Donovan Almost Shared Jaffa Stage With a Jewish-Arab Ukulele Band

Students from Hod Hasharon and Tira were preparing for their gig before the Scottish flower power legend cancelled.

Paul Moore with his ukelele: "This instrument saved my life."
Avishag Shaar Yishuv

Nine youths, seven from the Arab town of Tira and two from Hod Hasharon, sat down in a small living room in Hod Hasharon earlier this month. With ukuleles in their laps, they prepared to play and sing the  African-American spiritual “Down by the Riverside”.

Before starting, the members of the Ukuleles for Peace band introduced themselves to another youth, a saxophonist, who wished to join the band and was there as a guest. He knew the two Jewish boys, Itamar and Michael, from the democratic school in Hod Hasharon which they attend, but this was the first time he was meeting the boys and girls from Tira. “Let’s start with the easy names first,” said one of the girls. “I’m Dana and these are Aya and May”. She then introduced Rasil, Halla, Ghazi and Ismail.

In a week of terror attacks and book-banning out of fear of assimilation, the proximity of Arab and Jewish names seemed like a supernatural illusion. Not to mention the smiles, laughter, friendly jibes and musical suggestions exchanged by these young people. The songs they sang were all in the spirit of conciliation and brotherhood. “I’m gonna lay down my fear and hate,” they recited as they sang “Down by the Riverside,” followed by “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”

The ukulele is a small instrument with a soft sound, but it turns out that when nine of them play together they produce a particularly cheerful racket.

There was only one problem with “Down by the Riverside” – it’s key. “What? Hasn’t Donovan said yet what key he wants us to play it in?” asked Michael, who plays the bass ukulele. Donovan, the legendary Scottish singer who was set to perform on Wednesday at the Gesher Theater in Jaffa, was to host “Ukuleles for Peace” at his performance, where he was considering playing "Down by the Riverside". The band’s managers had asked him what key he’d like it played in, so as to prepare the band, but the singer, who was one of the flower generation’s poster boys, seems to have remained a somewhat detached artist, with his reply probably still blowing in the wind, not yet landed in the real world.

And that was before Donovan cancelled the show, citing conctractual issues. The Israeli producer however, said there was no such problems and that he'd been told that Donovan couldn't make it because he was ill.

What does Donovan have to do with Ukuleles for Peace? One only had to see the hat worn at the rehearsal in Hod Hasharon by Paul Moore, the band’s creator, in order to understand. Moore arrived in the middle of the rehearsal (he’d only just returned from the United States,) wearing a hat adorned with feathers and flowers. You couldn’t have more flower power than that, not in 2016. Shortly after he sat alongside the players, one of the boys, Itamar, approached Moore and pointed to the saxophonist, whispering that the newcomer “says that you dress cool.”

When Moore and his partner Daphna Orion, who manages the band with him, heard that Donovan was coming to Israel, Moore hurried to write the singer a letter. “I’ve been your fan since you started” he wrote. “Your music inspired me to quit my job on the London stock exchange and become a wanderer. I followed you to Cornwall and became a musician myself.”

He then told Donovan about Ukuleles for Peace and wondered whether the singer would like to meet the boys and possibly host them during his performance. “I’m sure that as someone who has always been an ambassador for peace you’ll be impressed with what we’re trying to do in our modest way,” he wrote. Donovan replied that he’d be happy to host the band and perform a song with them.

Moore was born in England in 1950. At 15, he left school and started working at the stock exchange. By the age of 19, he was the boss of people older than him. Then, inspired by Donovan and the hippie culture of the late 1960s, he became fed up with his work (“I hated the corruption and greed,”) left the bourgeois world and began roaming across England. He worked as a musician, living and finding employment on farms. “Bumming around,” is how he describes this lifestyle. “I was like a migratory bird. During the summer I’d wander around England, Europe, Scandinavia, and when winter arrived I’d hunker down in one place.”

During his years of wandering, he played for both a living and for enjoyment on street corners and in folk and jazz clubs. He sang and played mainly on percussion instruments. At 27 he came to know the ukulele, which became one of his favorite instruments. “Moreover, the ukulele saved my life,” he says with glee. “I was a heavy smoker and the ukulele helped me quit. Every time I wanted a smoke I’d busy my hands with the ukulele instead.”

Moore rolled into Israel at the end of the 1970s, after hitchhiking across Turkey, Syria and Jordan. He lived on kibbutz Shamir, growing apples during the 80s. In his spare time he played in folk and jazz ensembles, such as the “Pundeka’im” and “Organic Energy.” He left the kibbutz in the early 90s and began devoting all his time to music. He was a one-person band, working a lot with children, and started the “Washboard Wizard” ensemble, in which he played on a washboard. In this band , as well as in “Isra-Dixie Jazz Band,” Moore played jazz and Dixieland music from the early 20th century. He is still passionate about Dixieland music, which was mostly scorned by jazz players and fans, and is happy that more and more musicians have embraced the style and sound in recent years. “We were ahead of our time” he says.

12 years ago

The idea of starting a youth group playing ukuleles came to him 12 years ago. “I was fed up with the situation in Israel.” he says. “One day I heard about a terror attack on the radio. My son was just playing on the floor next to me. I was particularly angry since children had been hurt in the attack, and I remember yelling ‘Fucking Arabs!’ Then I saw my son and realized what I’d done. I had just perpetuated the cycle of hatred and violence. At that moment I said to myself, ‘either you leave this place or you start doing something to change the situation.’”

“I work a lot with children. The ukulele was the obvious choice,” he continues. “It’s an easy and fun instrument to learn and play. I could imagine how Jewish and Arab children could sit together in a room and enjoy playing and singing.”

Moore and Daphna Orion approached the democratic school in Hod Hasharon and then went to a school in Tira. In both places they encountered enthusiasm. The rehearsals were first held at the schools but at the children’s request they moved to their homes. Every week a different family donates its living room to a rehearsal. “It’s not only the children who meet, it’s their parents as well,” says Moore.

The atmosphere is not always idyllic. One of the boys from Hod Hasharon left the group recently because his parents wouldn’t let him travel to Tira for rehearsals. “All our pleas were to no avail, they said it was too dangerous,” says Orion. Another boy with views that “are less leftist than those held by the others,” as described by Orion, also left the band. “He was bothered by things said at rehearsals. “That’s natural,” she says.

There are now two bands operating under the framework of Ukuleles for Peace. One is the band that does public performances, with nine boys and girls aged 13-18, and the other is a backup band with 10 children. In addition to these 20, Moore teaches the ukulele to more than 60 children in schools in Hod Hasharon and Tira. Orion says that “there is a demand for this project and there are now 12 schools across the country that have approached us after hearing about us or having seen us perform. Unfortunately, we’ll only be able to expand our activities when we find some funding.”

After playing “Down by the Riverside” at the rehearsal in Hod Hasharon, the band turned to “Imagine”, singing John Lennon’s song in English, Hebrew and Arabic. The kids suddenly burst out laughing when it came to the Arabic verse. It turned out that the translation, done by Miriam Toukan, sounded very artificial - “like Google translate,” they said. The next song was “Hilmi Ana” (Arabic for “I’m dreaming”,) a song by the Egyptian rock band “Cairokee.” (“It’s about a world without wars,” explained one of the girls from Tira.) The boys also played the “Rafah Debka”, an old Hebrew song by Immanuel Zamir, played to a Bedouin tune. Toward the end, they sang “All is one”, a song by the Israeli metal band “Orphaned Land.”

Do only songs with a message of brotherhood and peace get into the Ukeleles for Peace repertoire?

“It’s not obligatory” says Michael. “We also play a song by heavy metal band Iron Maiden, called ‘The Trooper’, which talks about war and murder. Do you want to hear it?”