Israeli Iconic Folk Singer Chava Alberstein on Mourning, Success and Unexpected Inspiration

In a wide-ranging interview, 66-year-old singer-songwriter says she prefers a quiet crowd of 500 people to a packed stadium, and talks about making music with the country's leading young talents.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

“Ve’eich Etzlecha” (“And How About You?”), Chava Alberstein’s wonderful new CD, is her eighth studio album in the past 10 years. Why does she produce so much? Nobody would complain if she were to put out an album every four years.

“I wish I could explain it,” she says. “Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about it: I have a feeling that I produce too much and people miss out. Maybe it’s because basically I’m a singer rather than a creative artist.”

But you’ve been writing a large number of your songs and setting them to music for almost 30 years.

“Yes. But it happened at a relatively late stage, and even now I feel that I’m first of all a singer and only afterward a songwriter. Songwriters have it harder than singers. Constantly creating new material that comes from inside yourself is not easy.

“Always, before I start working on a recording, I ask myself: ‘What do you need another recording for?’ But I have this cricket inside, whose name is Nadav [Levitan, her husband, who died about three years ago]. He’s still with me all the time, he talks to me. So my cricket said: ‘What do you mean, what for? Since when does an artist ask why, or for whom? You have a need. It excites you. It moves you. So do it.’

“I had another excuse to avoid making this album,” says Alberstein, during an interview in her Ramat Hasharon home. She explains that she was working on it with musical producer Tamir Muskat, a member of the Balkan Beat Box band. His studio is located in a building with peeling paint in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, and when Alberstein climbed up the dirty stairwell to the studio, she had thoughts about giving the whole idea up: “I said to myself: Enough! You’re 66 already, elderly, bourgeois, a grandmother. Why are you climbing three flights to some young person’s studio? What do you need this for? And then once again my cricket actually said: ‘Who are you, Barbra Streisand? Did you grow up in studios with red velvet and white grand pianos? Stop having all those thoughts. Do you want to work with this man? Does it interest you? Who cares about the stairs?’ So I did it: I entered the studio. And the moment I enter a studio, everything is forgotten.”

While several of the songs on “And How About You?” were written recently, quite a number of them, which she either wrote herself or gathered from other songwriters, have been sitting in the drawer for years, awaiting the right moment.

Alberstein: “I’m like some kind of gardener. He has a garden and goes out every morning, looks at the flowerbeds, sees a plant has grown and is pleased. I don’t call it work. It’s a routine thing. I’m like that gardener, or like a scientist who gathers information. I’m very aware: I hear some song that turns me on, so I copy and save it. I hear some young musician, so I start plotting to do something with him. This entire generation of young jazz musicians − I would make a disc with them every week if I could. This world has become so industrial and practical. They keep compartmentalizing us. We’ve forgotten that there’s also a sort of spontaneous reaction, by an artist who suddenly sees a new color and wants to use it. There’s this thing called art, if you’ll excuse the expression. We’ve forgotten about that. We’re all busy selling and packaging.”

Unexpected places

Several of the lovely tracks on the new CD were collected from some unexpected places, and I feel compelled to linger on one of them, “Hamar’ot” (“The Mirrors”), written by Yitzhak Patish, both because it’s a marvelous song and because it includes one of the most beautiful lines sung on a local album recently − only three words: “me’az nifratz hatzemed” (literally, “since the pair was breached”; there are no English lyrics available). The lyrics go: “Since the pair was breached / The world has become completely confused / You won’t recognize a tree or a stone in it / Maybe you won’t recognize me.”

Those wonderful words, like those in other songs on the new album, should be read in the context of the profound loss experienced by Alberstein with the death of her husband, but before discussing that we have to explain about Yitzhak Patish, who wrote the words for “The Mirrors.”

“Patish is one of the founders of Kfar Masaryk [a kibbutz in the Galilee], together with Nadav’s parents,” Alberstein explains. “He was a well-known figure in the Kibbutz Artzi movement. A macher. A nice man, a Czech. Late in life, after his wife died, he began writing poems, and about 15 years ago there was a nice evening in his honor at Tzavta. He must have been at least 80. He stood there with a piece of paper, read this poem, and my heart dropped. At the end of the evening I said: ‘Yitzhak, give me that paper.’ And I’ve had it since then.

“I tried to compose a melody. I couldn’t. I gave it to two composers, I didn’t like what they did. In the end I gave the song to Eran Weitz [a guitarist and composer who’s been working with Alberstein in recent years], and Eran brought me a lovely melody − like a piece by Schubert. And even then I wasn’t sure about it. Up to the last moment, I said: Maybe it’s too revealing. In the end Tamir decided we’d use it. ‘Since the pair was breached.’ It’s really a very powerful line. Heartrending.”

Another poem that stayed in her drawer for a long time is “Funeral Blues,” by W.H. Auden, which Alberstein translated and put to music. The poem became widely known when it was recited in the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

“I remember I saw the film in a small theater in New Jersey during one of my American tours,” says Alberstein. “In the part where they read the poem, the people in the audience looked at one another, and I said: ‘It’s Auden! It’s Auden!’ Me, the provincial one. I was so proud. Just for fun, I set it to music in English, but I didn’t do anything with it. Then I translated the poem into Hebrew, and again it lay in the drawer for a long time. Then I decided to take it out. I played it for Tamir, and he was so enthusiastic that it went into the album immediately.”

Alberstein says there’s something incidental and random about the way all her albums are created: “People always ask me how the album ‘Like a Wildflower’ [1975] came about, and I say: ‘There was a song, and it was connected to another song.’ I’m sorry, but there’s no drama.”

And still, even if there’s something random about the new CD, too, it’s no coincidence that a song like “Funeral Blues” and a line like “since the pair was breached” have now emerged from the drawer.

“It’s a fact that I didn’t record ‘Funeral Blues’ five years ago,” agrees Alberstein. “It existed, but I didn’t feel a need to use it.”

Would it be farfetched to say that “And How About You?” is a post-mortem album?

Alberstein hesitates for a moment and then says: “There’s a sense of loss in this album, of bereavement. Definitely. But I think there’s also something quite optimistic about it. The moment you turn the loss into a work of art, you’ve taken a step forward.”

Was it hard, in working on the new album, to find the right balance between the need to be genuine and the desire to maintain a certain distance?

“That’s often the trick of art. Especially music. The question is how you package the words. In ‘Funeral Blues,’ for example, there’s quite an optimistic melody. Something from the world of black people, or maybe Italians. A Fellini film. I like those contrasts. The beauty of it is not to go all the way with the words. Not to let the text lead you. Neither in the performance nor in the arrangement. If the text is sad, not to sing it in a weepy or melodramatic way. You have to rely on the listener’s intelligence. It’s as though you perform the song partly indifferent. The most fraught texts are the ones you perform most coldly.”

At the end of the album, in the last song, “Bemilim Aherot” (“In Other Words”), you deviate from this rule. The song ends with the words “I don’t leave the room / There’s no future, no life, no reason,” and the music complements the text. It doesn’t negate the sorrow.

“The sorrow stems from the overall feeling of the album. The song itself isn’t a sad song. It’s even somewhat ironic. It was also written many years ago. It’s not a song about death, rather about a boy who leaves a girl and she really wants him to come back.

“A problem comes up when we’re aware of the artist’s biography. We draw all kinds of conclusions that dictate our interpretation. In the case of this song I was caught up by Eran’s melody and knew there would be misunderstandings. Never mind. The main thing is that they don’t turn it into a song in memory of [the late Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin. Even the most intimate song turns into a Memorial Day ceremony.”

‘Poetic’ old age

Opposite Alberstein’s house there’s a large playground, which she says is “an entire world.” In one of the songs on the new CD, “Ma At Ro’ah?” (“What Do You See?”), she places herself on one of the benches in the playground, playing the role of an older woman who sees the world but is invisible.

Alberstein: “I wrote that song years ago, too. Maybe 20 years ago. I don’t think I would write it today when I am an older woman. When you’re young, and old age isn’t real, there’s something poetic about it. It’s an idea. Today old age is too close to reality. I’m sometimes invited to senior citizens’ events. I could faint − leave me alone! I get these brochures, or friends say, ‘There’s a get-together, you should come.’ Why? I’ve only started to discover the world. Actually, I’m just kidding.”

When that song presented the viewpoint of someone who sees but is invisible, I thought that you might be saying something about the fact that we don’t see your new songs enough, as compared to the old classics.

“No, no, no. I know that my new songs don’t really resonate, but I have no problem with that. On the contrary: I actually feel more authentic with the way people have listened to me in recent years than the sort of exaggerated way they did in the past.”

What do you mean by “exaggerated way”?

“In the 1970s I thought they played me on the radio far too often. ‘You’ll Walk in the Field’ five times a day! I thought there was no justification for that. It’s not light music. Today they play it less. From the moment I began writing my own songs, they’re hardly ever played. The radio is actually playing the singles from my new album. And that makes me very happy, but in general, my later songs haven’t become part of the culture [unlike her classics − B.S.], and that’s all right. I’m comfortable with that.”

Isn’t it disappointing? After all, you worked hard on those songs, and they’re good. Don’t you want them to be heard by as many people as possible?

“They hear them. Don’t worry. There are people who discover the songs. At performances, for example. Do you know why I enjoy performing? Because of those songs that not everyone knows. They add life to the performances. They prevent them from becoming something self-understood where everyone sits like this” − Alberstein sinks into her armchair, half-sitting and half-lying − “and hums. The less familiar songs make the audience listen, stay alert, discover something it didn’t know. The audience enjoys having to work a little.”

So there’s no bitterness about the fact that you’re not played much on the radio?

“None. Thank God. I don’t think I would continue to create if I were bitter. I get the feedback I need.”

From who?

“From people. I also get sales data: The discs are selling very nicely. I’m very pleased. My ego is fine. Artists are about ego, as you know.”

As an aware and ever-searching musician, Alberstein says she occasionally visits clubs that host small performances and listens to young musicians, in particular the jazz musicians she likes so much.

“If I were to begin now, I would probably be running around in all those places,” she says. “Ozen Bar, Shmozen Bar, Levontin, Temuna. I would perform with a saxophonist or something like that. You can say lots of terrible things about our musical culture, but what’s nice is that along with the huge performances, as in the Caesarea amphitheater or Nokia Stadium, there are also those small clubs. Wonderful things are happening in them.”

You won’t see Alberstein appearing in places like Caesarea or Nokia, of course, nor in an elegant and prestigious venue like the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.

“I get depressed when I hear that name. I break out in a rash,” she says. “I don’t perform there. I perform at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, in the cultural center in Tivon. I don’t like those ‘festive’ places. It depresses me. They’re always asking me to do gala performances. I hear that and start to cry.”

You know that it won’t be long until you have no choice. In another four years you’ll be 70, and even earlier people may want to celebrate the 50th anniversary of your first album. Then you’ll have no choice.

“I’ll flee to my son in Florida,” laughs Alberstein. “Do you think I’m going to do a huge performance in the park? There won’t be any such thing. I can’t do things that give me an ulcer, and there are things and places that I feel give me an ulcer. I prefer routine things. I travel to Tivon, to Ashkelon, I like the quiet of 500 people who sit and listen and respond. Just as I don’t like to be in the audience in Caesarea, I don’t want to perform there either. Or to perform with an orchestra. Since the 1980s, they’ve been running after me to perform my greatest hits with orchestral accompaniment. That depresses me.”

It’s not that you avoid singing your greatest hits.

“The question is how it sounds. I sing the old songs with a small ensemble, mostly guitars. And it sounds so fresh. In general, a guitar is the youngest instrument in the world. I have a theory that anyone who stands up with a guitar doesn’t grow old. A piano is more classic and conservative. A guitar − you put it into the case, take it with you wherever you go.”

‘Engineered’ singing

Can you understand people who don’t like the songs you write because their melodies lack the uplifting spirit of the old ones, and because singing them seems less momentous and glorious?

“Of course I understand. Listen, it took me years until I dared to take credit for a melody that I composed. It’s not easy to do that after you’ve worked with the greatest geniuses: Sasha [Argov], Yoni [Rechter], Matti [Caspi], [Moshe] Wilensky. But then I said: In the forest there are very tall trees, but there are also bushes, and the bushes have a right to blossom. I enjoy singing my own melodies, which are not as great [as some written by others]. I think there’s something very immediate and warm and friendly about them. There is a place for melodies of that kind, too, which are closer to folk songs. It took me time to understand that there’s something to them.

“Not everyone thinks so, and that’s all right. And there are people who’ve become accustomed to that kind of song and it’s hard for them to accept any other. And there are also many wiseguys. The type who tell you: ‘You have to do such and such, and to work with so and so, and to write, or not to write.’ Thanks a lot. I managed for 40 years without you. It drives me crazy when I hear them saying that to Arik [Einstein]. He’s done some of the most beautiful things created, anywhere in the world, without your advice.”

Alberstein felt that the collaboration with Balkan Beat Box’s Tamir Muskat would be successful because of his love of popular music and his ability to combine the spirit of that music with an up-to-date, organic sound. During their first encounter, the name of French-Spanish musician Manu Chao came up.

“Tamir’s the first musician who spoke to me about Manu Chao,” says Alberstein. “I really like [Chao]. I even tried once to contact him, but it didn’t work out. When Tamir said that he’s very influenced by him − I knew the collaboration between us could work.”

They started working together in Muskat’s studio. “I would sing the song with the guitar, and then he would jump onto the drums and find a basic groove. Then Eran [Weitz] would come and record the guitar bits, and then the other musicians came. We would sit and say, for example: ‘Here we need a trombone. Or a saxophone.’ And then I would contact Yuval Cohen [a jazz saxophonist] and say, ‘Can you come over now?’ And he’d say, ‘I’ll be finishing a lesson soon and I’ll drop over.’ And then he came and recorded and left. Straight and to the point.

“After that, Tamir would ‘sew up’ all kinds of sounds, like some haute couture tailor. He would add here a button, there a zipper. I love these young producers who come from the world of hip-hop. They cut out one thing from here, attach it to something from another place. I consider them geniuses, champions, and Tamir is like that. This combination of fine, so-called cultured singing − and those studio tricks, I find very interesting.”

Muskat’s studio is a small room, with room for only three people, Alberstein continues: “That was good. There wasn’t the chaos of a group. It was quiet. A girlfriend dropped in one day, observed from the outside, and said: ‘It looks as though you’re sitting inside a womb.’”

Another thing that Alberstein liked about Muskat is his joie de vivre. “I don’t like the pompousness of being ‘important,’” she says. “I work out of joy. They’re all very happy. I don’t like suffering. In rock ‘n’ roll there are many myths about so-and-so who committed suicide, and so-and-so who killed another guy, and those who spent a million hours in the studio until they found the right sound. I don’t go for any of that. There’s simply fun, happiness. Music is happiness.

“That’s one of the depressing things about the [reality] music programs on television,” continues Alberstein. “There’s no joy. I find them very sad. All that competition. Singing is such a fun thing, and there the people are paralyzed, trembling.”

What I find sad is that although these programs place all the emphasis on singing − because the songs themselves already exist − they don’t produce good singers. You get flat voices that lack personality.

“I’ve thought about it a lot. My head is always working, and because Nadav is gone, I talk to myself. Those singers − I’ve realized what they remind me of: genetically engineered fruits and vegetables. I’m not kidding. I see they’re now growing tomatoes in tubes. They don’t touch the ground. That’s how the singers produced by these programs sound. They don’t know what a stage is, what it’s like behind some smelly curtain, what it means to run around all over the country, what it means to battle with an audience.

“They’re just like engineered fruits and flowers. First they’re all arranged, and then they grow upward, without depth. There’s no taste. It’s like the cherry tomatoes now in the market. They’re tasteless. They can sit in the refrigerator for a year and still don’t get rotten, but they’re tasteless. I long for tasty tomatoes. That’s one of my dreams. My greengrocers already know. Maybe someone will read this article and bring me some. There are no good, juicy tomatoes, like there used to be.

“Those kids, just as they were created inside virtual space, they continue their lives there. They become models, act in commercials and TV series, and then everything dissolves. Very sad. And they’re in love with their voices. Because it’s a contest of who can shout louder and who can trill more beautifully − the song is not the important thing. But how much can you think only about your voice? What about the next song? How long can you continue doing tricks? After all, it’s not a circus, it causes damage. Damage to the ‘farmers.’ It harms us, really.”

Alberstein. 'There's this thing called art, if you'll excuse the expression. We've forgotten about that. We're all busy selling and packaging.'Credit: Miri Davidovitz
With Tamir Muscat. Alberstein was inspired by his ability to 'sew up' all kinds of sounds.Credit: Uri Bahat
Alberstein and her late husband, Nadav Levitan, in 2005. A genuine love story.Credit: Tali Shani

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