Interview: David Broza, G-Town

To us, there is no politics. It’s about people – I do not want to be in the political realm because once you’re there, the game changes, and we don’t have a game changer. Our game changer is “can you play in a major key or a minor key, and can we play it at the same time so we all sound like we’re in the same key? Can we harmonise?” The only way music works is in harmony.

David Broza is sometimes called “the Israeli Springsteen”. A renowned peace campaigner, in 2013 Broza set out to create an artistic mirror of his Grandfather’s coexistence project: East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem. Inviting his Israeli band and guest Palestinian musicians to a studio in East Jerusalem, Broza cut a new LP in 8 days and 8 nights. The entire process was captured by documentary-makers for 2014’s film of the same name.

The record contains a range of styles and sounds that shows the cross-cultural, collaborative nature of the endeavour in a favourable light. Whilst some tracks, such as ‘Ramallah Tel Aviv’ seem overly simplistic, there’s a hope that shines throughout the LP. The documentary casts a moving portrait of men, women and children inspired by art to overcome their differences. Ahead of a rare London performance on 27th April, Gaz Cloud spoke to David Broza, and key Palestinian collaborator on the aforementioned album, refugee Muhammad Mughrabi, from hip-hop band G-Town.

(((o))): Muhammad, tell me about growing up in a refugee camp.

Muhammad: Growing up in the refugee camp environment makes you angry about everything: life, the neighbourhood. It breeds a violent way of thinking, towards everything. I’m talking about daily life. Dealing with people in the street, no matter Palestinians or Israelis. Growing up in a refugee camp is tough and creates violent personalities. Sometimes you succeed to understand yourself and to open your mind, and sometimes you don’t. It took me a while to understand who I am and what it means to be me. What I can do to change what’s happening around me.

(((o))): David, you’ve moved around a lot in your upbringing. How has that influenced you as an artist and as a person?

David: First of all the difference between Muhammad and me is that he grew up in conditions that were very different to mine, as a refugee – a displaced person without a formal identity but with a culture. I come with a formal identity: Israeli. Not a culture, which is “multiculti”. There are many cultures in Israel and in the Middle East. And my parents moved to Spain and I was sent away to boarding school in England, so I got a little exposure to what English culture is about, but I was just young.

(((o))): Is Spanish a big part of your musical identity?

David: Absolutely – I’ve got records in Spanish and I’ve toured extensively there. Some Spanish fans don’t know that I come from Israel. That’s because I’ve mastered the language; I’ve mastered the culture. And the same thing with the United States – I’ve mastered it over the years. Not to become American or to become Spanish, but to convey and communicate in a very smooth and natural way to the audience which otherwise would have to put up with me singing in Hebrew and only Hebrew. (When I sing) the music may come from elsewhere but the stories could be from Camden Town for all I know.

(((o))): David, why did you decide to do East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem when you did?

David: There’s never a better time than this time. Sometimes it takes what it takes. Don’t forget that the Israeli Palestinian conflict is three, four generations old… how old is the Irish British conflict? Multiples of that. All I know is I’m living my course of life, he (Muhammad) is living his course of life. Sometimes it’s the time of our generation to carry on something; I was educated into this – it’s not out of nowhere. My grandfather was a visionary of how peace should be brought into the world, certainly into the Middle East. (Broza is the grandson of Wellesley Aron, a Zionist who in his later life set up the Jewish/Arab community Neve Shalom – W??at as-Sal?m). He never called it peace, he always called it coexistence. Peace is such a broad word, whereas with coexistence it’s so obvious to understand what we’re talking about. I was brought up on that.

I suppose it’s the destiny of certain things. Having met Jonathan Geffen the poet; having written ‘Yihye Tov’, my first song (in 1977). This helped get me recruited to help build this big movement called Peace Now, which brings me into all sorts of homes and situations: hard times, easy times, war times, settlements, everywhere. Singing and conveying the same message to all walks of life – left, right, centre, Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, non-Jews, you name it: people.

(((o))): Muhammad, did David approach you to get involved with this project?

Muhammad: I work at the studio he wanted to record at in East Jerusalem. I’m part of this circle of friends so I’ve known him for more than 10 years. He’s a good guy who’s trying to do good things. He’s raising awareness about uncomfortable stuff for the Israelis .They don’t want to hear him talk about refugee camps but he’s working with someone from a refugee camp.

(((o))): What attracted you to the project?

Muhammad: I wanted to be part of this because of the way I grew up. It was very limited. This is something very special that you don’t see. I believe in the power of music: the inspiration it can bring and the impact it can have on people and the situation that we live in, here in Jerusalem in the refugee camp. It’s very important to show to the world and to ourselves that communication between Palestinians and Israelis is possible. That’s my main goal – I want people to know.

(((o))): Your work as G-Town is a world away from your work with David. How did a hip-hop artist and a singer songwriter end up gelling, artistically?

Of course, when you bring two styles of music together you get something totally different again. What I do and what David does – I think it’s something special.

(((o))): Tell us about the musicians you got to play with on the East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem album.

David: The first job was to get the Israeli band to come over. It was very difficult for them psychologically and emotionally. They tried to get away with it by saying their wives won’t let them. In rock and roll, this does not happen. You don’t ask your wives. But in this case they did. And the wives indeed did let them. So I said “bring your wives along and your kids! Bring your mother in law along with you.” I ended up renting out almost an entire hotel, just so everyone could be there. We were there for 8 days and 8 nights.

Then I brought the chefs, both Israeli and Palestinian so we could have a banquet every night. We had 40 people in the crew, including musicians and I allowed for 60 more to join us every night, so people could bring their friends. People were in the peace movement who were there and they couldn’t believe it because they’re so cynical by now. For them it’s all politics; to us, there is no politics. It’s about people – I do not want to be in the political realm because once you’re there, the game changes, and we don’t have a game changer. Our game changer is “can you play in a major key or a minor key, and can we play it at the same time so we all sound like we’re in the same key? Can we harmonise?” The only way music works is in harmony.

(((o))): It seems there’s a lot that doesn’t get talked about on Palestinian radio and TV, as well as in the Israeli media. Can you as artists try to change that?

Muhammad: It’s what I’m doing. We’re tired, man. When you grow up with war you get tired of war. We don’t want war, we don’t want check-points, we don’t want walls – physical walls and mental walls. The situation got extreme in the past 3 years, especially in Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is where Palestinians and Israelis meet. There’s total separation: there’s a wall between Ramallah and Tel Aviv; there’s a mental wall between East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem. There’s this street called Street number 1. On one side there are Jewish people and on the other side there are Arab people. They hardly mix. I’m trying to break that barrier.

In one of the most beautiful scenes of the film, Broza leads a music session in the Shu’fat camp, the only refugee camp in Jerusalem. To start with, the children see David as an Israeli. Watching the dynamic change and the children start to see him as a musician and ultimately a human being is the film’s most optimistic moment.

David: It’s real. For me to communicate and to get across to people, I don’t take it for granted; it’s magic. I don’t care if it’s a refugee camp, I don’t care if my fans, be they Palestinian or Israeli tell me I’m crazy, and that I shouldn’t go there. Because there are people living there living under these difficult conditions. I’m a person. They’re people. I’ve eaten there on Muslim high holidays. I’ve seen how civil it is – no less than my own upbringing. The food is different but the importance of family is the same. Muhammad’s mother’s food is better to his taste; my mother’s is better to my taste (laughing). What is beautiful is neither of us has given up on our country and our love for our people and our identity, in order to be together. That’s important.

(((o))): Muhammad, you found success through music.

Muhammad: Music changed me. When I first started with G-Town, we were angry about everything. We wanted to get that anger out in a non-violent way. Hip-hop is perfect for that. As young kids from a refugee camp we wanted to say something. Throughout the years I got more interested in other styles of music. When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing, and what music can do. I met a lot of people and a lot of great musicians, for example, I first heard John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, and I thought “it’s just a song”, at the beginning. But after some years I realised it’s one of the greatest songs ever made.

(((o))): Some of your own lyrics are beautiful but at times there’s a naivety to them. Do you believe the world can be a better place?

Of course. I can imagine, because you’re in a situation. Once you step aside and look at what’s happening to yourself, as a different person, you can see the possibilities. You can see what restricts you from doing certain things. What we did with David is inspiring a lot of people. Not everybody liked it, but it brings positivity that we really need, in our situation. I believe in good energy and the power of it to change people, because music changed me, I believe that music can change others.

(((o))): Muhammad, you wear a ring on your finger depicting the Palestinian flag. In the film, David says “I’m not going into East Jerusalem waving flags”. Do your feelings about nationality echo the relationship of your nations?

Muhammad: My identity is my identity no matter what – I can’t change it. And I’m proud of it – I’m a Palestinian refugee and this is who I am.

David: After nearly 70 years of living as refugees you hear them saying “this is my identity. I don’t have another identity.” I was born Israeli: this is me, I’m an Israeli. I’m very proud to be an Israeli, but I’m also critical, as I was critical of my parents, too. My parents were amazing people. Do you think I don’t have something to say about how they raised me or how they lived their lives? Doesn’t every generation know better?

We have a choice – go vote. Every four years. That’s what democracy is about. And if you don’t vote, don’t complain. We voted. And we got the short end of it. I’m not happy about it. I’m doing all I can to save face for me. So those kids – my kids, their kids, your kids, everybody can see what you can do in spite of the situation, and not fall into a deep well of cynicism. There’s always a way. If you’re going to work to make a change, then it might come. Listen – there are people who hear me singing Yihye Tov who are thinking “please don’t sing that song – I just can’t hear it any more, there’s just no hope.” You can’t give up your hope. I am singing that song.

(((o))): How do you respond to criticism saying “this is not something you should be doing together, this is inappropriate”?

Muhammad: There’s no such thing as inappropriate. This is what I say, because look, normal people in the neighbourhood, in the street that I live, they go and work in Israel. My whole family work in Israel. It’s not like we’re in a total separation. We deal with Israelis all the time. We have friends who are Israelis. And people are not aware of this. When we’re watching the news, and we see what the media writes you see an alternative reality. But it’s not completely true, about the Palestinian. I’m about the truth. I want to be honest, with myself and the people around me; I’m not making stuff up. I want to be honest and I want people to understand what’s going on.

David: People are entitled to be critical. You have to learn and you have to know that you’re not feeding everybody, because not everybody wants to eat what you’re feeding them. Even if they’re anti or have something to say about what I do, they’ve had to listen to it in order to have had something to say about it. So that’s already something. And besides, when it comes to music, there are very few opportunities for people to shut off completely from music. If it doesn’t enter from one crack it will enter from another crack. That’s why we’ve got to keep making music. My music is not about politics and my music is not about the situation. My music is normally about love. Good love, bad love, separation, creation.

(((o))): Surely on this album it’s both love and the situation.

David: It’s very much both. In the past it’s been a little bit of that. Let me tell you – the environment we created in the studio, it was such a clear utopian state of mind and place.

Muhammad: This experience was the perfect experience of coexistence. There were people from the US, Tel Aviv, Palestinians from the West Bank, me as a refugee. It was perfect. I wanted the whole world to see this because it’s possible. Once we start to get together, as people, we can do that. We should not let politics manipulate us – we’re tired of that. We don’t want no more manipulation. We can decide what we want to do. And we should raise our voices and let the whole world hear what we can achieve.

David: We’d better sing damned loud.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”
Leonard Cohen

David: This is music and not just rhetoric. If Palestinians and Israelis can’t get it together maybe someone else can. Everywhere you look there’s conflict. But the old traditions of breaking bread and salt, maybe having a glass of wine, or coffee if you can’t have wine, I don’t care what it is. That is the secret. We didn’t break bread today but we broke songs.

East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem is a laudable project. It’s inherently political, but this is an artistic statement, rather than a political one. On 27th April, Broza will perform his first public invite London gig since 1998. With a new best of album, The Set List, to promote, he will appear alongside Mughrabi, plus percussionist Gadi Seri and his Tel Aviv band, featuring the talents of versatile bassist Alon Nadel. With a 40-year long career to pick from, expect Broza’s mix of middle eastern and latino styles to shine through in his unique guitar style and powerful, direct song-writing.

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