Interview: Chava Alberstein
After more than 40 years, the veteran singer is still a favourite with the Israeli public and still battling for acceptance abroad.
Chava Alberstein was singing in Yiddish before it was fashionable in Israel. “I’m happy and proud young people are doing it now”
The fact that I can do albums is magic. The fact that people are ready to buy them is a miracle.” Israeli folk singer Chava Alberstein admits she is bemused by the longevity of her career — one that has spanned four decades and includes more than 60 album releases. Israelis have loved her ever since she rose to stardom at the age of 18, entertaining the troops during her Israeli army service (which, she insists, is the best training a performer can get).
And they continue to listen to her quiet, reflective, guitar-led brand of folk in huge numbers. She is known for her soulful sound and emotional lyrics whether she is singing tender romantic ballads or defiant protest songs.
“People feel I love what I do. I never follow the fashion,” says the 62-year-old artist, in an attempt to explain her enduring success. “I always go after the meaning or the feeling. It works. This is the other miracle that happens with me. I thank God every day. There are so many artists in the world that cannot find people to listen to them or read what they write. I’m blessed.”
She might also count as a blessing the decision early on in her career to rethink her instrument of choice. “I started playing an accordion,” she recalls. “But then I discovered the guitar and I suddenly realised this is the way I wanted to express myself — hiding behind the guitar and singing.
“I never thought about myself as a singer like today’s American Idols with a big voice. For me the issue was the songs — to express ideas, tell stories, to look at the world.”
Even so, it took almost 20 years before Alberstein, who was born in Poland and came to Israel at the age of four, became a fully fledged singer-songwriter. At first she was content to play cover versions of other people’s songs; then she moved to performing numbers specially written for her by other musicians.
Only in her forties did she start recording her own material, having become dissatisfied with what she was being given, and at the same time feeling confident enough in her judgement of what her fans wanted.
Alberstein, who is looking forward to playing a concert in London next month, is aware that her popularity in Israel is not matched internationally. This is something she feels has a lot to do with anti-Zionism. She says there have been occasions when she has been prevented from playing at festivals and shows abroad simply because of her nationality.
“I know from my own experience that there is prejudice against Israeli performers,” she says. “There were festival organisers in Norway, Greece and France who wrote to me and said they were not interested in hosting Israeli singers. There was a festival in Australia which had booked some Lebanese artists who said they weren’t prepared to go if I went, so I wasn’t able to go.
“I don’t think this mixture of art and politics is right because most [Israeli] artists speak for peace and are ready to criticise the government when it’s wrong, and yet suddenly we’re not accepted. I don’t understand it. But that is the world. There are also artists who are not ready to come to Israel because of politics. What can you do?”
A good example of what she regards as Israeli musicians “speaking for peace” came earlier this month with Israel’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, performed by Noa, who is Jewish, and Israeli Arab Mira Awad.
“I think it was a very good idea,” says Alberstein. “I love those two girls. I think they did a great thing. The image of Israel in the world today is of soldiers, guns, bombs and religious fanatics. We see two young women who are ready to create together and, of course, they represent Israeli society and all the people here. Most of the people here want to live quiet lives — they don’t want to be throwing bombs at Arab villages, living with hate and revenge.”
Folk music is a genre that celebrates the roots and history of a community. Which is why Alberstein has recorded many of her songs in the language of her Polish parents — Yiddish. For a teenager starting out in the 1960s, this was a risky move — Israel at the time was desperate to appear modern and unshackled by the traditions of its various immigrant groups. “I did an album in Yiddish at the beginning, (before I went in the army),” she says. “People didn’t understand this language in Israel. It’s an echo of the diaspora. People didn’t want to know about it. For a 17- or 18-year-old girl it was a kind of rebellion against the anti-Yiddish camp.
“But when I first wanted to be a folk artist I thought the only real folk material I had was Yiddish because Israel was a really young country. I didn’t realise how crazy it was in those days. I didn’t understand why my parent’s culture shouldn’t be preserved.
“I loved their stories and their humour and their songs. I didn’t see any reason to forget. People were kind of amazed, but they accepted it.”
Nowadays, Alberstein, who is married to film director Nadav Levitan, can take credit for the revival of diaspora music coming from hip young acts like the Idan Raichel project.
“I’m not sure I like the word ‘revival’,” she says. “It’s a bit too optimistic, but certainly the feeling is that Yiddish is much more acceptable.
“Young people who come from diaspora communities that were supposed to be forgotten, like the Yemenites or the Moroccans, have started to realise that there’s a wealth of culture [in their backgrounds]. A lot of people have started to sing the songs of their grandparents from Persia or Turkey. They realised that the countries are still part of their biography.
“I was one of the first to do it. I’m very happy and proud that young people are doing it now. Being able to sing in Yiddish, being able to connect with another culture, it gives me a very fulfilling feeling.”
Chava Alberstein performs at the Barbican in London on June 9 (tel:020 7638 8891, www.barbican.org.uk). Her new album, Live, is out now