A stalwart of Israeli music history shows off his talent in an album of love songs and deeper wisdom
When talking about Israel as a country it is difficult to avoid the elephant in the room in terms of its history that is binded with conflict since their declaration of independence in 1948. As a nation where military conscription is mandatory at 18, the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) unfortunately has to play a huge role in Israeli society. Whilst obviously most hope for peace and would rather live in a world in which their culture would not have to be shaped so heavily by military service, there are however perverse upshots to the war experience, rather bizarrely, in terms of acting as a breeding ground for some of Israel’s best musical talent.
“...he is more sentimental and reflective than a simple balladeer as he addresses more challenging topics such as the grievance of one’s youth.”
For example, a cornerstone of Israeli society for over half a century, singer Shlomo Artzi, first made a name for himself in the Lehakat Kheil Hayam (Naval Corps Entertainment Group). Many of Israel’s most-acclaimed musical maestros were discovered in such groups and Yehoram Gaon was no different. He plied his trade in the Nahal Brigade entertainment troupe before his stock skyrocketed after he starred in the 1966 stage production of the Israeli musical Kazablan. What separated Gaon from other superstars of that era, with the exception of Shoshana Damari, was that he did not come from an Ashkenazi background (Jews with a Northern/Eastern European heritage). As a global diaspora of Jews came to Israel after the Holocaust, the status quo in Israel was to hold prejudice against those from a Sephardi or Mizrahi background, and as such those with darker skin, other obvious genetic features or accent that might identify them as non-Ashkenazim were not as heavily represented in the culture as they are today.
Whilst this meant that Gaon’s ancestry made him stand out compared to his counterparts of that era - such as Arik Einstein, Chava Alberstein and Yaffa Yarkoni - he embraced the difference, even singing in Ladino (a Judaeo-Spanish language). Although there is a chance he might have faced racism in the early days, his talent, as can be heard on this album, won the hearts of the entire Israeli public. Unlike irreligious figures such as the aforementioned Einstein, his Judaism was always important to him as he even references Shabbat (the Sabbath) traditions such as lighting candles and eating challah in his ode to Israel Shalom Lach Eretz Nehedert (Hello to you, wonderful country).
There is one constant theme within his lyrics that is apparent on almost every track; nature. References to his adoration of nature, that are particularly poetic, are the mention of the blossoming of the pomegranate in At Yafa (You are beautiful), bushes filled with wondrous magic in Shemesh Ola (Sunrise) as well as metaphors about the sea and sun in my favourite track Ani Zocher Otach (I remember you). Use of nature as a device to express his feelings, though perhaps corny, is simultaneously romantic and thus an understanding of the lyrics on love songs such as Tni yadech li (Give me your hand) could make him come across as a convincing heart-throb. However, he is more sentimental and reflective than a simple balladeer as he addresses more challenging topics such as the grievance of one’s youth. The song Priedah Mishnot Haneurim (Goodbye from years of youth) speaks of laments and fulfilment with one particular line that struck me as powerful being ‘Shalom ladror ve gam la yisurim’ (goodbye to the freedom and to the suffering).
I will soon return to the pertinence of this theme of closure and moving forward, but first I will summarise the musical composition of the record. He is often accompanied by a big orchestra, as can be heard on the opening track Od Lo Ahivti Die (I didn’t love enough). The use of more classical instruments often fits nicely and creates a range of different moods. For example his cover of Gesher Tzar Meod (A very narrow bridge) contains a beautiful flute, the clarinet in Predah Mishnot Haneirum creates an almost ‘brothers in arms’/’end of the night’ kind of feeling, whilst the violin at the start of Tni yadech li replicates a tango sound that contrasts massively with the same instrument’s production of klezmer-like music in Sameach Sameach (Happy Happy). Whilst the inclusion of a klezmer-esque rhythm might seem bizarre from a Sephardi musician, Gaon simply proves the strength in unity within the religion and nation.
Gaon began his musical career in the army and ended his album with a song that became an anthem for the soldiers who passed in Israel’s wars. Ha’chagiga Nigmeret (The celebration is over) both lyrically and musically is a song of hope. It speaks of the importance of going forward in life even when there is deep pain. This message is one that is applicable to all people, but particularly bares relevance in a country that amidst its victories suffers tremendous losses. Gaon’s album is a journey that can be enjoyed regardless of lyrical understanding, however, learning about his poetry and storytelling add a new dimension to what is ultimately a beautiful record.