Rona Kenan: Tel Aviv’s lyrical dissenter

By David Lasserson, July 4, 2008
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Big in Tel Aviv but not the rest of Israel, Rona Kenan, here on Sunday, sings dark tales of desire and displacement.

One of Tel Aviv’s finest chanteuses, Rona Kenan, is coming to London for one performance only. She will be singing on a boat on the Thames, in a re-enactment of a sea voyage from Britain to Haifa circa 1946, with Jewish partisans hiding in steerage ready to take on the forces of the British Mandate on their arrival in the Holy Land. 


“I’m providing entertainment for the soldiers on the journey,” says Kenan. “I’ll play ’40s classics, World War II-era songs. Then I’ll do some of my material in Hebrew — some of it sounds 1940s. I think I’ll wear a tie. Maybe a Dietrich look.”

Gifted with a velvet, smoky voice, Kenan is at home in both the theatrical and historical context of this unusual gig. She studied theatre at a performing-arts high school, and is now researching her father’s generation of Jewish settlers in Mandate Palestine for a new recording project.

“He fought in the Palmach [the elite Jewish underground fighting force] against the British,” she says. “But while most of those people became right-wing Israelis, he became left-wing. He had a utopian dream that once the British were gone the place could be shared with the Arabs. He was involved in talks with the PLO. He was very outspoken for many years.”

Kenan is still in her twenties, and her father, Amos, is now 81. Why would a young singer-songwriter look to a bygone era? “I wanted to deal with my father’s generation, the dream they had and how it went wrong,” she says. “I’m sad to say that most of us stay away from political songs. The older I get living here, not dealing with these issues, the more I think it’s unhealthy.”

With her father a writer and her mother a professor of literature, Kenan was always likely to produce lyrics that go beyond rock’n’roll cliché. Ask her about the meanings behind the title song of her well-received album Through Foreign Eyes, and you enter a dark world of desire and displacement.

“The title could mean that my eyes are someone else’s, or that they are foreign to me. The whole album is about separation. It takes different angles — sometimes romantic, maybe with your parents, or with yourself.”

So how does a rock chick with a literary sensibility fit in to the Israeli music scene? “You have to separate Tel Aviv from Israel as a whole. Here I’m with a bunch of musicians of my age group. We relate to each other; there are a lot of collaborations.”

She mentions the Israeli master of the satirical protest song HaBiluim, and singer and pianist Shlomi Shaban, and then adds: “But Tel Aviv is a world within a world. Here you have the feeling of a vibrant scene, but the numbers are small. The bigger Israeli scene is more complicated. The media is overrun by mainstream acts, and it’s a small country — there are not enough people to allow mainstream and less mainstream acts to live together.”

Israel has its pop idols, and they do not collaborate creatively with Rona Kenan and her talented friends in the intimate clubs and bars of Tel Aviv. However, a number of other important names have chosen to work with Kenan, including singer and actor Gidi Gov and rock vocalist Yehudit Ravitz. After the praise heaped on Through Foreign Eyes, her profile is growing at home and abroad. After the night on the Thames doing her version of Dietrich, it will surely be raised even higher.

A Slow Boat to Haifa, presented by the Jewish Community Centre,  is on Sunday July 6. Visit www.jewishcommunitycentre.org.uk (020 7431 9866)

    Last updated: 4:06pm, August 19 2008