Yair Yona has cast his artistic net pretty far and wide thus far. While his main thrust of exploratory endeavor has followed a steady path through what might be loosely categorized as “Americana,” the 35-year-old guitarist has strayed quite some way from that line of sound and sentiment with his latest recorded offering, which goes by the portentous title of Sword.
The new album release will be marked by a “listen in” session, this evening at 8 p.m. at the Uganda music venue in Tel Aviv. The event will offer around 30 music fans an opportunity to dig deep into the fabric of the album and, no doubt several layers of subtext, as part of a shared – albeit individual – audio gathering whereby each dons a headphone set and spends the following 37 minutes getting into the emotive and evocative 10 numbers on Sword.
Considering Yona’s age, you don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to work out that he does not have any firsthand knowledge of the events that took place during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Nonetheless, the regional military confrontation serves as the prominent emotional and sonic backdrop for the recording.
Yona does not even have any borrowed familial connection with the war, which, I ventured, may have made the task of conveying some of the feelings and experiences that emanated from the traumatic regional clash a little less challenging for the artist.
“I presume that if I had a close relative who was hurt or killed in the war – I don’t know if it would have been easier or more difficult to make the album, but the album would probably have taken on a different angle,” he ventures. “I can’t really say.”
Sword is not a particularly jolly affair. Yona has done his best to convey his thoughts and feelings about the 1973 war, as well as of some of the soldiers who got caught up in the inferno, and of Golda Meir who was prime minister at the time. The soldiers’ quotes in the liner notes make for chilling and moving reading.
One anonymous IDF fighter adds an unexpected humorous angle to the album. Under the heading of “Twilight Time at the Bar Lev Line,” the opening track, we read: “When the sun is out, we get a tan, look at the Arabs on the other side, tell them jokes, trying to laugh, trying to pass the time.”
The quote that goes with the third track, “Seven Days in Complete Darkness,” offers no risible content at all. It was written by a soldier called Surin after spending a week underground, while the fighting went on overhead.
“Seven days in this tunnel that looks like a submarine, where every minute that passes is like 90 years.”
Surin recalls his fallen comrades in arms: “I thought about the days before this, when we played in the main room, we guarded the base, we went on patrols together. Then it all went silent.
Only the Syrian troops on the ground above us, screaming.”
The music on the album is stirring throughout.
And it clearly stems from some sense of distress and pain. Yona’s dark epiphany came one day when he was still in the army.
“It suddenly dawned on me that there is no parent figure [in Israel]. You know, you are brought up with the idea that the country protects you, that there is a father and mother who care for you.”
That sounds like a comforting mindset, but Yona says it was not an idea borne of a gullible, naïve concept.
“I never thought that politicians are something clean and pure, but you get to a point when you tell yourself that this is the most serious things can get.”
The musician was furthered disabused of that philosophy around six years ago, in the aftermath of the enormous fire that ravaged the Carmel forests and claimed 44 lives.
“The general attitude [of the country’s leaders] was that it was a tragedy, it was terrible, but what can you do? That’s the way things go sometimes. And there was the bridge that collapsed during the Maccabiah Games [in July 1997].” Four members of the Australian sporting contingent died as a result of the collapse, and 69 others suffered various degrees of injuries and disease. “No one took responsibility for that either. Again, they [the country’s leaders] just shrug their shoulders and move on.”
Yona needed to get something of his chest but realized that social media was not the way to go.
“I could write all sorts of stuff on Facebook, which would be read by all kinds of left wingers who think the same way I do anyway. So there’d be no point in that.”
He decided to channel his frustration through his professional avenue of expression.
“I thought about something I could do that might get the subject out there in a different way. So, I thought about doing something in music about the Yom Kippur War. That was the country’s biggest screw up ever.”
The war began on October 6, 1973, Yom Kippur, when Syrian and Egyptian troops launched a coordinated surprise attack. For some reason, the Israeli political leadership, under Meir, failed to launch a preemptive strike, despite being informed by Israeli Intelligence of the impending incursions by an Arab military coalition.
“I took a look at this colossal failure, at how it has been commemorated in cultural terms, in Israeli culture,” says Yona. “I saw the same thing over and over.
[The official attitude is] we tried, we failed, that’s the way it is. Wars are always things ‘that happen to us’, no one takes responsibility for what happens.”
It must be said that, judging by the verbal outpourings of politicians around the world, that is not a uniquely Israeli failing but, naturally, Yona takes events in his own country much more to heart. That comes across loud and clear in Sword, and particularly in the closing track, “Innocence.” The soldier quote for the number, in the liner notes, comes from someone called Henya, and echoes Yona’s disturbing revelation regarding our leaders’ willingness to take the fallout of their errors of judgment.
“For the first time in my young life, the basic and intrinsic trust that I felt for our national leaders was broken,” says Henya. “Suddenly I realized that even these great leaders, people whom I assumed to be relatives of God, are just human beings who wish to keep their status, positions and jobs.”
Sword makes for moving listening, and is a worthy vehicle for Yona’s inventive musical explorations too.
“I think it [the group listening session] will be an interesting experience and, if it goes well, I’ll probably plan some more,” says Yona.For more information: http://yairyona.net