Q&A: Israeli Singer David Broza on East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem
By Josh Tapper
Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza wants to make one thing clear about his new album, East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem: despite what the title might suggest, the record is not an attempt at political provocation. Instead, Broza, a longtime peace activist, says the album, which features Israeli and Palestinian musicians, is a hopeful meditation on life in a disputed territory. “It’s about the conflict and resolutions, it’s about love and separation, it’s about hope and the search for peace,” he told Moment in an interview last week. The 14-track album, produced by American folk singer Steve Earle and released on Monday, includes a collaboration with Wyclef Jean on the title track and eyebrow-raising covers of songs by Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
Why call this album East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem? You’ve said the album does not make a political statement, but the title suggests otherwise.
When we were finishing the album, producer Steve Earle’s immediate feeling was, “Why not look at the song ‘East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem?’” He’s not Israeli, he’s not Jewish, not familiar with the situation, but thought the title would immediately strike a tone with anybody. The album is aimed at a general audience—it’s not a Jewish or an Israeli-oriented album. It’s an album done by an Israeli artist, with Israeli, Palestinian and American musicians, that really sings out to the world. Anybody who’s very close to the subject—any Israeli, any Jew—the title, unless it was for a cookbook, would immediately think, “There you go, they’re going to talk about politics.” But this is about music and art in a political environment. I can’t hide from that, I can’t escape from it. But it’s not an antagonistic album. It’s embracing, loving, full of passion and softness and sweetness. That’s what drives the album and brings to it a very harmonic and organic sound, which is what the audience is going to hear.
That said, if you wanted to name the album after one of the songs, you had 13 others to choose from.
Yeah, I could have called it “Wild Carnations.” But there are 3,000 albums released a day, or whatever it is. We had to be able to strike onto something that also reflects the work you’re about to buy. The album isn’t made in Nashville. It’s definitely not made in Paris or Madrid. It’s made in East Jerusalem. You have the oud there, and we have all kinds of sounds that are mixed in with Western melodies to bring in the actual flavor of the Middle East, the flavor of the place where we’re working. I could have called the album “Peace (Ain’t Nothing But a Word),” but that’s not really what it’s about. The album doesn’t call out for a political sound—it calls for equality, for understanding, for resolutions, for acceptance.
You recorded in an East Jerusalem studio over roughly a week. How entwined are music and place in this album? Could you have recorded it somewhere else?
Theoretically yes, but, you know, why do you go to Hawaii on your honeymoon? Why do you go trekking at Machu Picchu? Why do you go to all those special places? Because they enrich you, they open your heart, senses and mind. This is my third title in East Jerusalem, and I’ve spent about 14 or 15 years hanging out and working there. It feels like home to me. With East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, there was something that everybody felt brought purpose to the music, a deep cultural bonding, a beautiful and intense purpose. It’s difficult to explain. I don’t know if a guy in the Midwest or the Deep South or a non-Israeli will be able to tell any difference, but that camaraderie comes through under the music.
Steve Earle’s fingerprints are all over the album, and he joins in on a cover of his 2002 song “Jerusalem.” You guys had played together before. How influential was he in conceptualizing the record?
He had written the song and recorded the album [Jerusalem, in 2002], but had never been to Jerusalem. He had to adjust to the cultural shock of something he has been contemplating for so many years. But he’s an intelligent guy, and also an original and a renegade. He doesn’t do things by the book, and all of that came out when he was in the studio. I knew I wanted to record the album live and all the musicians were my picks. He didn’t know them, but he knew the songs because I’d sent him recordings of just me and my guitar. He sat in the studio and listened to us all play one time. The room was really small, so the drums leaked right through my microphone, but to Steve that was perfectly great and he loved that natural sound. I wanted him to help me bring that natural sound into the album. And that’s where his presence was brilliant.
You have a song on the record called “The Lion’s Den,” which adapts a poem [Moment board member] Judea Pearl wrote in memory of his son Daniel, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in Pakistan in 2002. What’s the story behind this song?
I was talking to a friend of mine about this project, which, at the time, was called The Lion’s Den. And he said that was really interesting because he had just heard Judea Pearl read a poem in memory of his son, called “The Lion’s Den.” That really gave me the chills. The Pearl family and I had communicated since their horrendous tragedy, but I never had a chance to really connect. So I asked to be connected to Judea and asked for the poem, which he sent me. It’s not a short poem and it took three or four months to edit it to the place where I could actually write music to it. It’s a beautiful, personal and humbling poem that I got to write music to. Let’s hope I can play it a million times.
East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem features covers of songs by Roger Waters and Elvis Costello. Both have shown solidarity with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. You’ve been questioned about collaborating with people who are anti-Israel or opposed to Israel’s policies. Is that something that should be left alone, because you’re simply making music? Or is it something you want to challenge?
There are two things. First, the music is beautiful and I’ve wanted to record some of the songs for years. The boycott cannot stop the music from ringing and playing and motivating. I can only wish that Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and Cat Stevens would send me an email, give me a call, text me and say we’d love to meet with you and play with you. Then we can call it collaboration. What I’m doing right now is playing covers. None have come near me, none have even commented. If that happens, then that means the boycott is not a dead end. It means there’s an opening somewhere, a crack where the light comes through. You can do boycotts all you want, but if you stop people from talking, if you stop the communication, then there’s no way that the boycott is going to break down.