(photo credit: Courtesy of Peace Child Israel)
Music fans will have an opportunity to send Israel's first Arab representative to the Eurovision Song Contest following tonight's TV broadcast of "Kdam Eurovision," the preliminary competition in which aspiring contestants showcase new songs for appraisal by the public. Lubna Salame, a Christian Arab from the western Galilee, is set to take the stage alongside Jewish musicians Shlomo Gronich and Michal Adler to perform "Mother Earth," a song she hopes will inspire Israelis of all backgrounds to work for peace.
With its call for listeners to "use your heart, that's what it's for," "Mother Earth" is slated first among the 11 songs to be performed as part of tonight's competition, which will air live from Jerusalem starting at 9 p.m. on Channel 1. The product of more than five years of artistic collaboration between Salame and Gronich, "Mother Earth" is an unconventional submission not only because of its multi-ethnic performers, but because of its message and music as well. With poetic imagery and a hopeful promise that "your children won't again be sent to war," the song involves neither the throw-away lyrics nor the effusive cheeriness of most Eurovision submissions, which are often accompanied by flashy dance numbers and eye-catching costumes.
Performed in Arabic, Hebrew and English, "Mother Earth" features a solemn singing style and is enhanced not by a synthetic beat, but with an orchestral background embellished by flourishes on the harmonica played by Adler. The song is the latest in a series of co-existence efforts by Salame and Gronich, who first recorded together at the start of the second intifada in hopes of stemming violence and encouraging dialogue between Israeli Jews and Arabs. The pair joined forces repeatedly in the intervening years, notably in 2005 with the creation of Adamai, an ensemble of Arab and Jewish musicians put together through Peace Child Israel, a dialogue and co-existence organization based in Tel Aviv.
After receiving an invitation to compete in this year's Kdam Eurovision, Gronich enlisted Salame to help him perform "Mother Earth" for a live national audience - their largest so far, but one that would be dwarfed by the tens of millions of viewers across Europe who tune in every year for Eurovision. Though they're accustomed to sharing lyrics and the stage, interviews with the two musicians revealed very different approaches to tonight's televised performance.
Widely known for musical experiments combining the efforts of Israelis from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, Gronich enthusiastically emphasized the political symbolism of Arab and Jewish singers performing together. "There is a big statement in this composition, and it's not just something I'm doing for Eurovision," he said. "I know that Israeli audiences, the young ones in particular, are cynical about stuff like this. They want Eurovision to be light and easy. But I'm trying to do something more - to bring a message to this platform . . . If this song wins, it's the right face for Israel to show overseas."
Salame, meanwhile, said she's simply pleased by the idea that she and Gronich might be able to represent Israel together, regardless of how viewers interpret their collaboration. Born in Haifa, Salame has gained a following among both Arab and Jewish Israelis performing the songs of Umm Kulthum, the iconic Egyptian singer whose music is adored across North Africa and the Arab world. In addition to her work with Gronich early in the intifada, Salame traveled in 2003 as part of a widely publicized mission of Israeli Arabs and Jews to Auschwitz, where she performed a song in Hebrew before the gates of the crematoria. Her captivating voice has created fans even among those with no connection to Middle Eastern music or politics, facilitating a joint performance last summer with bestselling English rock band Radiohead in London.
Despite her history of activism, Salame preferred not to dwell on how audiences might view her performance with Gronich. "I don't think this is about roles - Arab, Jewish, and so on," she said. "This song is something good, something true, and we want to present it to the public in a big way."
Asked whether she thought Israeli Eurovision fans would vote for "Mother Earth" in the current political climate, Salame expressed optimism. "I know the Israeli public is ready to accept something different," she said. "Let me tell you something: music can do bigger things than politics. We go around and around the same circle for most of our lives, but music lets us look for something bigger than us, something bigger than our situation."
"I very much hope we'll win," she went on, "but if not, we have already won because of all the support we've received. Believe that from this side, [the support] is even better than winning."
But gratifying as the experience has been, Salame seemed to have reconsidered her position by the time she concluded the conversation. "Will you be watching the competition on TV?" she inquired playfully. "If you do, you should vote for us."
The other contenders
While it's the lone peace song in the running to represent Israel at this year's Eurovision final, "Mother Earth" isn't the lone peace song that will be performed as part of tonight's Kdam Eurovision festivities. Channel 1's coverage kicks off at 8 p.m. with a pre-show featuring a performance of "Salaam Aleikum" (May Peace Be Upon You) by Hadva Amrani and model/actress Yael Bar Zohar.
The competition itself is expected to last about two and a half hours, with submissions from high profile performers including perennial Eurovision contender Zvika Pik and girl group Diamond'z. At the conclusion of the 11 performances, viewers will be invited to vote by telephone and text message for their favorite contestant, who will automatically qualify for May's Eurovision final in Athens on the strength of Shiri Maimon's fourth-place finish for Israel last year. The winner of Kdam Eurovision will be announced at the end of tonight's broadcast.
Handicapping the contest's outcome has been unusually difficult in 2006, with five of the 16 eligible submissions withdrawing in the lead-up to the competition. The most conspicuous absence will be "Yamim shel Ahava" singer Maya Buskila. Although Channel 1's selection committee considered the pop star worthy of a spot in tonight's contest, the raven-haired performer apparently disagreed, pulling out of the show less than three weeks ago, reportedly because she was dissatisfied with her song and wanted to concentrate on finishing her second album, which is expected to be released later this year.
Potential winners of this evening include boy band The Gameboys, who are currently riding a wave of popularity generated by hit singles "Eshmor et Libi" (I Will Guard My Heart) and "Hizdamnut Shnia" (Second Chance). Beyond appealing to a demographic likely to vote in tonight's contest, The Gameboys already have experience with this kind of format, having already been selected from the 400 candidates who originally tried out for the band.
Despite the group's momentum, fans shouldn't count out Pik, who wrote the tune for Israel's last victorious Eurovision entry (Dana International's "Diva," which won in 1998). Avi Peretz's submission, a blend of pop and Mizrahi music, may have the catchiest hook.
Each of the songs is available for advance listening through Channel 1's Hebrew-language website, www.iba.org.il.