The epithet oxymoronic came to mind when I met Neta Weiner in Tel Aviv last week. Here was this highly personable, even genial, young man who just oozes bonhomie. He came over as thoughtful and intelligent, and with a propensity for lighting up his vicinity with 200 watt smiles.
But on the stage you get quite a different aspect of the Weiner take on life.
Weiner is a 29-year-old accordionist and vocalist who first came to notice with multiethnic hip-hop band System Ali. Now he is bringing out his own debut album called Bezechut Hashiva (With the Right of Return) which will have its official launch at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv this evening (9:30 p.m.).
Weiner fully admits to having something of a bifurcated personality, much like one of his heroes, the late great troubadour Meir Ariel.
Like Ariel, the accordionist seasons his lyrics with lugubrious observations intertwined with expressions of a far more joyful nature.
Some of his word play is also somewhat reminiscent of Ariel.
“Yes, Meir Ariel is one of my influences, but there are quite a few others,” says Weiner who, like Ariel, hails from a kibbutz. “I think Ariel is a source of inspiration more in terms of his essence rather than his writing. There is always some duplication of extremes. It is like sitting in the kibbutz dining room and playing the accordion but, in fact, singing a song that comes straight out of the synagogue.”
The squeeze-box instrumental choice also comes from Weiner’s former stamping ground.
“The accordion is also connected to the kibbutz,” he says, although adding that he didn’t stay put at Givat Haim too long, and moved around, both with and without his family.
“I was there as a kid, I grew up in Zichron Ya’akov, I went to a boarding school in Jerusalem and then I lived in India.”
India? “I did my 10th and 11th grades there, at an international school in Maharashtra [near Mumbai]. I was at an arts school in Jerusalem and it just seemed like the natural thing to do, to move to that school in India.”
Weiner had been preceded by an older brother at the same institution, and representatives from India had previously visited the school in Jerusalem on a recruitment drive.
The teenager’s time in India left its imprint, and Weiner says it informs his musical development to this day.
“I heard so much music there. I got into Indian music, and classical Indian dance. And Indian percussion comes through the body, it’s in the legs.”
When Weiner’s confluence with System Ali eventually emerged, he found his training in India to be of great value.
“It’s like rap taken to the nth degree, in terms of the tempos. All the counting of beats, and those really fast rhythms you have in India, it’s all fantastic stuff.”
Weiner says his instrument of choice was a natural extension of the sonic avenues he discovered in the subcontinent.
“I got an accordion soon after I came back to Israel, and then I met the System Ali guys in Jaffa.”
Most people wouldn’t associate the accordion with Middle Eastern music or hip-hop, but Weiner says it is a highly versatile instrument that is found in cultures the world over.
“Arab folk orchestras have accordions,” he notes, before returning to the antithetical yet complementary theme.
“The accordion is the most contrast-accommodating thing there is. It is the most shtetl-oriented instrument around while, on the other hand, it is [early Sixties Israeli group] Hatarnegolim, it’s IDF troupes and the quintessential Israeli spirit of those times. And there’s something very Diaspora-like about it too. It feels a bit like the spirit of 100 years ago, and of 100 years from now.”
The Diaspora inference certainly ties in with the catalyst behind the Bezechut Hashiva venture.
It all began with a trip Weiner made with his grandmother, five years ago, to Vienna. It was a roots trip. His grandmother lived in the Austrian capital and got out in 1939 “on the last boat before it was too late,” says Weiner.
His granny lived at 108 Link Wienzeile, and inspired one of the numbers on the new album, which goes by the crystallized title of “108.”
The lyrics offer a good introduction to Weiner’s bittersweet textual mindset.
“Torte and apple strudel were a rope around our neck. Your wrinkles, big mama, here they are like a roadmap.”
There is more in the way of stark images in another song on the album, “Oolai Zoh Esh” (Maybe It’s Fire). Try wrapping your mind around this: “Maybe it’s fire in the genitalia of this city. The decay, once again, climbs up from the foundations, and up to the heights of tough secrets. The breasts of frightened skinny women on the balconies.”
We are clearly not talking Disney numbers here.
If you’ll pardon the mixed instrumental metaphor, Weiner has quite a few strings to his artistic bow.
“I learned sound and musical production,” he says. Add to that some thespian endeavor and poetry and you have yourself a well-rounded performer who really knows how to present a song, and to get its message across to the audience.
The happy-sad balancing act also comes from one of the main genres with which the accordion is most readily associated.
“If we are talking about my influences, I’d say that the klezmer dimension is very meaningful in its essence. That also follows the mixed emotional channel. The sadness and pain are already there, but there is also the sense of redemption or joy, or even ecstasy or sex, or whatever. It all follows the same lines.”
Weiner is evidently adept of taking pursuing all kinds of musical and textual routes and, fused with his natural high spirits, and theatricality, it makes for one compelling performer.For tickets and more information: (03) 561-1211 and www.tmu-na.org.il