Ofer Golany (עופר גולני ) è uno dei maggiori cantautori israeliani, nato a Haifa nel 1960. Canta sia in ebraico che in inglese.
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he trouble in the Middle East is something we are all painfully aware ofand the stalemate between Israel and Palestine is one that doesn’t appear to show any signs of reaching a positive conclusion. The respective governments, so preoccupied with their own territorial disputes, have failed to see members of both communities applying a "chess game mentality" to the situation and, rather than supporting their own states, are busy making peace with each other.
Ofer Golany represents a musical underground that is willing to counter the doctrine of conflict in two ways: first by taking on the bugbear of Israeli societymilitary service and also by quashing the stereotype that all Arabs are Muslim and all Israelis are militaristic. All over the Holy Land, as well as much of mainland Europe, Golany has been spreading the word of Israeli pacifism and Arab Christianity, and how the two might be the answer to the crisis in the Middle Eastmaking peace from the bottom up.
This week, Golany takes his message to the UK in the form of a short tour, and so I investigated how the man banned on Israeli radio for his anti-militaristic stance fought the lawand won.
How was your life growing up in America, and how did music figure in your childhood?
I started playing guitar at 12the guitar for me was a transitional object that helped me fit in as my family moved from one university town to another. I studied with a teacher but also with the students of Penn State University, where many had the patience to show this or that lick to the eager adolescent they adopted. Being a university town, there was lots of variety and action. I remember seeing Steve Miller, Frank Zappa, John McLaughlin and stage versions of Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar in concert.
And your first bands?
My first bands played Rolling Stones, Rory Gallagher, Santana, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the like, whilst my non-electric friends were playing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Despite having played in numerous bands and with differing numbers of musicians on your albums, you seem very firmly rooted in the "songwriter" mould. Who are your influences in that field?
As a cross-cultural child, I was first attracted to Cat Stevens. Don McLean also provided an influence, particularly from his first two albums (1970’s Tapestry and 1971’s American Pie).
So you were very much a musician before you were an activist, then?
Not exactly. As my guitar technique improved I began to play more blues and wrote notebooks full of poems, some of which I arranged with basic harmonies. But my music became a vehicle for activismthe Rabbi of my local synagogue pulled me in as the accompanist to all the musical activities and this gave me an outlet for social comment. After a visit by Shlomo Carlebachthe singing Rebbe of the Hasidic traditionI wrote a pathos filled song about a poor Jew dying in Siberia. At school I also edited an underground newspaper, which caused an uproar in the town as it was uncensored and critical of the school.
Golany returned to Israel at 16 to study and to eventually complete his compulsory military service. He also further developed his interests in music.
Did your home in the Holy Land and your life growing up in America affect your musical tastes?
With my return to Israel to study in the Hebrew University I became interested in the three Jewish prophetsBob Dylan, Paul Simon and of course, Leonard Cohen. Paul Simon is more important to me for his musicianshipthough his "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" became an educational part of my repertoire as "70 Ways To Get Discharged From The Military".
I can hear Dylan’s earlier, more political side in your music, and there is an image of you playing guitar and harmonica on the Alternative sleeve. Did his protest songs inspire yours?
Certainly. Dylan exposed the lie. It isn’t true that no one wants war: the weapon producers want to make, test and sell and you are only a pawn in their game. On an early recording I also covered "Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time".
You’ve paid homage to Leonard Cohen, too.
For me, Cohen is the poet among songwriters. I chose to cover his songs (Hebrew translations of "Story Of Isaac", "Tower Of Song", "Who By Fire" and "The Future" appear on Guns2Guitars) because of the lyrics, the subject matter and the relationship with the Old Testamentthe pessimism he applies to it, and his harmonic twists. Also, his line in "First We Take Manhattan""They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom / For trying to change the system from within"is the worry of my fate, that I will be punished for believing that Israel is democratic, though the army is not.
Along with the Cohen translations, and Hebrew versions of all of the songs featured on Alternative, Guns2Guitars includes songs not featured elsewhere (including "How The Military Psychiatrist Set Me (And Himself) Free"). The album consists of twenty-two songs, matching the letters of the Hebrew alphabet or the form of Tarot cardsa system Ofer says he uses often. Although some may find the Hebrew lyrics challenging to listen to, others will no doubt appreciate the advancement of the album’s musicianship: twenty-two musicians feature on Guns2Guitars, and new arrangements for all of the songs featured on Alternative exploit the full potential of Golany’s songwriting. It also served as the basis of Ofer’s now-successful record label of the same name.
After university you served three years in the military. What was your attitude to being a soldier in those days?
I played in military music ensembles that (then) were the only way to make music in uniform. I accompanied a singer to the auditions and was told that if I lowered my profile (for example if I declared some physical infirmity), I would be given a "way out". But I wouldn't think of itI was one of the finest and fittest for the fightregarded as "quality material". I wanted to prove myself and they offered all the opportunities I desired. My only chance to play music was a harmonica, which I kept in the pouch meant for grenades.
But your views about service changed dramatically
Waking up was slow. I didn't even know I was waking up. When I began leading my own combat unit I broke the myth of the game. It was (and still is) a game but I began to see all the live fire training. I realised while trying to prove my "manly" qualities, I was just being used for other ends. I was just a cog in the machine that I was not steering, but instead serving. I asked to be put in a unit that used the mind and more technology than the gung-ho shoot-’em-up infantry.
Did your activist stance begin to surface again?
I was sent to teach 30-year-old reservists anti-tank missile technique with a group of disgruntled officers whose marks were not good enough. They couldn't understand why I preferred to find a hut at the edge of the base and sit around playing guitar rather than go back to the forces. I abandoned the dress code, but I went too far by having one of the girls on base live with me. I also had a big mouth and would tell my superiors they were unreasonable (or plain stupid), and after a third trial was sent to twenty-one days in military prison.
Here Ofer had time to think, play chess and plan a "big trip" upon his release. He was growing musically, and was introduced to Jazz. Citing Charlie Parker, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Thelonious Monk, and Jim Hall as major influences, this enlightenment was to form the basis for much of his recorded work. But first he had his trip to think about. Hitchhiking from Greece to Norway, covering India, Nepal and Thailand (giving guitar lessons to fund himself) were all formative experiences.
However, playing music as he travelled through Europe was Golany’s biggest revelation. "I suddenly realised", he enthuses "that this is what I should have been doing instead of the army. Live music instead of live fire. Taking terraces instead of blowing up houses. This is the alternative I could teach."
Indeed, when Golany came to record the English language album Alternative in 2002, he drew upon his experiences to teach those still serving in the military of his epiphany. Opening with a kleska and transcending effortlessly through three keys, "Who Are You?" bounces into action to urge the listeners to look within themselves for strength in making the ultimate decision. The tempo is then increased for saxophone-led hot jazz on Golany’s homage to the relaxed, yet frenetic, madness of the Nepali capital in "Katmandu". But Alternative’s main theme is the difficulties associated with opting out of military service oud and violin swirling outward and engulfing the weight of expectancy and family honour.
Occasionally, the strength of Golany’s message is betrayed by the language he employs (see: the jarring "your deeds are the echo of your ethics" that close the soft finger-picked "Musician"). On the other hand, the album’s standout track which Ofer himself refers to as "naïve and modulatory" is "Brother", in which Ofer makes peace with his Palestinian neighbours, via Lennon-esque lyrics and an almost nursery rhyme melody that, if it made radio, could easily be a hit single.
The closing, haunting sound of "A Girl" condenses sexual temptation and army desertion into just under one minute, and also features the album’s best couplet "Don’t carry no gun, don’t be tempted by rank/I’ve got more life under my hood than a Merkava tank". The decision is made ("this time I will stay"). Alternative walks us through each stage of Golany’s activism: self-knowledge, dissatisfaction with the Israeli government, discovering the choice, creating an alternative and following the route out. And crucially, Alternative does this without compromising the credentials of Ofer Golany as a musician, handling a range of styles masterfully in the process.
Before all this, though, Golany returned to America, and began recording after accompanying jazz, country and blues singers, and also having played bass in a band called Slipknot (no, not them). I Offer This Guitar was a mixture of jazz, classical and flamenco instrumentals, while the follow-up, Sketches For The Waves, featured English and Hebrew lyrics. Indeed, lyrics began to play a much more important role in Golany’s songwritingSometimes He SingsSometimes He Just Plays Guitar included an early version of the Lennon-influenced "Brother" (featured also on Alternative).
"To me the words are at least as important as the music", Ofer explains, "True, music is direct experience, while lyrics are only symbols but in my (Jewish) tradition, language, names and even letters play a big role."
Postcards From San Francisco was Ofer’s most rounded record to date, and marked the end of his stay in America. Including recordings from a church where John Coltrane is a saint, German lyrics to altered melodies and perhaps a misguided sense of humour (the album included the song "I’m In Love With My Refrigerator"), Ofer once again turned his attentions to his homeland.
"All this time I had been playing a cat and mouse game with the military authorities in Israel, never refusing to do reserve duty but always two steps ahead of their bureaucracy. They would learn I was in Israel months after I entered and call me days before I left. I knew the system and used it with a good dose of humour to avoid reserve duty. I had already won the internal battle with the myth of the soldier as the ideal or of reserve service as a need or duty."
Following the founding of the Modern State of Israel in 1948, the Israeli Defence Forces were established to "defend the existence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state of Israel" and "to protect the inhabitants of Israel and to combat all forms of terrorism which threaten the daily life." Military service is mandatory, and each year around 50,500* men and 48, 000* women are conscripted for a minimum of three years in combative positions (two years for women who accept non-combative roles). In addition, men are expected to complete one month of military service every year into their mid-forties.
The IDF is by far the largest of Israel’s three military components, which also include the Frontier Guard (a police service with strong links to the IDF) and the Shin Betthe Israeli internal security service. Defence expenditures have always been a large portion of the national budget, reaching 21.5% in 1996 alone. It’s a figure that’s impossible to ignoreand represents a somewhat single-minded attitude within the Israeli government. "As the saying goes", Golany summarises, "most countries have an army. In Israel the army has a country."
Did you successfully evade reserve duty?
Not at first. I told them I was willing to serve as a musician but without weapons, a uniform or commands. After a long and documented exchange of letters and telephone calls it became clear to them that the military did not match my personal growth. They labelled me an eccentric and I called them slaves. In the end we both played the card of the psychiatrist. Which one was insane: them or me?
The psychiatrist was convinced that I was sane. I spoke his language and knew my priorities. My daughter was born 8 days before and my choices were clearmy family preceded any national interests. I was neither depressive nor suicidal and if I were in any military unit I would convince others to leave as I could express myself well and at length.
So you were discharged as a danger to the army?
Well, these things take time. He (the psychiatrist) himself could not sign my release. His recommendation was to discharge me before others heard how to escape. A long silence followed, and half a year later I received confirmation that I was officially discharged.
Yet you’ve managed to continue your work teaching others how to make the choice and opt out of military service through your music. Have the army’s efforts failed then?
I have been banned on Israeli radio, and will no doubt have lost 80% of my potential commercial audience by opposing the Israeli government. However, I do still manage to teach in schools and in my concerts that there is a way out.
What advice do you give?
I urge people to learn the English language, and take up any instrument. There is a growing support network in Jerusalem that will help those who wish to defect, and their details are held in the sleeves of my albums.
Ofer Golany is currently looking for funding for recording an album with the Musicians For Peace trio he formed last year. In May of last year, the group recorded a "sketchy" (Golany’s own modest description) seven song CD entitled Peace From Jerusalem. Having heard the CD, I can confirm that his new project builds on the promise of Alternative, and if funding is forthcoming, there’ll be another instalment soon: "we’ve recorded a twelve song demo CD. Every song is in at least two languages, and our circle of fellow musicians in Jerusalem and Nazareth is wide and competent enough to play the arrangements. Right now though, a good quality studio or live recording is far beyond our financial means."
Not that any of this will dissuade Golany, though. I recently received an e-mail from him regarding the schedule of his current visit to the UK to promote his music and message, and his closing note was, typically, one of hope:
"As we learn, every plan is a basis for change and every change is a basis for a new planchange being the only constant. The best laid plans of mice and men often succeed. I hope this makes it possible for magic to work in planting seeds of peace and opening doors for the alchemy of Guns2Guitarsthank you all."