The recent passing of beloved Israeli musical icon Arik Einstein, whose decades of performances and hundreds of songs encapsulated Israeli existence specifically, and human existence at large, made me reflect upon my newfound identity as an Israeli musician. On my last tour in Europe, for the first time in more than a ten year performance career, I was publicised as an Israeli musician. Instead of the usual (CAD) that followed my name on posters, this time it was (ISR).
I had a layered reaction. First, tragically, it was awkwardness. Between my own critical lens of recent politics and the all-too-ubiquitous slanderous eye of others, Israel is not the first thing I want to talk about when I present my music. But from the visceral to the quizzical, it made me wonder: When it comes to my music, is it not, in fact, significant, that I am Israeli as well as a Canadian?
Sure, what turned me on to being a folk singer consciously happened in my teenage years in Calgary, listening to the ‘oldies’ radio show, teaching myself guitar, and playing my first gigs. But was it not true that my entire emotional template, my hyper sensitivity, my desire for human compassion, my grief-for-humanity that has been in me for as long as I remember, were all engraved into my soul while and because of growing up in war-torn Jerusalem? And was it not these very attributes that made me a folksinger?
In fact, before those years in Calgary, I listened to many, many beautiful Israeli songs. Some were old Hebrew poems put to music, but the rest were modern-day poetic proclamations, in the forms of pop, jazz, folk, rock, blues, and ballads, Western sounding songs, but that delineated certain collective experiences by dint of being in Hebrew.
Perhaps more significantly, Israel has a specific genre of music of some of the most poignant songs I know: war songs. These were in my system long before the ones from Woodstock and were the reason I probably loved Woodstock. These can’t help but strike a chord in the heart of all Israelis, because the experience in the region for every person has never been one without war. They condemn the need for war, express the grief of loss, the anger and frustration, the wishes and prayers for peace. They are an artistic outlet to painful and frightening circumstances, as well as an offering of camaraderie, emotional togetherness.
Think of the collectively teary eyed performers and audience members we see in footage from the anti-war concerts or human rights rallies of the sixties, a time when everyone was tuned in to that particular sadness. In Israel, that sadness never goes away. One is never not tuned into it.
It is perhaps because of this aspect of my life that I developed a keen insistence on the importance of songs to personal and cultural wellbeing, and of the great responsibility in song writing. In the tremendous tension that is Israeli existence, the outlet provided by musical expression, and the togetherness through suffering afforded through it is nothing short of a matter of survival. It is one of the only ways to deal with the pain of it, whether it comes in the form of tragedy or satire.
Like with all countries, the repertoire of popular Israeli songs tells a collective story of existence there, and as such, is a precious and important cultural commodity. I have no doubt that my absorption of these songs throughout my life has contributed to my overall musical identity. I have always just presumed I cannot define myself as an Israeli musician for the simple fact that my songs are in English, not Hebrew, and that I intend them for a much wider listening audience than just other Israelis. I have written a handful of songs in Hebrew and plan on recording them when I can. When I do, I hope the musical part of it reaches a wide and undefined audience.
Still, the more my own repertoire of songs grows, and through them, my self-knowledge, the more I can see my Israeli identity unfold alongside my Canadian one. Perhaps it matters a great deal and perhaps it does not matter at all. All I can do is sincerely hope that whichever categories I belong to, I am contributing to the greater collective expression something of value and integrity. Arik Einstein certainly did.
Orit Shimoni, AKA Little Birdie, is a Canadian/Israeli touring singer-songwriter. For more information about her and her music, visit: www.oritshimoni.com