Life & Culture

David D’Or: Meet Israel’s classical hero


David D’Or has sung for the Pope and Bill Clinton.

David D’Or is Israel’s Charlotte Church — only, obviously, he is male, and not married to a rugby player. But he is his nation’s best-known classical singer and has, over the years, performed for everyone from the Pope and the King of Thailand to Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton. Not surprisingly, he believes his music can make a difference.

“At a show in the Canary Islands, I sang a traditional Jewish song called Lecha Dodi,” he says, “and there were these young Palestinians holding a huge Palestinian flag, dancing with it above their heads. It was exciting. It was like having peace through music.”

The great-grandson of a prominent Libyan rabbi and descendant of a family of Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, D’Or, now 42, was trained at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He served as a singer in the Israeli army band and in 1985 was in the Israeli Army Central Command troops’ entertainment group. After completing his national service, he enrolled in the Jerusalem Conservatory and began his career as a classical tenor.

Since then, he has represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest — “The newspapers asked the people of Israel who they wanted and they chose me,” he says of the gaudy pop fest, “but I didn’t like it at all” — and, through his music, has been an unofficial ambassador for the country. “I do my best to speak about my beloved country,” he says, “to describe things the way they look to us here, because from abroad it seems different. I would like to emphasise the beautiful things, such as the cultural life, not just the bombs and the fear.”

Actually, rather than speak about it, he sings about it. Backed by a band of young musicians from North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere, he performs a mixture of holy music, ancient chants, Yemenite prayers and Israeli folk songs. “I have a classical background, and my dad is from Libya, so all the rhythms of the prayers are in my blood,” he says. “There have always been world elements to my music. I love to cross over. In music we shouldn’t have borders, so I’m trying to do whatever excites and moves me.”

Not just him — in the very church in Harlem, New York, where, in 1968 the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King gave one of his last speeches before his assassination, D’Or sang Amazing Grace before a crowd including former President Clinton and King’s son, who was reduced to tears. “The whole audience shouted with joy,” D’Or recalls.

Then there was his performance in front of the Pope — “the last Pope, not the present one,” he confirms. “He held my hand and gave me his blessing. I just kept thinking: ‘Here I am, little David from Israel, singing in Hebrew in front of millions of people.’ It was a very powerful thing.”

And yet he denies being a superstar in Israel. “I’m quite famous, but there are no screaming girls,” he says. “I’m not a pop star. Nor am I a politician. And I’m not naïve enough to believe music alone can bring peace. But it is a wonderful way to communicate. So I close my eyes and, through the power of music, aim for the heart.”

David D’Or is singing at Dingwalls, London NW1 on July 24. He will also perform at WOMAD on July 27.

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