With a heavy heart

Israeli metal singer laments Turkey cancellation.

311_ orphaned land (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_ orphaned land
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nobody is lamenting the increasing deterioration in ties between Israel and Turkey more than Kobi Farhi. The founder and lead singer for the Middle Eastern heavy metal band Orphaned Land has devoted his musical career to breaking down barriers in the region and has succeeded in attracting thousands of fans throughout the Arab world, mostly in Turkey.
“We’ve played there at least 10 times, and we have a special relationship with our Turkish fans,” said the 34-year-old Farhi in a recent interview a few days after the band’s performance with Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth at the Istanbul heavy metal festival Sonicsphere was cancelled due to security concerns from the promoter over safeguarding an Israeli act.
Tattoos and straggly beard notwithstanding, the mild-mannered Farhi looked anything but heavymetal- sinister sitting in a neighborhood café in Tel Aviv’s Florentine quarter.
“Not being able to fly to Turkey to play was really bizarre for me – it was like not being able to go to your home. I had wanted the concert to remind people that Turkey and Israel are still friends, and they have a very long relationship. It’s so easy to destroy something that took years to build,” he said, asking how the Turks could forget that it was the same Israel they’re venting against now who sent crack rescue teams to save Turkish lives after the deadly 1999 earthquake there.
Farhi’s anger and frustration is tempered with the knowledge that Orphaned Land has made real inroads in bypassing politics to find a common ground among Jews and Arabs on their way to becoming one of the most original hard rock bands on the international circuit. Probably the only metal band that combines Jewish piyutim, tehilim, Arabic singing and Oriental instruments within their wall of sound, Orphaned Land has struck a chord among listeners with its message of reconciliation. That includes many fans in the Middle East, including some who live in countries officially at war with Israel.
“We get thousands of letters, and comments on our Facebook page from fans in Arab countries. I was going to dedicate the concert in Istanbul to peace and to friendship between Israel and Turkey,” said Farhi. “I was and still am so heartbroken about this show. I was really depressed – I haven’t shaved my beard since then. We would have had so many people there, fans from Syria and Iran. It’s such a tragedy.”
Farhi told the organizers of the festival that the band would forgo security and take on the responsibility themselves, but the organizers were afraid to take that chance. “We didn’t mind going there despite threats and security alerts. Turkey is my second home, no one will try to hurt me, I’m not afraid,” said Farhi.
“I’m a musician and this is my job.”
THAT JOB is basically all that Farhi has focused on since 1991, when, at age 16, he formed Orphaned Land with three high-school friends: guitarist Yossi Sa’aron, bass player Uri Zelha and guitarist Matti Svatizky.
He attributes his dual passions of coexistence and heavy metal to, respectively, being raised in Jaffa and encountering Iron Maiden at a young age.
“There’s a lot of Jaffa in my character and point of view about life. The concept of the band very much related to where I grew up in Jaffa, a multi-cultural city, where three religions are living.”
he said. “When you’re a kid and you want to play football, it doesn’t really make a difference who your teammate is – as long as he can play well.”
Living close to both of his grandmothers, Farhi was also exposed to their love of classical music, especially the Italian operas of Puccini and Verdi.
“My grandparents said I was always singing along to the operas,” he said. “I was very sensitive even from my childhood to music. I could listen to operas and recognized how exciting it was, even to the point of bringing me to tears.”
Farhi’s tears of sensitivity turned into tears of rage as he grew into a teenager and discovered a new passion – heavy metal.
“It was the biggest shock of my life when I heard metal for the time,” he said, adding that it came about through something as quirky as a newspaper story.
“There was an article about a guy suspected of killing himself because he was involved in Satanism, and they mentioned Iron Maiden,” he said. “There was a picture of the band, and it drew my attention. I felt fascinated by it, as a rebellious teenager. I felt that I had discovered a secret, mystical world. I went to a record store and checked them out, and I immediately had shivers all over. I’ve been under the spell ever since.”
Choosing to forgo learning an instrument – “I was a lazy bastard” – Farhi concentrated on developing his vocals and lyrics.
“I focused so much on singing that I know how to sing so many styles now – Arabic, gothic Western style, heavy metal, high, low, you name it – except maybe for opera, which is ironic in a way ,” he laughed.
WHEN ORPHANED Land first got together, their goal was no more than to play heavy metal and “look cool and tough,” recalled Farhi. “It was pretty normal – metal style.
We wrote songs about unburied corpses – Jack the Ripper; because we were young and wanted to rebel – that was it.
“But we got bored very fast from doing the typical heavy metal... we asked ourselves, ‘what’s the point of trying to sound like another American or British heavy metal band? What is our contribution to the world?’” Realizing that being Jewish and Israeli set them apart from almost every other metal band, Orphaned Land began to reflect on the region they lived in and on the impact that religion had on its residents.
“We started to combine element of Judaism and Arabic music, including instruments. It was an outstanding moment in the metal scene – here comes this band playing Oriental instruments and singing in Hebrew,” he said.
The band’s 2004 album, Mabool, depicted three sons (one for each Abrahamic religion) trying to warn of an impending flood, and incorporates Yemenite chants and quotes from Biblical verses.
Their latest album, this year’s acclaimed The Never Ending Way of ORWarriOR, features the Arabic Orchestra of Nazareth, and traditional Middle Eastern instruments such as saz, santur, arabian flutes, cumbus, and bouzouki.
“For this album, we decided to focus on the warrior of life as a concept,” said Farhi. “We think that in each and every one of us there is a warrior of life.
And while we are waiting for some messiah to come and rescue us, we are the ones who can just turn on our light. And when we do that, we can see that we’re all the victims of the media, governments, many interests just manipulating for their own needs. If this warrior is awakened, people can create their own movement, like we’re doing with our music.”
Metal heads in Europe, the Mideast, and even the US have reacted to the band with enthusiasm, making Orphaned Land Israel’s number one heavy metal export. Regular tours and spots on European festivals and in Turkey have cemented its reputation as a formidable live act that spreads a positive message, not so common in the metal genre.
“We’ve seen the results of how the power of music can unite people,” said Farhi. “Without even knowing it, we started to have Arab fans from all over. It shows that music is the universal language. People that hate each other have something in common – they love Orphaned Land.”
Farhi said that he has to walk a fine line when communicating with fans online and at shows regarding the Israel-Arab conflict, especially – in light of the Gaza flotilla – with Turkish fans.
“I am Israeli, I love my country and I’m proud of it. We open every show saying, ‘Hello, we are Orphaned Land from Israel – Shalom!’ But I’m also a musician playing for Muslims, for Palestinians, for Turks. So my job is not to express my opinion, as it won’t make any difference.
My job is to unite people,” he said.
“Being in a popular band means we’ve succeeded in entering the hearts of Jews, Arabs and Turks. When you enter a crisis like the flotilla, they want to hear your view and you don’t want to let them down. I always find myself in a confusing situation when there is a political crisis like this last one.”
AS MUCH as Farhi vents his wrath at artists who make political statements, like Roger Waters, or those that bow out of performances, like Elvis Costello and the Pixies, he’s equally enthralled with the one band that has never let him down – Metallica. One of the highlights of 17-year-old Koby Farhi’s life was seeing the heavy metal giants perform in 1993 at Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv. Last month Farhi was able to surpass that peak when Orphaned Land opened up for the legends at Ramat Gan Stadium.
“Playing with them was such closure – they were my heroes,” said Farhi excitedly, recalling the evening. “Standing there on a stage with them and having my own career 17 years later, was simply amazing. I thought I wouldn’t be excited like a little boy, because we’re adults, we know that everyone is just human, and we know that we shouldn’t get excited about such things. But when I saw them, I was just like a little girl.”
But Farhi isn’t a little girl – he’s a man entering middle age, still playing with the same three friends he started his band with 19 years ago, and he still firmly believes in the power of the music he’s making to serve as a catalyst for change.
“I see what’s happening at our concerts – our music succeeds in creating a utopia,” he said.
“When I publish a status on our Facebook page, you see comments from Ronen, Ahmed and George.
They’re not fighting, they’re saying good things. If that happens, that’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Farhi’s already in touch with promoters about booking new shows in Turkey in the fall – “If it’s our own show, nobody can cancel it. I’ll decide what security I need” – and Orphaned Land will be co-headlining month-long tours in Europe and the US this year with the bands Katatonia and Amorphous. Farhi is looking at it as an opportunity to further spread his heavy metal word.
“We are just musicians; we won’t change the world alone, or control the minds of people like the media or politicians. But we do give another way and give hope we will show other ways, a different kind of thinking. From that point on, they have to take it up themselves. We are just the key to the door, they have to open it.