The music man

Overcoming rejection by the kibbutz orchestra, and learning disabilities, Tal Kravitz has become a kind of cultural ambassador, playing for audiences all over the world.

Tal Kravitz with the Hamar people in Ethiopia, 2004 (photo credit: Bill Bar)
Tal Kravitz with the Hamar people in Ethiopia, 2004
(photo credit: Bill Bar)
Musician Tal Kravitz performs around the world as a representative of Israel, under the auspices of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. It’s hard to believe that as a child he was barred from the music program on his kibbutz. Kravitz himself seems surprised that he is able to make a living doing what he is most passionate about. He performs about 20 shows each month in Israel and averages one or two a month internationally. His ability to maintain this killer schedule is proof that being hyperactive can be an advantage.
Kravitz has attention deficit disorder and dyslexia. Although he had a few friends growing up on Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, he was mostly an outcast. The kibbutz put a lot of emphasis on its music program; most of the children learned to play an instrument with the goal of joining the kibbutz orchestra.
“When I was about six and a half years old, I was tested and found to be ‘nonmusical.’” Kravitz says. “I remember listening outside the window of the music studio while the kids my age were practicing.
I would cry – because the music moved me and because I was sad that I wasn’t allowed to participate. I didn’t understand why not.”
Around that time, he discovered an old piano stored in an abandoned shack. It was wrapped in plastic and missing some keys. Kravitz remembers how he would crack the lid open with one hand and play with the other. “I thought it would be easier to run away if anyone found me,” he says. Slowly, he taught himself to play with both hands, but it was a solitary activity. Eventually he was discovered, of course. His “punishment” was to be the accompanist for the kibbutz choir.
Kravitz wasn’t the only one in his family who didn’t fit in. His grandfather, David Kravitz, an immigrant from Eastern Europe and an eye-witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, was an alcoholic who beat his wife, Tal’s grandmother.
This was unusual behavior for a kibbutznik. Still, his grandfather had a positive influence on Tal.
While his own parents seemed as incapable as everyone else at dealing with Kravitz’s problems, his grandfather was a source of unapologetic support, going so far as to threaten the boy’s teachers with bodily harm. He also introduced Kravitz to world music. “He owned a huge, old-fashioned radio,” Kravitz says. “It had two big buttons and a green lamp. I would turn the knobs and listen to the sounds that came out of it.”
Used to spending most of his classroom hours outside class, Kravitz finally began to learn when he was taken out of the regular school framework and put into special programs. In high school, his social life improved when he became friends with the kibbutz volunteers – young people who had come from abroad to work for extended periods of time. He spent most of his afternoon hours with them and his English became fluent.
After high school, Kravitz served only one year in the army, under an officer who made his life hell. When he got himself discharged, this caused a huge scandal at home. Kibbutz members were outraged, his parents were upset and his relationship with them deteriorated to the point that they weren’t speaking to him. He decided his only option was to leave the country.
He did so in secret. Borrowing money, he left a letter for his father and flew to Holland, where he stayed with a former volunteer, working and saving enough money to get to Australia. There, he worked and saved enough to realize his dream of crossing Papua New Guinea by foot.
At age 19, completely alone and carrying an old World War II tent and a sleeping bag, he walked for 120 kilometers, sometimes through jungle so thick that there was no sunlight. The trip got off to a rough start. “I took enough food to get me to the first village on the map, but when I arrived it had been abandoned. I had nothing to eat for three days, until I reached the next village. I was completely alone and it felt like my life was in danger.”
Maybe every great accomplishment must have some amount of risk. Even today, after having traveled to many remote locations around the world, Kravitz says that trip was one of the most exciting for him. “I came across amazing people – people who lived in nature.
That’s when I decided I wanted to be an anthropologist.”
On his return, he taught music at a school for disabled children, and then he was asked to direct the kibbutz music studio from which he had once been banned. Amazingly, Kravitz seems to have emerged from his childhood without any bitter feelings. “I feel only sweet revenge,” he says, smiling, and it is obvious his emphasis is on the “sweet.”
Still, he wanted to explore both his interests: anthropology and music. He wrote letters to all of the embassies of African countries in Israel, offering himself as a music teacher. “I became a peripatetic music teacher. I was in Western Kenya for eight months. I established a library of traditional, local music that was becoming extinct. That was 16 years ago. A year and a half ago, I went back to do a performance in the same district. It was amazing.” He sponsored that trip himself; when he came down with malaria, he went home. It was then that he began to perform.
OFRA BEN-YAACOV, director of the Department of Arts in the Division of Cultural and Scientific Affairs of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, explains that there is a very small budget for the type of public relations that Kravitz does.
Artists are usually invited by a specific Israeli embassy, which then tries to make the most of the artist’s visit by scheduling multiple appearances and giving them as much exposure as possible. Kravitz is a popular choice. “Tal is a single artist – not a whole band,” she says. “He’s not spoiled – there’s never any ‘I’m too tired.’ Tal does everything. He’s very talented and he has a lot of warmth. And he has a great rapport with the audience.”
When Kravitz performs internationally, as a cultural representative of Israel, most of his set is classic Israeli and Jewish music. In between musical numbers, “I tell the story of 2,000 years of living in a world and dreaming of the return to the land of our forefathers,” he says. “I talk about our efforts in building up community. I explain that Israel is a salad of cultures.”
He also talks about himself, his background and his experiences, and the audience connects.
As an ethno-musicologist, Kravitz’s focus is on preserving dying musical traditions.
Through his travels, he has the opportunity to hunt out traditional and locally made instruments. He says he’s never counted the number in his collection, but he knows how to play them all.
And he always learns some traditional songs. He can count the number of languages he sings in; so far, he’s up to 28.
The fact that Kravitz makes an effort to learn local songs and to include them in his performances makes him one of the most successful visiting performers, says Yaniv Revach, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Manila, the Philippines. “He learns languages fast.
He sings about 10 songs in Tagalog, the language here. When he sings in their language, Tal shows the audience that he values them and their culture. I have seen people cry in his performances. He has sung with some very famous people, even with [widow of former Philippine president] Imelda Marcos – they sang a song together.”
This April, Kravitz will be visiting the Philippines for the fifth time. “Tal has been invited to participate as a sort of cultural ambassador to the island of Mindanao, which has a large, povertystricken Muslim population,” says Revach. Kravitz, who says he has never run into any negativity, is excited about the trip.
At home, he tries to donate one performance a month to a charitable organization.
At a recent show in Haifa to benefit Beit Ruth, a diagnostic and treatment center for children with learning disabilities, he kept the audience spellbound – and laughing – for two hours while he told his story, sang in many languages and played about 20 instruments: from an almost four-meter-long Swiss alphorn to a palm-sized adongo – an African thumb piano. He also played a Russian saw and a theremin; he gave a yodeling lesson and, at one point, he passed out an array of rattles and percussion instruments so the audience could fill in the few minutes while he ran offstage to reappear wearing a Scottish kilt and playing the bagpipes.
Each of Kravitz’s performances is an inclusive event. He is able to share the stories of his struggles and his achievements openly and honestly. He has a gift for drawing people in. And beyond that, there is his musical ability.
Even in the most remote location, Kravitz has no problem communicating.
“I speak in music,” he says.