The Golden Age of a Wandering Troubadour

Israel Gurion, member of classic singing groups Haduda’im and Gesher Hayarkon, talks about getting a gold album at age 77.

A happy surprise was in store for Israel Gurion in his last performance for the album “Sharim Haduda’im” ‏(“The Wanderers Sing”‏) that took place two weeks ago at Herzliya’s Zappa club. “Before we started the last song Assaf [Amdursky] told me, ‘Start playing, I’m on my way, and then he came down off the stage,” says Gurion. “I didn’t understand what he was doing, but I started playing and then he suddenly came onstage with this thing, together with the rest of the musicians.”

“This thing” was a framed gold album. Gurion didn’t know that the “Sharim Haduda’im” album that came out just two and a half months ago had flown off record store shelves and sold more than 15,000 copies, earning it gold album status. “Everyone knew except me,” he says.

Are you used to receiving gold albums? Does it happen to you often?

“Not at all,” says Gurion. “I think the last time this happened, and maybe even the first time, was after the Six-Day War. Benny [Amdursky] produced a record that had all the songs made in the aftermath of the war and Haduda’im had several songs on there.”

You were surprised that “Haduda’im Sharim” sold that many copies?

“Definitely, I never dreamt of such a thing. Not even a month passed and already the record went gold. You can never know when this will happen. It’s like with the group Poogy [Kaveret]. Look at how much of a fuss there is over their performances now.”

But in the case of Kaveret it was expected. For you guys, it definitely wasn’t. How do you explain this?

“Apparently there was strong demand for this kind of material. ... The venues are packed and the audience that comes isn’t just an elderly audience, there are also a lot of young people. Maybe it’s connected to what is going on today in the commercial side of music. When something catches on, everyone immediately tries to do something in the same style and the result is less originality. There are quite a lot of wonderful musicians, so maybe it’s connected to managers saying, ‘Do a song like this one for me.’”

The launch performance for “Sharim Haduda’im” occurred less than six weeks ago at Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater, and that too was the scene of a little surprise. It occurred at the beginning of “Shdaymati” when Gurion played the intro to the song on saxophone in a fairly impressive rendition. Gurion is one of the most multi-talented stage artists in Israeli culture: an actor, singer, director, mime and guitarist, but he also plays the saxophone? When did that happen?

“About 20 years ago,” he says. “My son’s friend was at our place and left his saxophone. I tried to play it and I was immediately drawn to the sound that came out of it. I went to a teacher to learn to play and after several months I stopped going and continued to learn alone. I bought musical scores and started, bit by bit, to get into it. I have an aptitude for playing instruments. I also play the trumpet,” Gurion says while pointing at a box that looks like it hasn’t been opened in a long time. He continues, “I played in the army, but the trumpet is hard. If you don’t play for two days, you’re finished. You can’t do everything. I have the appetite of a child. I want it all. But it’s impossible to do everything. The wise men say that the desires are what lead to suffering.”

An artist’s hunger

When his various undertakings as an artist come up during the interview, Gurion relates a conversation he had with the great French mime Marcel Marceau, who was his pantomime teacher at the end of the 1950s.

“In one of Marceau’s lessons he asked which students wanted to continue in the profession and dedicate their life to pantomime,” says Gurion. “There were a lot of students there, several hundred, and out of instinct most of them raised their hand. I, who was an excellent student, didn’t raise my hand. I didn’t know if this was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Gurion continues, “So Marceau said to the rest of the students, ‘I see that Israel hasn’t raised his hand.’ Afterward he asked me why. ... I told him, ‘I don’t know. I am also a singer and an actor and I don’t want to give up these things. Marceau said, ‘Be careful, in the end you won’t have anything. You will end up like Mouloudji. Neither this, that not the other.” ‏(Marcel Mouloudji was a French actor and singer who was popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but whose star had faded by the time Gurion was studying with Marceau.‏)

“I was 23 years’ old,” continues Gurion, “and this sentence hit me deep down inside. ‘You’ll end up like Mouloudji.’ I was shocked. Then I regained my composure and said to myself, I will wait until I am 30 and then I will decide what to focus on. And here I am already past the age of 70 and I still haven’t decided. Now I want this and then suddenly I take that and then I return to the first thing ... and suddenly I am writing a children’s play and now I have the burning desire to do another solo album. It’s a hunger. The hunger of artists.”

You talk as if all artists remain hungry at age 77. You are a pretty rare creature in this respect.

“Take a look at Picasso − without comparing me to him, heaven forbid. Even at age 90 he was painting amazing things. His hunger knew no end. Creativity is not repeating yourself, when something new stirs inside you. I still feel this.”

The idea to reform the band Haduda’im with Assaf Amdursky as Gurion’s partner, in place of his deceased father Benny Amdursky, was first broached five years ago. The Israeli music company Hed Artzi published its collection of the original five-man Haduda’im and at the launch performance for the collection, Gurion invited the younger Amdursky to sing several songs with him. Both of them enjoyed it very much, igniting their desire to appear together. This wasn’t the first time that the idea of reviving the Haduda’im after Benny Amdursky’s death was raised.

“Many top-notch people asked me to do this,” says Gurion. “But I always refused. I said, ‘Benny died, Haduda’im died. But when Assaf came and we did these songs together, a very special connection developed between us.”

The original idea was to appear just like Haduda’im, with two voices, one guitar and also a tambourine here and there, no more.

Benny and Gesher Hayarkon

Gurion, Amdursky, actor Dror Keren and singer Ohad Shragai come together on May 2 for a tribute performance for Gesher Hayarkon ‏(The Yarkon Bridge Trio‏) that will be held as part of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra’s “Israeli Song” series. The performance will be conducted by Ziv Cojocaru, who is also in charge of its artistic direction, and take place at the Haifa Auditorium.

Gesher Hayarkon is so thoroughly identified with its original lineup of Benny Amdursky, Arik Einstein and Yehoram Gaon that many don’t know that Gurion subsequently replaced Gaon in the group’s reincarnation.

“Haduda’im began when Benny, who was a Mack truck driver, moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and proposed that we form a duo,” says Gurion. “He rented a small room where we learned songs and practiced. At the same time, I accompanied Arik Lavie, who returned from Paris after Shloshet Hameitarim ‏(The Three Strings‏) broke up. Benny and I admired Shloshet Hameitarim. Before them we weren’t crazy about Israeli music. We would listen to jazz and American folk songs. Pete Seeger and The Weavers.”

Haduda’im garnered success in Israel, France, and also the United States but in the beginning of the ‘60s Gurion missed acting and returned to theater. Amdursky, an irrepressible self-starter, founded Gesher Hayarkon. After the group’s original lineup broke up when Yehoram Gaon decided to travel to the United States, Gurion was asked to fill his spot.

“I appeared solo then and I also released an album, ‘Yisrael Gurion Shar’ ‏(‘Israel Gurion Sings’‏). I was happy with what I was doing. But Arik [Einstein] said, ‘It’s not like Haduda’im, it’s something else, performances at large venues, not in front of 50 people. With Haduda’im we appeared at kibbutzim, that kind of thing. I was sold. I also was a bit jealous of their success.”

Gurion reminisces about the musicians in the children’s musical “Harhek, Harhek B’eretz Kush” ‏(“Far, Far Away in the Land of Kush”‏), who were among the best Israeli jazz players. On trumpet was Avishai Cohen, of whom he says, “What a genius, that guy. Unbelievable, what an amazing sound he had. And the one on bass clarinet, what is his name?”

Yoni Silver.

“Wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” says Gurion. “How much fun it must have been for them with that jazz. If I am sorry about anything it is that I didn’t learn to play jazz. Improvisation − there is something very deep about it. You don’t think about a single thing, like in acting. Just the reflexes are working. It’s freedom, it’s serenity.”

In an afterthought, he says: “You know when you can be very tired? When you sit on a chair and worry.”

Koby Kalmanovitz