Broken but not down: Leonard Cohen’s sound, spirit comes to Jerusalem

Prepare to have your heartstrings truly tugged.

 THE SHOW mines the subtext to Leonard’s painstakingly crafted lyrics. (photo credit: AHARON KRITZAR)
THE SHOW mines the subtext to Leonard’s painstakingly crafted lyrics.
(photo credit: AHARON KRITZAR)

Broken Hallelujah ain’t a bad moniker for a show. It’s sufficiently cryptic to defy instant comprehension while suggesting an easily recognizable liturgical or votive reference. 

That fits the bill for the concert scheduled to take place at Confederation House on February 10 (8:20 p.m.). The repertoire feeds off the music, lyrics and spirit of late Jewish-Canadian troubadour Leonard Cohen, who died just over five years ago at the age of 82.

Cohen’s oeuvre is celebrated across the world, for its textual riches that dip into all sorts of climes – cultural, philosophical, religious and highly personal alike – across numerous layers of the said fields.

That, says Yankele Segal, offers plenty of room for maneuver, and he and his colleagues, principally fellow project initiator, vocalist, narrator, guitarist and harmonica player Avi Cohen, drew on all the said strata, and then some, in putting the song list together.

The full lineup for the Confederation House date also includes Shlomo Oz on classical guitar and vocals, Yogev Levi who plays ney (Arabic flute), keyboards and guitar, and also sings, lead vocalist Bat-Hen Edri and versatile percussionist Rony Iwryn. Segal plays bass and acoustic guitars, and contributes vocals, and is also responsible for the arrangements and musical production.

 BROKEN PRAYER dips into a broad musical backdrop. (credit: Shlomit Wolf) BROKEN PRAYER dips into a broad musical backdrop. (credit: Shlomit Wolf)

The audience will be treated to a polished, fervently delivered, tried and tested offering, which has had several run outs since it was first staged, at Beit Avi Chai, back in September 2017. “The project was commissioned for the 10th Piyut Festival,” Segal recalls. “Yair Harel, the artistic director, is a good friend of Avi Cohen.” So far, so cozily good.

There were also some purely artistic grounds for featuring Segal, Avi et al in the festival program. “Yair decided he wanted to broaden the range of the piyut, not just synagogue material. He spoke to Avi and they came up with the idea of Leonard Cohen.”

It wasn’t such a left-field departure. “Cohen has a lot of references to prayer in his songs,” Segal notes. “Avi got in touch with me. We are childhood friends. We grabbed at the proposition.”

It turned out to be a nifty marketing move too. “The show was sold out well before the festival,” says Segal. “We realized we had something that could go well.”

Indeed it did, and has. “We have performed the show quite a lot around the country over the years, and it is always sold out,” Segal continues.

Okay, so having Leonard Cohen’s name out there can help at the box office but, at the end of the day, you’ve got to do the business. If an audience comes along expecting some kind of creative refashioning of the iconic poet-singer’s work with, presumably, some straight-up deliveries in there too but, instead, gets a quixotic diluted version, word will get out and the next show will be far from packed to the rafters.

“Our fresh approach was not just to do a covers shows,” Segal explains. There was plenty there to feed off, with the renditions crafted in English and Hebrew. “We found different connections in his work. He studied Talmud and Torah and Kabbalah. He infused his songs will all sorts of allusions to the Scriptures and Kabbalistic things. We followed these things and reintroduced them to our readings.”

Segal notes they didn’t have to work too hard to get into some of the biblical subtexts. “There is, obviously, ‘The Story of Isaac’ [from 1969 record Songs From a Room]. We fused that with a Yom Kippur prayer which talks about the Binding of Isaac.”

That may be a self-evident option for a stirring liturgically leaning makeover, but the original lyrics are spellbinding and equally horrifying. Consider such Cohen lines as: “When it all comes down to dust. I will kill you if I must. I will help you if I can.” Then, in a similar yet completely contrary reprise, in the final stanza, Cohen writes: “When it all comes down to dust. I will help you if I must. I will kill you if I can.”

Segal and Cohen plied their way right through Cohen’s output, even though the bassist admits they both have a preference for the earlier stuff. Nevertheless, “Show Me The Place,” from 2012 release Old Ideas also gets an airing and some special treatment, and matchup, in Broken Hallelujah. “There’s a line in the song that goes, ‘Show me the place where you want your slave to go.’ We connected that to [piyut] ‘Yedid Nefesh’ where it reads ‘Meshoch avdecha el retzoncha’ (draw your servant to your will). There are all sorts of associations like that.”

To achieve that sort of natural, seamless continuum, Segal and Cohen not only have to be creative and polished artists they also need to gain a decent handle on various matters of a Jewish religious nature. “We have that,” Segal states. “Avi and I have been engaging in piyutim for years now.”

Segal says the Canadian singer-songwriter venture is also a natural confluence. “It is a marriage of two loves of ours. Leonard Cohen has been a favorite of ours since the 1970s. And there is piyut material. Over the years, especially with the Piyut Festival we broadened our approach.”

The latter enabled them to look at Cohen numbers that do not apparently lend themselves to liturgical arrangements. “We looked at songs like ‘[So Long,] Marianne’ [from Cohen’s 1967 debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen] and ‘I’m Your Man’ [from the eponymous 1988 album]. We don’t present them as covers. We perform them with our own twist.”

That is clear right through the band’s Cohen repertoire. While Cohen was primarily an acoustic folkie, he took the odd excursion into other stylistic areas. Segal and Cohen are similarly inclined, with their readings taking in rock, Renaissance, Middle Eastern and other seasonings as they followed a meandering path through the source material.

It was very much a matter of just going with the flow. “There are all sorts of things in there,” Segal says, adding that it quickly transpired they had hit on something. “It was very surprising. The shows were all sold out. It looks like something works well there.”

Naturally it helps to have a solid platform to work off, but overlaying the quality substratum with deftly worked layering can also help to widen the creative scope and also keep the culture consumers fully on board. “Avi is also an actor and he brings that to the fray too,” Segal observes. That thespian proclivity, coupled with an impressive vocal timbre, help to generate and impart a sumptuously forged ambiance worthy of the man who blazed a trail through the world of poetry and, later, the global music scene for close to half a century.

Mind you, the Israeli Cohen’s vocals lean toward the nether register area, much like his late Canadian namesake. That, Segal notes, could have spelled trouble. “Yes, there is a similarity between the way Avi sings and Leonard Cohen. We were afraid people would think he is some kind of Leonard Cohen clone,” the bassist chuckles. “We were concerned about that, but Avi took the songs into different directions. We got around that minefield.”

BROKEN HALLELUJAH also features some narration, courtesy of Avi Cohen, in which he enhances the musical offerings with some fetching biographical and other epexegetical content. 

In one number, he cites the Canadian’s first conscious encounter with Yom Kippur services, back in his hometown of Montreal at the age of five. He might also have talked about Cohen’s decision to come to Israel in 1973, in the middle of the Yom Kippur War. He joined up with a bunch of local artists, including singer-songwriter Matti Caspi, and headed down south to entertain the battle-weary IDF troops in the heart of the Sinai Peninsula. Some years later, Cohen was praised by an interviewer on Army Radio for his courage, and for helping to boost the soldiers’ morale. Ever the self-effacing character, Cohen replied that he was just doing a few numbers in the desert for a bunch of brave young men.

Cohen came here to perform quite a few times over the years. I caught him at Heichal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv in the early eighties and, like the first time I saw him, in Britain in the mid-seventies, it was an unforgettable emotive experience.

He built up a fast relationship with Israel and Israelis, as evidenced, most memorably, in 1972 when he famously split the stage in Jerusalem mid-show because he felt he was not up to speed emotionally or artistically. He openly explained the situation before leaving for his dressing room and, rather than booing, the members of the audience expressed their empathy. When he was eventually persuaded to return to the stage he was greeted happily and tenderly.

He is still warmly remembered here and, no doubt, some of that vibe will hover over the Confederation House auditorium on February 10.

The Broken Hallelujah musical genre stretch is pretty impressive too. “Who By Fire,” which feeds off the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, is a noteworthy case in point. It opens with a Segal and Oz duet that conjures up a madrigalesque Renaissance feel as Edri and Cohen come in with the original English-language first stanza. The rhythmic substratum changes noticeably, into a jauntier staccato form, as the Hebrew translation takes over. 

“I don’t know why there is so much variety in our version of that song,” Segal notes. “The harmonic progressions of the song are very much in a medieval spirit, like songs of the past.” That simplicity, the guitarist posits, left him with plenty of room for arrangement and fine tuning. “It is very primitive, folky, like folk songs of old.”

Segal says he did not take anything for granted as he sought to tailor the seemingly straightforward numbers to the group’s approach. “Leonard Cohen planted a lot of land mines in his songs.” That, primarily, references the textual core and inherent emotional baggage rather than the score. “Leonard Cohen sometimes expressed a lot of anger. In ‘You Want It Darker’ [title track of the 2016 album], he writes: ‘A million candles burning, for the help that never came. You want it darker.’ He is angry about the Holocaust, and the wars and the darkness.” 

There is a flipside too. “On the other hand you have the word ‘hineni,’ ‘I’m ready.’ It is a very powerful word in the Torah. It appears only around three times – with the Binding of Isaac, and with Adam and Eve. It means ‘I am here, and at your service.,” 

Leonard Cohen, the troubled poet, musician and, it must be said, person in street level life, relationships et al, was generally at the ready, with his heart way out on his sleeve. 

Prepare to have your heartstrings truly tugged.

For tickets and more information: www.confederationhouse.org and *6226.