Chava Alberstein, Israel's Iconic Songstress, Is on a Quest

In her new album 'Serenade.' celebrated folk singer touches on the experience of migrants in a world in which people are constantly on the move.

Niv Eshet Cohen

A few months ago, at an event marking the release of an album in which female singers perform songs by Chava Alberstein, a television report going back almost 45 years – when Alberstein was 23 – was screened. Two comments she made back then, in black-and-white, stuck in my mind. The first was the phrase (probably of her coinage) “caring songs” to describe the kind of material that attracted her. The second was her view of the modest ambitions of popular songs. A pop song isn’t Shakespeare, she said (I’m quoting from memory): One convincing element – a fine idea, or a slice of melody that catches the ear, or a good rhythm – is enough for it to succeed.

Alberstein’s long-ago comments came to mind when I listened to her new album, “Serenade.” Its total minimalism – the only accompaniment is her classical guitar – recalls the singer’s first albums from the late 1960s, before she began using rich, orchestrated arrangements. The notion of the modest pop song is also present in the new album; the unembellished songs affirm the validity of that approach, though at the same time one sometimes wishes to update it somewhat, fatten it up a little. Possibly two elements instead of one: both a fine idea and a slice of melody that catches the ear. No more (the idea needn’t be profound, or the melody spectacular), but also no less: a core, encompassing music and content alike.

Such a core, in fact, is present in almost every song on the new album. That’s another way of saying that the unconventional choice of “Chava and the guitar” is validated by justification, purposefulness and a fresh, lovely accompaniment.

On the content side, nearly every song on “Serenade,” whether it’s an original work by Alberstein or one she picked from a different garden (it’s about 50-50), has an idea or a statement that can be realized. I could give specific examples, but it’s more useful to talk about the two major ideas and thoughts that run like a thread through the album.

Eternal struggle

One theme that clearly occupies Alberstein is mother-daughter relations. The old, idyllic family portrait of her as a girl with her mother and brother in the album’s title song is juxtaposed, with sardonic humor, to a song in which a mother from (the contemporary Israeli) hell almost pimps her teenage daughter to a man from a modeling agency. In another song, “My Granddaughter’s Mother,” Alberstein comes to terms with the eternal struggle between mothers and their daughters, and even before that she declares that she has discovered what happiness is: a lazy girl. The explanation – ironic, I think – can be found in the song’s lyrics.

Although the mothers-and-daughters theme is a central one in “Serenade,” the feeling of depth that the album exudes isn’t connected to femininity or personal relations. It has more to do with the lonesome experience of an individual who is wandering, moving, on a quest. In this sense, “Serenade” is a throwback: a 20th-century album released in the 21st century. Alberstein seems to be singing about the experience of migrants, about a world in which people are constantly on the move in search of a safe haven. Not to mention the fact that the very notion of walking and observing the world is an extinct animal in today’s obstruction-strewn reality.

Be that as it may, in this album people walk and wander. There’s the woman (from a poem by Kadya Molodovsky, 1894-1974) who marches to a hill on which two birds are singing. There is Alberstein’s version of the American song, “Wand’rin’ Star,” made famous by Lee Marvin: “I have no home, I have a lone star / The star wanders with me near and far.” There is the man who wakes up in small village but falls asleep in a big city, in Rachel Shapira’s “Tree”; and perhaps most of all in Alberstein’s song, “Way”: “A long way, a wearying way / It’s mine / The one I chose / One way / To its end I’ll walk alone.”

Of course, words need a slice of melody to become a song, and that happens successfully in almost every cut on the album. Nothing fancy, as they say in Yiddish. In the atmosphere of solitary wandering with the guitar, Alberstein leaves the music close to the soil. In fact, she has always done that, by choice or because of her limited ingenuity as a composer. Even the melody she borrows from Schubert in the title song comes out entirely Alberstein-like and sounds good (though I’m not familiar with the source).

There are a few places in the album in which the ear would appreciate a more rounded musical composition, but most of the songs have a swerve that enhances their simplicity, over and above Alberstein’s resourceful singing. Lines that suddenly take off, distilled melodies, joy and bemusement in performing, and guitar playing that can enrich the texts.

Alberstein is not a virtuoso guitarist, and occasionally there are sounds that trip over their own shoelaces. Still, she can sustain a song alone with a guitar, especially when she’s picking the notes and not strumming. In “Way,” for example, she creates a guitar setting that is modest but also firm, dynamic and highly musical. One more lesson, one of many, that young singers who play guitar can glean from her serenade.