Soldiering on, at Jacob’s Ladder

Tim Isberg, a lieutenant-colonel in the American army, will be one of the star turns at this year’s Jacob’s Ladder Festival.

Veteran Canadian Army officer Tim Isberg brings his singer-songwriter talents to Jacob’s Ladder (photo credit: BRAIN ZOHORODNIUK)
Veteran Canadian Army officer Tim Isberg brings his singer-songwriter talents to Jacob’s Ladder
(photo credit: BRAIN ZOHORODNIUK)
 If you are going to be a singer-song- writer, it can help to have some hefty accrued personal baggage to enrich your lyrics and music. Tim Isberg has that, in spades.
Isberg, who hails from Alberta, Can- ada, will be one of the star turns at this year’s Jacob’s Ladder Festival, which takes place at its regular venue of Nof Ginossar at the northwestern corner of the Kinneret from May 19 to 21.
For the last three-plus decades, Is- berg has been in the employ of the Canadian army, largely as part of Unit- ed Nations contingents. Now a lieutenant-colonel, Isberg has completed tours of duty in many of the world’s most troubled spots, including Af- ghanistan and the Middle East. His first long-term foreign service foray was to Rwanda, slap bang in the middle of the genocide that spread through the country in 1994. Isberg says it was a chastening experience. “You can’t serve in Rwanda working alongside [United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda commander] Gen. Roméo Dallaire and not come back a little bit of a different person. I was to- tally unprepared for the psychological impact that such an experience would have on a kid like myself.”
Isberg has witnessed his fair share of suffering, and been in sticky situa- tions, elsewhere too. “I’ve been in Rwanda, I’ve been in Afghanistan and I’ve been in Bosnia. I’ve been shot at and I’ve lost friends,” he says.
That spell in Rwan- da was also the first time Isberg en- countered some- one from this part of the world. The IDF sent out a med- ical team to set up a field hos- pital there, to help treat some of the many vic- tims of the civil war. Not too long after he completed his time in Rwanda he got an opportunity to get to know many more Israelis, and his first taste of this country, when he attend- ed a military liaison program in Ramat Aviv. “I met and became friends with someone who was in the 1973 (Yom Kippur) War, and I have been back since then.” There were two more military post- ings over here, during which Isberg also traveled extensively around the Middle East. It can help to be in the UN if you want to pop over, say, to Syria for a while. One such trip produced a long-term positive result. “I met my second wife in Damascus, of all places,” he says. “She’s Ukrainian and she’s a musician. She was on a con- tract teaching music at the conservato- ry there.” Isberg’s partner, singer and violin- ist Oxana Volkova, will be on hand to provide Isberg with vocal backing at Ja- cob’s Ladder, as well as at his other gigs at folk clubs up and down the country.
Isberg began beating his mu- sical path as an infant, and not on a conven- tional instrument. “When I was very young – around eight years old, believe it or not – I was taking steel guitar lessons,” he recalls. “It wasn’t my idea. I think that was probably from my parents, thinking I should be a steel guitar player playing these old-time country songs.” That may have introduced the youngster to music making, but it wasn’t exactly a boon in the socializing stakes. “I was interested in the music, and I learned from that, but when I became a teenager it was kind of hard to pick up chicks around the campfire with steel guitar,” he notes with a wry laugh. “So I thought I should learn how to play some rock ’n’ roll stuff, or some folk stuff or whatever. I basically taught myself. I took a few lessons, but am really self-taught. I started writing songs. I think I wrote my first song when I was 13. I wrote a silly song, and then I wrote a couple more, and I sort of tinkered with it.” Things took off for Isberg pretty rapidly. “I was coming of age – I was 16 or 17 – and I was in a band, and then we had a dance band, and we start- ed traveling around, and I was learning the ropes. We mostly played around Al- berta and Canada. I was playing weekends and going to school.”
Isberg found himself at something of a loose end, and love eventual- ly entered his life. “I was good at mu- sic, but I wasn’t real- ly super good. Then I had a girlfriend who was going away to universi- ty, and I thought that maybe I should go to university, just because she is. You know, the heart sometimes is bigger than brain.” While the roman- tics among us may applaud the latter sentiment, it led Isberg into a professional dead end. “I got a degree in environmental sci- ence at a time when the economy was really bad. In the early ’80s, in Alberta, there were no jobs in that field.” He’d joined the Canadian Army re- serves while he was in college, and that became a career choice. “I’d joined the reserves just for some- thing to do, and make some money, and after I got my degree I thought why don’t I do this army thing. The next thing you know I was enrolled as an officer, and I thought I’ll do this for three, four, five years, maybe 10, but when you’re 20 years old you can’t really think that far ahead.” Still a high-ranking member of the army 30 years on, Isberg officially leaves the military in September.
While he wasn’t able to maintain a professional musical continuum while he was busy inspecting graves in Rwan- da or helping promote literacy among security personnel in Afghanistan, mu- sic was always there. “I’d have a guitar with me and do little gigs in different places, although not professional. It was just sort of house parties. What I went through in places like Rwanda, produced a few songs,” says Isberg. Mind you, that doesn’t mean you’re heading for a dirge when you go to a Tim Isberg concert, but it does mean you get the whole kit and caboodle – as you should from any true artist. “Not all the songs I have are serious or a life history lesson, some of them I wrote just for fun,” he observes. “But people listen to the lyrics and I talk between the songs, and I think that gives of an honest picture of you. You get credibility and you have something to offer that, if you listen, you don’t get that from every artist, because your story is kind of unique. I take that as a compliment because I can offer a song that may not be a true life story but it is inspired by some- thing.”
Elsewhere on the foreign contingent of the Jacob’s Ladder artist lineup you can find the likes of New York-based Ameri- can Roots outfit Spuyten Duyvil, returnee UK-born USA resident winger-songwriter Jason Feddy and Canadian Americana singer-songwriter Ben Fisher. The bulging local roster features many familiar names, such as Ca- nadian-born blues- man Eli Marcus – a.k.a. Dr. Blues – traditional country music band Lynn Lewis & Friends, the ever-popular folk rock singalong two- some Larry & Mindy, as well as Galile- an septet Tsmarmorot and world Jewish music ensemble Nava Tehila. •
For tickets and more information: (04) 685-0403 and