A troubadour’s threescore and ten

From recording with Yehudit Ravitz to hanging with Bob Dylan, Danny Litani looks back on 50 years of music.

Mika Karni 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Mika Karni 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Danny Litani has been around the block a few times, having been on the local rock and pop scene for seemingly eons, yet it is still hard to believe that the now somewhat grizzled troubadour is a full 70 years of age.
But Litani has, indeed, been on terra firma for a full proverbial threescore and 10, and the landmark birthday will marked by a top-notch lineup next Friday, at Tel Aviv’s Einav Center (1 p.m.). The show features several generations of some of our bestknown pop and rock performers, including Yehudit Ravitz, with whom Litani first joined forces on his first record as leader, Yahas Cham (Very Together), in 1977.
Danny Robas, Yoel Lerner and Ori Harpaz are also on the tribute performance roster – they were in Litani’s late-’90s band Four by Four – as well as Ofer and Iris Portugali and their gospel troupe.
There will also be several artists on stage next Friday who may not have collaborated with Litani thus far, but are clearly great admirers. The latter include Ben Artzi, Sagiv Cohen and Carolina; there is no doubt that the presence of the “younger crowd” indicates Litani’s enduring appeal.
While Litani is, presumably, happy to have his 50 years on stage – and counting – acknowledged by his fellow professionals and the public, he is not totally ecstatic about the forthcoming event. “I have had a tribute show before, about which I knew nothing beforehand, but I don’t really feel comfortable with them,” he declares. “I find it a bit embarrassing.”
Discomfort or no, he has certainly earned the right to have his work noted in such grand manner.
He has been called “the first Israeli bluesman” and started building a reputation for his sultry delivery and singular vocal style close to half a century ago.
Interestingly, he did not first come to notice on the back of a musical military service – as he had the chance to audition for an IDF band, but backed out on ideological grounds. “I was brought up on a kibbutz [Sha’ar Ha’amakim, near Kiryat Tivon] and, you know, kibbutzniks were tough guys who did meaningful IDF service, often as officers. So I simply couldn’t go for ‘soft’ non-combat service,” recalls Litani. In the end, he opted for the Artillery Corps, although he later regretted it.
Several years ago, I interviewed late troubadour Meir Ariel, Litani’s contemporary, who told me he listened to blues shows broadcast from Lebanon.
Litani’s route to the blues was far more prosaic and less intentional. “It’s quite funny, really,” he says. “I grew up in Haifa. My parents divorced when I was small and my dad was a bit mad about gadgetry.
When they brought out stereo systems he bought the very first stereo set that made it to Haifa.”
Of course, there’s not much point in having a stateof- the-art appliance just sitting around gathering dust, and Litani Sr. starting building up his record collection. The “problem” was that there wasn’t much variety to be had in local record stores. Happily, though, the genre dearth led the young Litani in the right musical direction. “There were gospel-style records, like The Golden Gate [vocal quartet founded in 1934], and blues with guys like [1930s and ’40s folk and blues musician] Lead Belly. My dad wasn’t really into that stuff but he wanted to show off his new toy at parties. You know, he’d make sure his friends noticed you could hear some instruments from the right speaker and some from the left.”
The paternal penchant led to a lifelong love for Litani. “I grew up on blues,” he notes. “There were the regular old-style Israeli songs on the radio, but I got into the blues before I heard the Israeli stuff.”
Blues LPs notwithstanding, Litani had a very different – and early – start to his musical career. “I started with classical piano at the age of six. I was a sort of wunderkind and I even played a few concerts at the music conservatory in Haifa,” he says. However, his infant attraction to music was soon tempered by adult intervention. “They’d force me to sit at the piano and practice, and I rebelled. I didn’t like being forced to play.”
Shortly after that his parents broke up, and Litani and his younger brother were shipped off to the kibbutz. After running away from two kibbutzim and spending some time living with his mother in Jerusalem, he eventually ended up at Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim, where he met his first guitar teacher,Uri Givon – and the rest is history. He also tried his hand at the archetypal bonfire-side singalong instrument, the accordion.
His time on kibbutz ended abruptly when, as he puts it, he was subjected to some “pretty rough treatment” by his Hashomer Hatza’ir group, and he relocated back to Haifa. Back in the city, he had access to movie screenings and became a devotee of the Jamboree musical TV show excerpts that were shown at his local movie theater. “I’d go to see the same movie 100 times, to catch the Jamboree shows, and I’d pay close attention to the guitar fingerings and I’d jot down all the chords,” he explains. “That helped me develop as a guitarist.”
After his IDF service, Litani became a regular fixture on the emerging rock scene in Tel Aviv and elsewhere around the country. Lady Luck soon shone her smiling countenance upon him, leading to a fortuitous confluence with a folk megastar.
“One evening I got a call asking me whether my then-partner [singer-songwriter] Drora Havkin and I wanted to come over to a house in Tzahala [north Tel Aviv] to meet Bob Dylan,” recalls Litani. “That was a bit after his motorcycle accident [in 1966] and there were rumors he’d come to Israel, to be on a kibbutz.
Just before he went back to the States he was invited to the house of some high-ranking IDF officer.”
Despite the rumors, it still took some faith to believe that the great Dylan was holing up in north Tel Aviv. “I asked to speak to Dylan on the phone,” Litani continues, “and I realized it was really him, so we hot-footed over there.” He found a miserablelooking Dylan, who felt out of place and bored with the company. “We jammed a bit on our guitars and then I asked him if he wanted to split, and he just looked at me and said ‘please.’” The two duly took off for a night on the tiles and parted firm friends. “He sent me some LPs from the States and his phone number in New York. The name of the sender was R. Zimmerman [Dylan’s birth name is Robert Zimmerman], and he said I should get in touch,” says Litani, who got a chance to renew his association with Dylan a year or so later. “I was in [hit Israeli musical] Ish Hassid Haya on Broadway and, one evening, Dylan came to the see the show, and we hooked up again.”
During Litani’s downtime from Ish Hassid Haya, and after the show closed, he found himself mixing in some stellar cultural company, including iconic beat poet Allen Ginsberg, also hanging out with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and top rocker Leon Russell. That was pretty heady company for a young man from faraway Israel, which was then way beyond the Western pale, who had spent much of his formative years on a kibbutz. In the end, the mind-set gap was just too much for Litani. “Dylan said he had arranged for Russell to record me, you know with backing singers, the whole shebang.
How could I possibly tell Russell what to do?” So Litani returned to little old Israel and resumed playing for audiences in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and kibbutzim up and down the country, when he could have been raking in the big money stateside.
He doesn’t appear to regret his decision to return home to roost and, it must be said, he became involved in some pretty noteworthy projects. There were a couple of daring satirical vehicles that he shared, in the 1970s, with writer Yehonatan Gefen – That’s All for Now and Letters to the Editor – and he put out a string of well-received rock and blues albums.
And now, at the grand old age of 70, two generations of rockers and poppers are doffing their artistic hats in appreciation. It is a salute well-deserved.
For tickets and more information: (03) 574-5005, (03) 521-7763 and www.pashbar.co.il