Keeping an eye on the Holy Land
A big mouth and a sharp mind can lead a person into a lot of trouble, so it's fortunate that Gilad Kahana has found a positive outlet for his gifts - as a rock & roll frontman.
As the voice of The Girafot, the outspoken lyricist, singer and social commentator has already established himself as an astute iconoclast, with his intelligent, biting songs full of left field humor and observations of Israeli society and the human condition.
But it's a bit surprising that the 39-year-old Tel Avivian can convey his singular take on the Israeli landscape just as well in English. His new solo album The Walking Man contains all the insight, cynicism and skewed sense of hope that his fans have come to appreciate and love.
Even more surprising is the story of despair that led Kahana on the path that produced the album, the third installment in a trilogy of work already including the film The Walking Man, which won a prize at this year's DocAviv Film Festival, and a book of poetry, The Crane Points to the Sea.
"I got to a point in my life that I couldn't bear myself, my family, friends, work or thoughts," said Kahana last week, the day after the debut performance of the album's songs at the Barby club in Tel Aviv ("It could have been better, I think we were stressed out," he confessed).
"I tried to run away from myself. It seems impossible to do that, but I intuitively rose to my feet, went out of my apartment and stood on the sidewalk. For the first time in my life, I went out without knowing where I was going, with no direction. I lifted my eyes to the sky for help, and saw a crane heading to the sea, so I started walking to the sea."
That began, according to Kahana, a series of journeys where he would walk without a purpose - an act that he defined, in today's hustle bustle society, as an act of subversion.
"Today, everything we do has to have a purpose - either you're going to work, or to eat, or to a friend's or to buy or sell something. There's something subversive in a way of doing nothing," said Kahana.
"Look what happened last month when Bob Dylan got picked up in New Jersey. A 24-year-old policewoman thought he was loitering - when she asked him what he was doing, he said 'just walking.' It shows you something about society, that if you do something without a purpose, it's seen as dangerous."
Rather than putting himself in danger, Kahana discovered through his sidewalk exercises a sense of liberation, and a feeling that he could, indeed, run away from himself.
"When you walk without a purpose, something special happens. You begin to see what's happening around you more than what's inside of you. Slowly you forget your problems. The Walking Man consists of songs that tell the stories of the things I saw while walking," he said.
THE SNAPSHOTS that Kahana put down in words include vignettes of a cafÃ© owner reluctantly firing a security guard, a Filipino caretaker arguing with her elderly employer after being insulted, and looks at the mores and mindset of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.
It's not that far off from the subject matter of The Girafot's two albums, 1999's Conversing with a Chair and 2007's Gag (Roof). Combining quirky rock with tinges of folk, country, Oriental and Latin music, the band's well-deserved reputation as one of the country's top live acts is in part due to Kahana's charismatic showmanship and banter that touches on everything from politics to relationships and turns each show into an improvised event.
According to one reviewer, Kahana's lyrics in English on The Walking Man lack the "ambiguity and degree of alienation" that his lyrics in Hebrew possess. Another review commented that the songs on The Walking Man "consist of the tongue in cheek formula used for the Girafot equation, mixed in with some melancholy of a fragile man with the same insecurities as the rest of us."
Kahana may have picked up the radar that hones in on life's peculiarities from his sense of looking at things from the outside. With his parents stationed for work in Mexico City until he was nine years old, he was schooled by British teachers, which led to his proficiency in English. But he said that he never felt totally accepted in Mexico City, either as a boy or during a later stint in his teens.
"I am an outsider, and have always been one. When I was in Mexico, I was the Jew boy, and when I came back here I was the Mexican who speaks English," he said. "Today, I feel totally Israeli, but I will always have that sense of being an outsider." That role contributes to Kahana's ability and willingness to criticize what he sees as deficiencies in Israeli society.
"When I came back here after living in Mexico, it felt like going from color TV to black and white," he explained. "There, my best friend was from Iran, and my girlfriend was from Argentina, everything was so pluralistic. Israel is very diverse, but it doesn't embrace diversity.