David Broza to 'Post' on COVID: No mass music performances until mid-2022

JPost One-on-One weekly 'Zoomcast': David Brinn with Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza - Episode 8

JPost one-on-one Zoomcast - Episode 8
Welcome, David.
Thank you, David.
Since the mid-1970s, David has helped form the soundtrack to the Israeli story from his anthem "Yihiye Tov" (things will be better) to his more recent projects with bringing together Jewish and Muslim musicians. He's done it all. So David, how have you weathered the storm the last year? I know many years you've been commuting between Israel and New York and beyond the United States to perform and that's all sort of come to a halt. What's happened during that time?
It's hard to put it all in one sentence, because it's an ongoing process. I think right now we're looking at a year since it all started, and since we've all been basically commanded and sentenced to a standstill globally, I mena everybody. Some fields have benefited, but in showbusiness and entertainment of course it's almost the death of the theater, the day the music died, you know? And it's hard. I think the first few months we were in emergency mode and at least I'll say my story.
I was in the middle of a tour in the United States. I just finished touring Israel. Out of my 43 year career, for about 35 years I've been commuting between Tel Aviv and New York and touring the Untied States, South America, Australia, Europe – all of that. So I've basically had 200 shows a year all these years. And so I was touring the United States and everything came to a halt in the first week of March. Everything was canceled.
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The first thought was that I didn't realize this is going to be where we are now, that a year later we would be in the same place. But quarantining for a long time was my first opportunity to see home seven days a week, four walls, my wife Nili who's just an amazing person, always has been but now I get to enjoy that. And I had to find a way to maintain not only sanity but maintain my technique, maintain positivity. So I would sit – and I still do – and play 4-5-6 hours a day, playing my guitar that never leaves my side, and maintaining some kind of discipline, which you have to. And leaving the house was at some points very limited, so we had to do everything here. Exercise in the morning, cooking three times a day – amazing. I mean, you'll probably tell me the same story. So we're all part of the same equation.
 Then I released an album. Me and the record company which is S-Curve records, part of BMG which is a huge company, decided that my upcoming album – which I had just finished in February and is my first all instrumental album, where I'm not singing I'm just playing guitar which is a great experience, and took me two years to put together and months and months of hard training to become and instrumentalist not just a singer-songwriter with a guitar – should be released. They decided it's the right time to release the album. So at the end of August, I found myself in a global campaign, which meant that sometimes at 3 in the morning, 4, 5 a.m. I'd be on the phone interviewing with Spain, with Europe, with Israel, United States. That kept me really busy, that was a blessing. And that was over around only two months ago.
So the campaign was over, and now I'm working on my next project: finishing a film about the instrumental album, En Casa Limon, that's the name of the album. Not sure what the film will be called but it's about my relationship with the Spanish guitar and what Spanish guitar is to the world. We filmed everything in Spain, and I will be in Israel –
During the lockdown?
No, we filmed everything during the recording, which was a year before, it was the summer before the lockdown. So we filmed everything, and then we had to do just interviews. And yeah, we're completing it now, and we will be releasing it hopefully soon.
So you kept productive and busy. I want to get back to the album in a minute, but first, as a performing animal, you said you do sometimes 200 shows a year, how did it affect you emotionally not to be able to connect to the audience a few times a week?
David, it's a really important question. You know, 12 months is a meaningful period of life. It's four seasons. You watch the summer go by, you watch the winter go by, you watch the spring go by. And then you're back in fall and you're back in winter. All from the same, you know I'm basically looking out these windows (gestures at windows).
I'm in New York City. I was in Israel for a bit but not for long because I had to be quarantined 100% by myself. And then I did a couple of shows down in the desert. Huge show with the Andalusian Orchestra, and the Jerusalem Orchestra East West, which we streamed to the Gulf countries. I think now, and I can look back and I can look present – and I say this honestly, I'm being very candid with you – I think there's a certain level of fatigue, emotional fatigue, because when you're in emergency mode, you don't think about now, you don't think about your feelings. You look only on how to survive this, what do I do next? What is the prognosis? What are the chances? You listen to a lot of news, you read a lot of analyses about the situation. But after a long while, which is 12 months, there's a fatigue, and I find that it's not just me.
I've done over 100 shows from my living room. Over 100 shows (shows picture) just sitting here in my living room. This would be my position, or more or less where we're sitting now, and I'd give a concert. Somebody would call "Oh, we're the community in Buenos Aires in Argentina, we're the community in Colombia, we're the community in Brazil. Could you play us a few songs for Shabbat or play us a few songs just because we're going out of our minds?"
And the easiest thing would be okay we started with Zoom, but Zoom doesn't have good enough qualities for a show, so I started looking for engineers who can overcome these obstacles, and we started creating productions. And that's how I managed to pull through, but I feel that there is a fatigue. There's a limit to how far you can stretch yourself, and I'm talking about my booking agents, we're at a loss, and I'm talking about my musicians. There was a time here in New York where I would see my musicians – the greatest musicians in the world – stuck in New York City playing on sidewalks and passing a hat around. Very, very difficult. I'm an optimist, but I've come to the conclusion that as optimistic as I am, there is a price, there's a barrier, there's a weight bearing over us. So I, you know, I resolved the fact that I play great guitar, I love my music, I can write new music. But it's hard for me when I communicate with others to see that we're all in the same place. And some are having a worse time than me.
I know there's a lot of criticism about how the Israeli government have handled the arts world during this pandemic. It's been a year where not only musicians but actors, dancers and all the people behind the scenes have basically been out of work. A lot of them ground to a halt. Did it had to be that way? Do you think they could have done it better?
No, I certainly don't think it had to be that way. I think it should have been, you know, I'm not saying other countries have done it better, I'm in touch with my friends in Spain – atrocious. American musicians I know, I mean some of them have had government financial support but not because they're artists but because it's allocated to help the arts because there's some kind of financial support to a certain degree for all citizens. But Israel, we're very special, we're small, we're tight. Everybody knows the reality, everybody knows everybody. Even the famous and supposedly elite artists are, you know you see them on the street. We're brothers to each other. And the government – I know that Chili Tropper, I know that everybody tried. But we're mot politically savvy enough, not politically strong enough. And to put the lives of the arts, the future of the arts, and play with it as part of a political game – it's atrocious, it's disgraceful, it's not intelligent. Israel can do a lot better.
Now, most governments have mistreated the situation on all fields, so you can't just say Israel did wrong. But particularly about the arts, you know, it's a dead field. It's not that they can sell some songs here, some shows there, a ballet pirouette. Even films cant be filmed because you can't be on set. So everything is at a standstill, there's no bread on the table. And you have artists volunteering to give some of what they have and package it and distribute it among those who really don't even have bread on their table, have to move their children out of the apartments and move in with their parents or close friends or somewhere. It's despicable, it's depressing. And then you say but where else can we go? There's nothing else we can do about it.
Now I'm a privileged one in the sense that I'm stuck here in New York but I'm with my wife whose business is not thriving but was struggling at first – she's in the fashion business, Nili Lotan is her label, very very successful, but the pandemic brought it down 60%. She had to struggle. So I'm lucky that I can sit by her and watch as she manages to maintain the business. But in my business, I can do over 100 shows but people aren't paying and I'm not even asking. And when I did two or three shows where I'm asking, you know, people would put $5 to watch a show, $10, you know? First they find it hard, secondly they're also used to seeing everything for free because everything's online and they don't need to watch Broza live.
So it's been a very tough struggle, and I'm talking from my own point of view. But it's an example. If I'm having a hard time, imagine others are having a way harder time. And that's why the government to step in to leave politics on this issue. Whether somebody lives or somebody dies isn't a political question. Everybody has to find a way through. So I'm critical on that, but I'm not the minister of finance or the minister of culture to be sitting there in their shoes to decide how to maintain or run this. I think it's misguided and certainly lacking savviness and lacking ingenuity. It's very mediocre, and it's disappointing.
(Laughs) Sorry, I'm spilling the beans, you know?
It's good to get into politics once and a while. As we inch our way out of this, hopefully in the coming months, how do you see it playing out as far as live performances go? Are we gonna go back to the way it was, where 5000 people can get together and watch a show? Is it ever going to get back to the way it was?
Listen, the optimist in me says absolutely. There's no way the world will live without live performances, exhibits, concerts, theater. No way that's not coming back. The question is when. And I don't think after such a long haul with a pandemic, a crisis, it's going to be an overnight thing. Even if you tell me tomorrow that all theaters were open, I'm almost certain that most audiences will be reluctant to go and mingle with hundreds of people around them, thousands of people around them, as if nothing happened. We haven't been brainwashed, we've been facing a serious situation. My friends who are doctors and scientists are as concerned as I am, and I'm the one who doesn't know enough and they know plenty.
So there is a situation ,and that situation has to be addressed. And subconsciously, I don't think we're going to see anything happen and change drastically overnight. Yes in stage by stage, and I think that by 18 months, by mid-2022, things will be pretty much back to normal. And when everybody who can possibly get the vaccine, when you get the herd immunity but I don't think it's that, I think it's when the numbers go down and will be reduced to almost something like a flu season thing, though COVID is rampant all year round, But there will be vaccines, and people will be constantly vaccinated, and things will improve eventually. Probably in a year or so. We will look at this conversation we're having and think "wow, thank God this was then and thank God we're in a better place." We've got to be in a better place.
So you mentioned earlier your latest instrumental is based on the Spanish guitar. I know you have a long history with Spanish music and like most Israelis you actually spent time in Spain as a teenager. Is that where you first picked up Spanish guitar and Spanish music?
Actually when I was in Spain I was playing electric guitar. I was a teenager, a teenybopper, I enjoyed playing Jimi Hendrix, rock and roll, Bob Dylan, the Band, Cream, the Doors. In the years towards when I was around 18 or so, I found I was traveling around a lot more, I was doing hitchhiking, and the Spanish guitar became my companion. And me and my friend, my buddy Antony, we would take two guitars, a backpack and move around. Spanish guitar was the easiest. I hitchhiked across Europe to go back to Israel and I was 18+ going to the army, so the Spanish guitar came with me to Israel, and I never looked back and I never played electric guitar again – well, I did. In my second solo album called Klaf, which means card, that was more folk rock and had more electric guitar in it. But over the years, my decision that I will improve my technique on Spanish guitar, though I'm self taught I'd learn what I can, I'd master it. And it took all these years. This particular album, En Casa Limon, which is the name of the studio where I did it and which is named after the producer who produced it, Javier Limon, one of the most brilliant producers for this instrument, for the Spanish guitar especially, having worked with Paco De Lucia, all the greatest flamenco guitar. And we've worked together before, when I did my Parking Completo album, my second Spanish album, in the early 2000s.
This album forced me to master the instrument like I never done before. I wrote melodies that could carry just melodically without lyrics. I had to discipline myself to the point where I'd play eight hours a day to really master the pieces. The album really surprised me because I'm a good guitarist but I can be clumsy at times, and I don't mind that my playing is not so pristine, clean and crystal clear, but in this album I made sure it's beyond clean, as good as I could ever get it to play, and Javier Limon helped me a lot in that process.
Did he tell you "do it again, do it again!" Did you get any of that?
Actually no, the surprising thing was that I took six days to record the pieces just me and the guitar and would later add the musicians. Just before I went into the studio he handed me two guitars, and told me to take them out of the case. Not my guitars, and I only play (holds up guitar) this guitar my entire career. It's a Spanish-made Contreras. And he handed two guitars which were flamenco guitars – very different sound and style. He said these are the guitars that the great Paco De Lucia recorded his last recordings. To me this was almost like holding a holy instrument, nobody had played it since Paco. He said to play it a little, and within minutes he said we should record a couple of pieces with that.
He didn't know what condition I was coming into the studio in. He didn't know I'd been practicing eight-nine hour days  for months and that that morning by 6 a.m. I did my exercise and by 8 a.m. I was sitting playing for two hours just warming up before heading into the studio. I was just ready to record. He thought, like you said, "you'd do it again." But no, we just found the right sound. He gave me those guitars, I had to acquaint myself with them and I found myself almost recording the entire album on these guitars, which actually made it easier for me to listen because I didn't recognize the sound like I did my own guitar. So when I was listening, I was almost listening form a third person point of view, so I wasn't as critical as I normally would be. So the result was beautiful. In four days, I recorded the entire album, 12 songs, which was quite an achievement, and filmed everything so I could make a film and tell the story of my relationship with the Spanish guitar, like I said before, and what it has contributed to the world.
And it was quite the experience. The thing that drove me a little nuts in preparation was sitting for eight-nine hours a day and now sitting five-six hours a day practicing without singing a word. And I understand instrumentalists who go crazy, because it's an internal thing. The adrenaline doesn't flow like it does when you sing with your voice and it drives your brain into some kind of, you know produces the chemistry that drives your brain forward.
I know you've been one of the big advocates of coexistence in Israeli society over the years. Can you talk a little about your Jerusalem East-West project you did a few years ago?
Thank you, yeah. That was a very, I mean, the instrumental album is challenging, but during the east Jerusalem-west Jerusalem album, I, you know, since 1999 when I was introduced to Sayid Morad, the most prominent singer-songwriter in Palestinian contemporary music and the bandleader of the band Sabreen, so since 1999 we've been very, very close. I would go there and frequent the studio every week for sure when I'm in Israel, sometimes two or three times a week. And the relationship was mostly friendship. And then gradually over the years became professional as we would write songs together, play together, jam together. And so at one point I brought Javier Limon with me. It was 2002, the Second Intifada. East Jerusalem was not an inviting place, not a place for anybody, especially Israelis and a visiting producer from Spain. And yet Javier came to produce this album Parking Completo and he spent six days in the studio while really outside the buses were exploding. It was a horrible time, and the emotions were way too high or low, depending on the day.
But the album came out beautifully and 10 years went by, and Sayid kept on saying to me "when are you bringing the next project?" And friends in New York kept saying "You're spending so much time in east Jerusalem, why don't you do another album there?" Okay, that was a good idea, so I started writing music for the album, which turned out to be east Jerusalem-west Jerusalem. Then at some point my manager at the time – we stopped working together but remained friends – Danny Goldberg, a very prominent manager in the music business, commented to me that it would be very, very good for me to do an album there. It would be good from a musical standpoint, for showing the world the power of music, exactly what I do on a regular basis but do it as an exhibit. and he suggested I call Steve Earle, this great singer-songwriter, legend, and offer him to produce it. And I'm thinking, Steve Earle is a radical free-thinker, he would be the first one I should call possibly just to get him off the list because he would probably say no. So I called him, and I didn't even finish explaining when he said he's coming. I said "I don't even know if I can afford you" and he said "it's not about the money. I'm coming because I have to come. I have to get to know Israel, I have to get to know Palestine, I have to get to know Israelis nd Palestinians. I have to be part of this. Thank you for calling me."
So he came, and we got into the studio. Now, the bigger mission was to find a way that Israeli musicians from Tel Aviv would agree to come and spend eight days and eight nights with me in east Jerusalem so we can record in the morning, work till night, have a big banquet-like dinner to celebrate every day and invite our friends, from East and West, Israelis and Palestinians to sit around and enjoy every night after we did a day's work. And I had to convince my Israeli musicians. So they said "east Jerusalem? We don't know about it. Let's ask our wives." Now that's already, you know, the Israeli macho in me thinks "ask your wives? This is a work proposition. This is an experience and work." They asked their wives, their wives said "not a good idea." I said "bring them." They said "yeah but we have kids." I said "bring the kids." They said "yeah, but..." I said "Bring the mother-in-law, bring everybody." I ended up renting almost an entire hotel, the Ambassador Hotel in east Jerusalem, one of my favorite hotels. And we took up almost the entire hotel. And every night we would hold the banquet. We had chefs, Israeli and Palestinian chefs. We had Victor Kloggel and my daughters Moran, so these are Michelin-level, and some Palestinian and Syrian chefs that were in the area. We had every night around 100 people around the table. The entire crew I worked with was around 14 people, but every night there were up to 100 people around the table, eating, drinking, laughing, singing music, jamming, having a blast. So this was the experience, it was unreal.
And one of my guests on the album was Muhammed Mugrabi. He was part of a duo that were rappers from the Shuafat refugee camp. One night I asked Muhammed about where he lives, and he said "why don't you come?" So I went with him, it was around 1 a.m. It was pretty spooky. Israelis don't go there day or night because the police don't go there, the army doesn't go there. And what ended up for me was that the result of that visit was I was invited to play and teach for a bit some children from the camp after school hours. This was in January and by April, weather was a little warmer and I called in. They assembled the kids together. They prepared beautiful music for me and danced for me, we started a relationship that kept going for three or four years. I would gather these kids, up to 50 kids, and teach them to drum like the Mayumana drumming style, drumming on any cans we found. And we would spend 3 hours at a time just hanging out. And these kids were just the most inspiring thing I could think of doing. And it really brought beyond happiness, it brought self-esteem and interest. And the families of these kids were at first concerned, you know who was this Israeli guy coming to teach? They didn't want me to get close to the kids, on one hand but on the other hand they saw the opportunity.
So I split the kids into boys and girls so I wouldn't teach girls knowing there's a sensitivity there. And we kept going until the last Gaza operation when the camp became too dangerous. It wasn't about sticks and stone being thrown at soldiers, this time it was homemade guns and stuff. So this time we moved the operations into the studio. We would bus the kids out. Of course now COGAT doesn't let anything happen. So this was really an experience which thank god I mean really it was beautiful we documented as an album, documented as a film to show the process, to show the contributions that music can bring to troubled areas.
Now in our case, it's Israel, Israeli-Palestinian issue, but in other places they can translate it into east LA, inner city, anywhere in the world, really. And so Netflix bought it and had it on for three years, and now it's on Amazon and other platforms. And I can say I'm happy I was able to do this and nobody chickened out. It was hard. Remember, when we all go home and this starts becoming a global campaign, then my friends the Palestinians get exposed, the Israeli musicians get exposed, there could be retaliations, there could be criticism, they could give them a hard time, their brothers, their sisters, their children. So everybody I think weathered it pretty well even though some of my friends lost some jobs in the West Bank and east Jerusalem area, but all together it was a beautiful, not just experience for what it was, but inspirational, and this keeps going. It's not that I did 8 days and 8 nights in Jerusalem. This has been going on for 21 years and it'll keep going forever, hopefully I mean as long as we're around.
Thank you for sharing that story, it's amazing. So as we wind up, I wanna bring it back to a song I mentioned at the beginning, "Yihiye Tov," which has sort of become an anthem for Israelis for decades. And I don't think if there's a more fitting time than right now, at the end of this crazy year, to put things in perspective. And I was wondering if you would honor us by performing a verse of the song for us.
Sure. as I said before, Zoom is not the best platform to play music so the viewers will bear with us, but of course I will. You know, you can't imagine how many requests I've had for "Yihiye Tov" in the past 12 months. I'm saying easily 4-5 times a day I get to record it for someone in person. I'm doing it constantly! My neighbors, in this building, they already know it. They don't speak a word of Hebrew!
Have you come up with a new verse new for the pandemic?
Well I have got 40 new verses from 40 years of singing it, Yonatan Geffen keeps on adding, but he has not added anything so we will keep it (strums). The verse that we added, this was added around singing the peace treaty with Jordan. Yonatan wrote it, and I'll translate it for an audience that doesn't speak Hebrew. This says we should learn to live together under the olive trees and that children will grow up knowing no more wars, no terror, no frontiers. I can add no COVID, no corona, no viruses. Let's hope. And that fresh new grass will grow over the graveyards for love and peace. And after 100 years of war, we haven't and will not, lose hope.
Thank you, David Broza, and thank all of you for tuning in to the Jerusalem Post Zoomcast. We'll be back next week. Take care, be healthy and be safe.
Thank you.