David Broza ‘parts the Red Sea’ with Israeli-Palestinian camaraderie

The musical legend’s risk-taking paid off on his eclectic "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem" album, a collaboration with Palestinians.

David Broza (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
David Broza
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 Without a hint of self-conceit, but with a healthy dose of a musician’s optimistic naïveté, David Broza likens his latest musical collaboration with Palestinian musicians to a parting of the Red Sea.
“Nobody is quite managing to find a way to cross from one bank to the next bank, one shore to the other. And here we have a band of musicians crossing without being drowned,” says the wiry 59-year-old musician, dressed in characteristic black as he sits at the rustic wooden shipyard living-room table in his Tel Aviv home.
“And you know, hopefully, these will be the promised years – not the Promised Land – where we will reach the promised hearts.”
That’s a lofty goal for a pop music album, but East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem is not your ordinary offering – propelled by the surprise hit, a slowed-down version of the Nick Lowe-penned, Elvis Costello-sung “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?” The album finds the veteran Israeli guitarist extraordinaire sharing inspiration with a group of Arab musicians from Jerusalem, and high-profile stars like Wyclef Jean and the album’s producer Steve Earle, as well as Hadag Nahash’s Shaanan Street and Arab singer Mira Wada on a batch of songs that run the gamut from hip hop and Middle www.jpost.com APRIL 14, 2014 11 Eastern motifs to folk and pop ballads, and even some American alt country.
The common theme running through it all though, both lyrically and musically, is how music can be a catalyst to bridge gaps and overcome differences. For Broza, who’s been a mainstay on the Israeli and global world music scene for decades, the album marks a continuation of career-long efforts at promoting reconciliation through art. The man whose song Yihye Tov became an anthem of hope that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could one day be resolved, seems to have lost none of his idealism.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post, Broza explains why he thinks the uphill struggle is still one worth fighting.
What were the origins of ‘East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem’?
Over the last 15 years, I’ve been recording quite a few projects at the Sabreen studio in east Jerusalem, and I’ve been hanging out and getting closer to the people there and the musicians that also record there.
I like it there, it has a different character than what we have in Tel Aviv. It is indigenous, in a way. And we are indigenous to the region too, of course; I am third-generation.
But for me, it was being like an archeologist going into the past or a scientist into the unknown. An artist goes digging into the inspirations, and this area really inspires me.
So there’s this beautiful recording studio in east Jerusalem, and it’s not used enough by Israeli artists.
And it really should because it’s such easy access and open-door, and they don’t ask who you are or where you’re from. They just accept you.
So when it came for me to decide, on this particular album, it was my objective to not just record myself there and use musicians from the studio, but to bring my musicians as well.
Was there any resistance from your band?
I had to talk them into it... it wasn’t just one of these projects that you do in the morning and get to leave in the afternoon. I insisted that we all spend eight days and eight nights together, which meant that they had to spend a week-plus in a place that is totally foreign to them, even though it’s Israel.
We chose a beautiful hotel [the Ambassador Hotel], overlooking the Old City. I offered for them to bring their wives and children, to make a happening out of it.
And I put my daughter Moran in charge of the culinary aspects, and told her since she’s a Michelin chef, “You bring the top Israeli and top Palestinian chefs.”
And we ate an unforgettable lunch every day and an incomparable banquet every night. I haven’t seen anything like it. I don’t care if you’re an oligarch or a king or a duke, you do not eat a meal like that. And we served it to all the people in the project, we were all like 40 people give or take, plus an additional 60 guests. I wanted everyone to get the opportunity to meet, not only musicians, and we managed to have a crowd every night of around 100 people.
Imagine what a great thing – and it was unbelievable.
If you take away the differences and you rise above your inhibitions, and toast with a glass of wine and share a nice plate of food together, then the camaraderie begins. And when the guitars come out and they sing in harmony, it paves the way to build a relationship.
And this is what this is all about.
As a bonus, on one of the tracks is a rapper from G-Town, a hip-hop group from the Shuafat refugee camp, Muhammad Mughrabi. One day, I asked him if it would make sense to go visit and see where they live.
One night, after one of these feasts, we drove together to his camp. His recording studio was in a room off to the side of a Turkish bathhouse. You go in and there’s people smoking hookahs and there’s football on the screen, and you walk through with the water vapor everywhere into this tiny little room where there’s a computer and keyboard. And I’m thinking, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
(Broza subsequently started conducting musical workshops for youth in the refugee camp on a regular basis.)
How did the project become international, with Steve Earle and [co-producer] Steve Greenberg getting involved?
Steve Greenberg is a song man, he used to be the president of Columbia and he’s made a lot of records.
When I started writing the songs for the album, there were a couple like “Wild Carnation” that I wanted somebody with a pop ear to hear. We were friends and I wanted him to be my confidant, knowing that if it wasn’t good enough, he would be honest.
His immediate reaction was, “Wow! Who wrote these?” Once we decided to work on the album together and started talking about making it with some Arab musicians, Steve suggested, “Why don’t you do a few covers, too?” The idea was to provide some kind of common denominator with the Palestinians, something we all might have grown up on – not knowing if anybody on the Palestinian side grew up listening to Elvis Costello or Pink Floyd.
Steve Greenberg offered his services as producer on a couple of songs as well as helping out on an executive level, like putting together a film crew to document the project.
At that time, you wanted to record with the Palestinian musicians?
In the meantime, I wanted to find somebody who could produce the whole album. And one of my first choices was Steve Earle, who I knew a little from working on my Townes Van Zandt album, and because we used to share a manager.
When I called Steve, I thought that because he was an activist and individualist, he would start rapping about boycotting... but he said instead, “I think so much about the area, I want to know more about it before I talk about it. So I’m coming with you – just give me the date, place and time.”
What was his role in the sound of the album?
He told me, “I don’t want to go pop, I’m not competing in pop radio – I need it to be an organic album that sounds really authentic.”
Myself, I didn’t want it to be Eastern-sounding, I’m a Western musician – my standards, my harmonies and everything are Western. So when I have an oud or Arab violin on a song, it needs to be playing into my sense of harmony. Instead, it’s more to bring in a scent of the region we’re in and create a fusion.
That’s why I wanted Steve Earle, who had never worked with an oud or an Arab violin.
(Steve Earle called the experience “exhilarating,” telling the Post in an email, “I didn’t do anything – I didn’t have to. Music is music, we had a great singer singing great songs backed by great musicians, playing in a studio shaped like the inside of a great oud.”)
Was it a coincidence that among the songs you chose to cover, three were by artists – Costello, Roger Waters and Cat Stevens – who have all expressed their opposition to aspects of modern-day Israel?
It wasn’t a coincidence at all. It was in spite of the fact that politically they have their strong opinions yet I can criticize them and say what I think – but it’s not important. To me, the beautiful thing is that when a Palestinian and an Israeli sing a song that’s written by someone who has a political point of view, I think that’s where the music has much more of a chance of carrying a message.
Stay out of politics. I’m not saying the songs can’t be political. But stay out of politics, let the music do the talking.
When I asked one of the Palestinians before getting into the studio if he knew any Pink Floyd, his eyes went “WOW,” and this is a guy who plays classical Arab music.
And then I realized our meeting point, our natural place to meet on, was on a piece of music that we mutually loved.
Album closer “Peace (Ain’t Nothing but a Word)” is like a hip-hop Israeli-Arab pastiche – how did you come about doing something so different from your regular style
You won’t believe it. I had some sketches of lyrics that I sent to Steve Earle, and he sent me a message back saying, “Hey, you have any ideas for this music – because I have this idea, and it’s gonna be a great rap.”
And I said, “Great, we can get G-Town to sing the Arabic and Shaanan Street to rap the Hebrew.” Steve went back and wrote the refrain, “Peace ain’t nothing but a word unspoken, and it can’t be heard.”
I think it’s gorgeous. I’m way too eclectic as an artist to be pigeonholed. That’s why it’s always been a problem marketing me outside of Israel.
But if I hope to achieve anything with this, I wish I could inspire other artists to take on similar initiatives.
The writer is the managing editor of the Post.
Andreas Berggren contributed to this report.