking Gilad Segev captured the hearts of Israeli music lovers with his debut album, containing the now-classic heartfelt rocker “Achshav Tov.”
Written about his brother, an IDF officer killed in the line of duty, the catchy tune topped the end-of-year charts and the 26-year-old Segev – who combined boyish good looks and raw talent – was catapulted to household name status around the country. Even more unlikely was that Segev eschewed the conventional music industry machinery and not only released the album independently, without signing to one of the established recording companies, but also managed himself and made all his own career decisions.
While continuing to create hits like 2009’s “Isha m’hashamayim” (Woman from the Sky) and 2012’s “The Voices of the Heart,” a duet with Miri Mesika, Segev has resisted succumbing to middle-of-the-road pop success and has taken a detour down a dusty road that leads to his family’s past.
“I had released two albums and things were happening for me, then I had this revelation of my life,” said Segev, sitting in the lobby of Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria hotel recently. (Even the upper crust tourists mingling in the hotel who had no idea who he was recognized the casually scruffy matinee idol aura he gave off without adopting any postures.) “I started to ask questions about myself – Who am I? What am I? I was in London, and I thought to myself that my music is very influenced by British and American music. The songs are very personal but were very much influenced as an echo of something that comes over the Atlantic. What if a truck hit me tomorrow? What do I leave behind as an artist? Am I Gilad Segev that was sent here with a specific origin or am I kind of a reflection of another pop band? The realization that I came to is that I am a Jew – and a unique one. My father is Syrian and my mother is Polish.”
Segev’s parents didn’t talk much about their past to their children – his mother was a Holocaust survivor and his father was a career army man who refused to let his parents speak Arabic in the house. They both enthusiastically grasped their new Israeli identity but in doing so, blocked out their past.
“I told myself for me to understand my special place in the world, I have to go back,” he said. So he took time off from his regular musical routine – a perk of being your own boss – and began to research his family roots, learning how to play traditional instruments from Syria and eastern Europe along the way. And he set out on a public mission to create a channel for his audience to discover their own past and hidden identities.
“I did something that some people might see as radical. I closed myself in a room for three-and-a-half years and all I did was listen and study the music and the tradition and the prayers and the instruments of my roots,” said Segev. “I said to myself, I want to create a dialogue to find my identity – east and west, between Syria and Poland, between Jewish, between one person to a community. My idea was to create an album in which every song will reflect both sides of me – the Syrian melody and rhythm together with the European harmony in every song that would serve as a dialogue between my two halves.”
The result was 2009’s Noadnu, which garnered over two million views on YouTube and received Gold Record status (20,000 copies sold) – both developments that surprised Segev.
“The funny thing was I expected this to be my most alternative album ever and I was already prepared that nothing would happen to it. The music business guys were very pissed because I disappeared for three years,” he said. “But I said to myself, ‘this will be my echo, even if it echoes in the narrow walls of my room, it would be mine.”
“Usually, I have such a sense of responsibility for my songs to succeed. But here because I felt like I was connected to something greater than myself it was also not my responsibility to succeed. I felt like I was going on a quest to find myself. And whatever comes from it will be good. The fact that it did do so well was like God giving me a high five.”
Calling himself a spiritual – if not religiously observant – person, Segev admitted that his quest has strengthened his connection to his heritage.
“I became more connected to a certain energy. Since I don’t believe you’re speaking to God, you don’t need a middle man, I feel like I established a real direct dialogue with the heavens,” he said.
That the process of delving into his roots sparked a desire in Segev to bring his audience closer to their heritage as well. The result was a paradigm shift in his career objectives.
“People started to hear my music all over the world, not just Jewish people,” he said.
“Which is interesting, because the material was so specific – Syrian Jewish Polish music. But I think the dialogue I was carrying with myself on proved interesting to people and I found myself performing with two objectives: exposing my Jewish roots and singing Hebrew in front of a wide range of audiences around the world, and presenting to them the process I had gone through.”
“If you want to feel united as people of this world, the wrong thing to do is going to McDonalds. This is the global thing.
This is what makes people feel so empty.
Instead we need to take the brave step and search inside ourselves. Only then will we find out what we have common and then we can create a new globalization and unity. So this is my message.
“This is what I do in my shows through music, through stressing the most beautiful roots that we have, the origin of all religions, the origin of our cultures.
When Israel was founded, we were so stressed to be like someone else. So we became in a lot of ways like the Americans.
We took things that are wonderful, but are not our own. It’s like a new child that comes into a classroom. In the beginning he wants to be like everybody else because he’s afraid and unconfident. But now that Israel is strong and secure, it’s time for us as Israelis and as Jewish people to be very proud of our heritage and bring the spiritual message that we have to the world once again.”
Segev is taking his roots experience one step forward these days, recording an album combining original music and traditional prayers and cantorial chanting.
In doing so, he hopes to mix the colors of the past and present to create a new musical hybrid that will inspire and connect.
“In life, the world is changing all the time. And the prayer stays the same. And the dialogue between the changing world and the prayer is something that is very intriguing to me. I think that if we start a dialogue, we can learn so much about ourselves,” he said. “There is something in the prayers that brings out the DNA of our souls.
“When I perform a song, I always imagine I’m playing in front of the sons of Israel 2,000 years ago and think, ‘What would they say?’ It’s like mixing colors.
You take very strong colors from the past and then you mix it with today. It’s like discovering something new.”
Performing for diverse audiences at world music festivals in unlikely locations, Segev has found a uniform positive reaction to his music.
“A good example is when I performed for Irish Christians at a world music festival.
Everybody was drinking beer, and dancing, and had red hair. I came with these Syrian Jewish prayers in Hebrew and explained to them a bit in English but sang in Hebrew. And they loved it. It was then that I was convinced that the prayers are something we all share. It’s like we have the same God, it’s the same thing.”
Even his parents – who turned their backs on their heritage in favor of the Israeli melting pot – have been affected by Segev’s quest.
“They became more open to talking about their families,” he said. “Music has a very magical way, an emotional way to convey the past. So my parents did have their own roots experience of a sort.”
As Gilad Segev – erstwhile pop star and persistent spiritual roots seeker – continues to forge his own path, he has no regrets at turning his back on the commercial heights he could have reached.
In doing, so he feels like his career is just starting.
“Honestly, I feel like it’s the beginning.
I feel like I’m a 16-year-old with a guitar on his back, very hungry for new music, very hungry for new experiences,” he said. “I came to the hotel straight from the studio, and when I leave, I’ll go right back there. I’m very fortunate to do what I love.”
Jacob Goldstein contributed to this report.