'There Aren't Many Hebrew Songs About Snow. So I Wrote One for Israeli Kids in Brooklyn'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: One Israeli musician who jams with Mike Stern, and another who jams with children

Noa Epstein
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Yonatan Gutfeld
Yonatan Gutfeld.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Epstein

Yonatan Gutfeld, 40, lives in New York and arriving from there

What’s that strange instrument?

It’s a bass ukulele. It’s a kind of wooden bass. When it’s recorded, it sounds a little like a contrabass, which is funny because it’s so small, but the sound is similar. I’ve just made an album of children’s songs.

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What’s the album about?

I tell about my experiences roaming around New York, from a childlike inquisitive viewpoint, of someone who comes to the big city. Some of the songs are simple and others are less so.

Why children’s songs?

I’m a singer-songwriter and I also put out albums for adults. But today I also teach Hebrew in Brooklyn, through the songs.

Who are the pupils?

There are classes for mothers and babies, and there are classes for toddlers or young children. And there’s also a kind of sing-along for the whole family, but mainly for the kids.

What’s on the musical program?

The usual suspects of all kinds, like Datia Ben Dor, and also songs I wrote, sometimes including dancing.

Were you always occupied with children’s songs?

Not at all. I grew up in Jerusalem, and in high school I played the cello at the conservatory. At one point we got a piano in our house and I began playing, singing and writing. In the army, I was the commander of the air force musical ensemble, and then I studied jazz at Rimon [School of Music]. After that I also wanted to study classical music and orchestration and so on, so I attended the music academy in Jerusalem. Then I moved to Tel Aviv and put out my first record. Until a few years ago, you could still find the CD at the store here in the airport.

What kind of album was it?

It was called “Hamatos Shel He’atid” (“The Plane of the Future”). It’s about the period when I shared a Jerusalem apartment with a woman and a man who was a good friend. They’re songs in which you write about your loves and fears and regrets when you’re in your 20s. The first song was about the relationships between us and how we wandered around the neighborhood, begging for love. It amuses me to think that we wrote something like that, very chanson-like and despairing. But it was a kind of existential condition.

"One and Two"

What was it like to put out your first album?

There were a lot of hopes and expectations. Around me I saw all kinds of people who were releasing albums and everything was exploding around them. In the first album you want to have people whispering about you in the street. I don’t know whether I actually fulfilled that experience, but since then I’ve taken the reins in my hands. The first album was very well produced, by many excellent pros.

And since then?

I’ve done everything alone. I have a small studio, and obviously I am not at the level of those pros, but it’s mine. The music went back to coming from blocked places that are looking for channels of expression. I’m less interested in the impact and more in how many people will hear it. I put out an album of translated Shakespeare sonnets called “Time’s Tyranny,” and later this year there will be an album of poems by [the late] Ory Bernstein that I set to music. It’s called “In Exile Even in His Own Room,” and it’s about the end of life but in the context of exile.

Like the children’s themes, but different.

Yes. For example, I’ve got a song called “It’s Been Snowing All Night,” which is about snow. There aren’t many songs in Israel about snow, because it’s a non-Israeli experience. So I wrote for Israeli children in Brooklyn. There’s a song called “I Have Someone to Talk To” in Hebrew. I had a pupil whose parents had just relocated from Israel, and she had no way to talk to her classmates at preschool. And every time she came to the community sing-along she couldn’t stop talking. There’s a song about a bicycle, which is a continuation of the song of the snow, about someone who couldn’t ride his bike for a few months, because of the snow, and is remembering the experience in the summer.

What are you going to call the album?

Probably “One and Two.”

A song about numbers?

It’s a song I wrote when I was working in Chinatown, at a school that’s Jewish but serves the whole community, and most of the pupils were Chinese. I was teaching music in a second language, so I wrote a children’s song about the stage when walking starts. It’s based on childhood memories of my father’s from Ashkelon, how he would walk from his house to a central place in town known as “the big lawn.”

So there are Chinese folks in New York who know about the big lawn of Ashkelon.

Yes, now there are.

Edmond Gilmore.
Edmond Gilmore.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Edmond Gilmore, 46, lives in New York and flying there

Hello, why are you going to New York?

I’m a musician, a bassist. I play with [guitarist] Mike Stern, one of the greatest jazz musicians in his field, and I produce and perform.

How do you get to play with Mike Stern in New York?

I was born into a family where music was an integral part of life. It was a Moroccan home, but my mother played music of every kind. I remember that we bought our first record player, in the Diyur store on Histadrut Street in Petah Tikva, and my mother rushed out and returned with seven records: Stevie Wonder, Julio Iglesias, Shimi Tavori, Edith Piaf, Enrico Macias, Shoshana Damari and Yigal Bashan. We played those records until you could see through them. My brothers started to play instruments, and at one stage I realized that this would be my life.

At what stage?

I was 14. I was rebellious in high school, and in the 11th grade I switched to Rimon [School of Music].

What was it like being a young student among adults?

Scary. There were two my age, but most were 25 and older, and I was stunned. But I got used to it, mostly thanks to people who took me under their wing, like Yehuda Adar. Not long ago I reminded him that he took me to [bassist and singer] Alon Oleartchik and told him, “This is a New York-style bassist.”

And after Rimon?

I went to New York, and then a cousin of mine said, “Try the Jerusalem Academy of Music, we’ll make a good man out of you.” There I got the biggest kick-in-the-bottom of my life. They told me to try the contrabass, and gradually I slid into the world of classical music. I only played classical contrabass, in orchestras with bow ties. I had a repertoire, I was a soloist. I thought it would be like that for my whole life.

What changed?

I left the music academy at the age of 32 with two double degrees, but felt I missed my true love. I was always between classical and jazz, and especially jazz fusion. I started to practice full-blast. I worked very closely with [composer and producer] Eldad Sarim, I did seven seasons of “Dancing with Stars,” musicals, wonderful projects. I worked with the great [Romanian-Israel musician] Peter Wertheimer, who died a little over a half-year ago, and was truly my greatest mentor in Israel.

And what sent you to New York?

After my mother passed away, I felt I was more free. It was always my dream to play with Mike Stern. They played his music for us during my time at the academy, and said he was the best there could be, so that’s what I needed. When I left, I told people, “I’m going to play with Mike Stern.”

Did Stern know about that?

No. I started to attend his performances. I have an Israeli friend who played with him, and I asked him, “Do you mind if I ask him if I can play with him, at home?”

I imagine you weren’t the only one who wanted to play with him.

Everyone wanted to. One day I mustered enough courage and said to Stern, “I’m a pretty good bass player, do you mind if we jam?” He tested me, and since then I’ve played with him. I produced an album for him and now I’ll produce another one.

And do you think it continue like this?

I’m going to New York for a few months and then we’ll see. I like being in Israel, and I’d like to slow down a little, because I had five years of madness in New York. The competition is very tough. You’re always fighting for your place against 30 or 40 other musicians who are just as good.

A constant threat.

Yes, and the whole time the feeling is that I have to stay on top. But at this stage, I said, okay, I’ve realized my dream. So, I came to Israel for a few months and no one took my place.

Where do all the musicians go while the coronavirus is at large?

The reality of the virus brought musicians to their knees, and made them humiliate themselves, sell themselves cheap. Musicians are uploading segments to YouTube and to the social media, playing on the street, begging to be heard.

That’s not good?

I know many musicians will be upset at what I’m saying, but I think it should be the exact opposite. Bars are allowed to operate and performances aren’t being allowed? Hide the music, hide out, let them come looking for you. Don’t shoot yourselves in the foot and give yourselves away for nothing. Dentists don’t look for people to treat for free when they can’t work. The serious artists among you have plenty to give, don’t give it away for free.

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