Chava Alberstein: Still Banishing the Darkness

Even after five decades on stage and countless hits, the iconic Israeli singer doesn’t compromise and offers a show that challenges the audience.

Tali Shani

A few months ago I went to see a performance by Yehudit Ravitz, a veteran performer, who sang all her greatest hits. The crowd loved it. They knew all the words, knew exactly when to clap and at what pace.

Why am I talking about Ravitz if I’m reviewing Chava Alberstein’s performance? Because Alberstein, who performed Saturday at the Tel Aviv Museum, represents a different school of thought. She believes that if the audience has filled the hall, and likes and appreciates the performer, then it’s ready to hear some new material. Alberstein has often said that she isn’t interested in an audience that sits comfortably in its seats and rocks from side to side to the sound of familiar music. That’s what campfires are for.

For more than seven years she has been filling halls all over the country with a set list, of which at least half the songs are relatively new, while many of the better-known ones are presented with new arrangements that force the audience to rethink them and at times don’t allow them to sing along so easily.

Alberstein began with “Nature Girl,” a song from her children’s album, to the words of Adola. Her voice is low and warm, and it sings every word with her unique intonation. Next came the familiar “Tishrei Song,” immediately followed by one of her newer songs – “Watershed,” written by the late Nadav Levitan, who was Alberstein’s husband and wrote many of the songs on her most recent albums. This is a little song, almost a haiku, that arranger Oved Efrat (who was also one of the stage musicians) gave an appropriate Japanese twist.

Unfortunately, for the first third of the show, the quartet on stage (which aside from Alberstein and Efrat comprised Avi Agababa on percussion and Eran Weitz on guitar) was not in balance. Alberstein’s singing was too strong for the space, while her guitar was weak, while those of Weitz were too strong. The arrangements, especially in the first part, were loose and disorderly. This is the fourth time I’ve seen Alberstein since she returned to perform in Israel with the exact same ensemble, and Saturday night was not their strongest night.

After the first third, however, Alberstein seemed to have finished warming up and began to go full throttle as only she knows how, with “Exclusive Garden,” which she once performed with Glykeria, and immediately afterwards the exciting and beloved “Lilac Flower” and then “Love,” composed for her by Corinne Allal, which seemed to undermine the naive romanticism of the previous song. Subsequently Alberstein performed, “And How About You,” the title track of her most recent album, which was written after Levitan’s death, and which merited surprisingly wonderful audience participation.

The encore began with “Chess,” Hanoch Levin’s powerful protest song that felt like a punch in the stomach against the backdrop of the endless war. Immediately afterward she sang “Spin the Wool,” ostensibly an old folk song that also took on political significance, telling as it does about those who history has fated to constantly wait for the men to finish their wars. “You Are My Freedom,” by George Moustaki (translated from French by Yoram Taharlev) is already an integral part of every Alberstein encore. When she sang it in 2007, after many years in which she hadn’t performed in Israel, it had a very personal meaning. “I left my country and best friends,” she sang of her years of exile from the local stage, which she avoided in part because of the country’s difficult political and cultural climate. But she is not abandoning us, at least not for now, and prefers to disarm the audience through her music.

Alberstein is a graceful performer. While her voice nowadays is less likely to seek (and find) the high notes, she doesn’t try to stress her vocal chords and scream. Her singing is that of a singer full of wisdom, on the one hand, and also that of a singer-songwriter before that concept eroded. She has some of the forcefulness of Mercedes Sosa and the elegance of Barbra Streisand, and yet she is still the amazing one and only who, even after so many years on the stage, doesn’t resemble anyone.