Conversation with the Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza is a bit like sitting next to a waterfall — no, make that a torrent.
Ideas and words pour out of Broza in an almost unceasing flow, from memories of his beloved grandfather, Wellesley Aron, to the peace work he himself does. And always, always, the music is at the forefront of the talk, to the point where I thought he might burst into song.
First things first: David Simon Berwick Broza was born in Haifa in 1955, the son of an Israeli-British businessman, Arthur Broza, and Sharona Aron, a folk singer. It’s not exactly the most Israeli of names, I say, and he laughs, mutters a bit and says that most Israelis don’t have middle names, although all three of his children do.
And… we are off. Broza wants to tell me about his names. Wellesley Aron, his grandfather, was the founder of Habonim, the Zionist youth movement, and also co-founder of the Arab-Israeli peace village, Neve Shalom. Berwick Taylor, it turns out, was the son of one of Wellesley’s Christian half-siblings, Violet, and had died in France in the First World War. “So when I was born, my grandfather asked my parents to give me a name for Berwick; and Simon is for my father’s father.”
Broza adored Wellesley Aron, a remarkable man who, the singer reveals, was on the same running team at Jesus College, Cambridge, as the Chariots of Fire athlete, Harold Abrahams. “My grandfather really believed in the rebirth of the Jewish nation, and went to Palestine for the first time in 1925. He listened to a lecture by Chaim Weizmann, and found a deep connection. Later he became Weizmann’s political secretary”.
Like his grandfather, who spent years shuttling between London and Israel, Broza had a peripatetic life. Until he was 12 the family (Broza has a sister, Talia) lived in Israel but then “my father moved us to Madrid, for a business opportunity. He invested all his money and lost it. We got stuck until we made it back.”
So Broza grew up in Franco’s Spain, but it had a positive influence: his sublime guitar-playing, full of flamenco, driving rhythms, unlike anything his Israeli contemporaries were doing. Some songs of Broza’s are not so much played as attacked, the passion oozing through the guitar strings so you can almost hear the heel taps on the stage.
At one point Arthur and Sharon Broza began to worry about their son, and — radically — extracted him from Madrid to undergo formal schooling at Britain’s only Jewish boarding school, Carmel College. It was not a success. “I had one year at Carmel in the Lower Sixth but Rabbi Rosen [the headmaster] asked me to leave. Then I did a term at another school in Hastings and that was it.” So he’d had enough of school?
“No,” says Broza, with slight indignation. “School had had enough of me. But I completed all my obligations and then it was time to go back to Israel, to do my army service.”
If he had any plans for life after the army, it was to become a graphic artist, as he’d done well selling paintings in the Rastro, Madrid’s Sunday flea market. But, after an initial stint in the army’s general corps, Broza transferred to the entertainment unit. It was there that he realised his destiny in life, to make music.
In the first year after leaving the army, he was offered a job in a show with the poet and journalist Yonatan Geffen, the nephew of Moshe Dayan. And, with Geffen, Broza wrote and recorded the hit song Yihye Tov, or It Will Be Good.
For some singers it might be hard to be defined by a song first performed in 1977, when just 22 years old. But Broza doesn’t see Yihye Tov — or other anthemic songs he has written in more than 30 albums — like that. “My music has evolved. When I sing Yihye Tov I sing it today, as I am now. None of my songs feel to me as though their time is up.”
And, cheerfully, he rejects suggestions that the song is an albatross. “Look, you could say life itself is an albatross. But it [the song] gets the albatross to spread its wings and let it go. It’s almost in the public domain, now. I think everybody has their own Yihye Tov.”
A David Broza concert is an exercise in audience participation, as the crowd, many of whom have grown up with the “Israeli Bruce Springsteen”, sings along to every word.
His London concert, later this month, will be no exception, not least because he is debuting his latest album, the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin The Set List.
It will contain many of his most popular songs and is, says Broza, “something I have been wanting to put out for a long time, and I think it was something that was meant to happen.”
One of the songs on The Set List is an extraordinary piece, very dear to David Broza’s heart, East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem.
Performed with the Haitian singer Wyclef Jean, who found fame with the New York group The Fugees, East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem is taken from an eponymous 2014 album; one of 13 songs which combine cultures, languages and sheer longing for peace. The album was produced by the legendary American singer-songwriter Steve Earle, and sits alongside a companion documentary film of the same name.
Both the film and the album were the result of an intensive eight days of recording by Israeli and Palestinian musicians in the east Jerusalem Sabreen Studio.
I sense that for Broza, with 40 years of music-making behind him and a track record of integrity as a peace activist — he was one of the founders of Peace Now — it has become one of his proudest projects.
The Arab-Christian singer Mira Awad, who has become “a great personal friend”, sings on the album and will be on stage in London with Broza and his band. So will the Palestinian rapper Mohammed Mughrabi, who lives in the Shuafat refugee camp and is, says Broza, “one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met”. Alongside will be another extraordinary musician, Salit Lahav, a new addition to Broza’s band, who plays accordion, flute, saxophone… well, just about anything, really.
Perhaps controversially two of the tracks covered on the East/West album were written by artists who have dedicated much of their off-stage activism to boycotting Israel. Broza gives us his take on Mother, by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and Elvis Costello’s Every Day I Write The Book.
“I love Elvis and I had wanted to record this since 1983,” says Broza, “but when I came to work with Steve Earle it felt right. And, for Roger’s song, when you hear our interpretation, with oud and darbukha, it just defies any cynical or negative notion.
“Look,” he adds, “if Roger Waters were to come to Israel and say the same things there, I would bless him; it wouldn’t be so different from what many of us in the peace camp say. I know this will raise eyebrows, but I wanted to show that we are not just flower people, we are actively dealing with the issue of peace”. And that means, he says, no boycotts of any kind, “not by separation wall, not by borders.
“When you tell artists not to communicate you are cutting off the only branch where there is hope, and you are sitting on it. If it’s not the artists, thinkers and philosophers, who will build the bridges? Not the politicians. They have to walk on the bridges that we build. I don’t boycott anyone, not settlers, no one.”
A Unicef goodwill ambassador, Broza is realistic about his work and whether or not he is a lone voice singing in the wilderness for peace. He thinks there is mileage in “small steps” and persuading people to get used to living side by side.
Last question: who would Broza, who has appeared with artists as varied as Paul Simon and Jackson Browne, still like to work with?
The answer is perhaps surprising: Britain’s guitar legend, Mark Knopfler, who has seen the East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem film and was, reportedly, knocked out by it.
And, in the summer, Broza is helping with the Israeli appearance of Radiohead, “who have been immediately attacked by all the BDS crowd.” David Broza smiles down the line from New York. “I want to be evocative, not provocative”, he says.
David Broza plays the Union Chapel in Islington, London, on April 27. www.davidbroza.net