The Road from Music to Ethics
An alternative take on the Israeli Palestinian conflict and peace activism
(Postscript by Manuel Talens)
Rather often I face the same question when interviewed by Arab media outlets: “Gilad, how is it that you observe that which so many Israelis fail to see?” Indeed, not many Israelis interpret the Israeli ethical failure as an inherent symptom. For many years I didn’t have any answer to offer. However, recently I realised that it must have something to do with my Saxophone. It is music that has shaped my views of the Israeli Palestinian conflict and formed my criticism of Jewish identity.
Today I will talk about the road from music to ethics.
It is known that life looks like a meaningful event when reviewed retrospectively from its end to its very beginning. Accordingly, I will try to scrutinise my own battle with Zionism through my late evolvement as a musician. I will explore my struggle with Arabic music. I will try to elaborate retrospectively on the role of music on my understanding of the world that surrounds me. To a certain extent, this is the story of my life to date (at least one of them).
I grew up in Israel in a rather Zionist secular family. My Grandfather was a charismatic poetic veteran terrorist, an ex prominent commander in the right wing Irgun terror organisation. I may admit that he had a tremendous influence on me in my early days. His hatred towards anything that failed to be Jewish was a major inspiration. He hated Germans; consequently he didn’t allow my dad to buy a German car. He also despised the Brits for colonising his ‘promised land’. I assume that he didn’t detest the Brits as much as he hated the Germans because he allowed my father to drive an old Vauxhall Viva. He was also pretty cross with the Palestinians for dwelling on the land he was sure belonged to him and his people. Rather often he used to wonder about the Palestinians: “these Arabs have so many countries, why do they have to live exactly in the land we want to live in?” But more than anything, my grandfather hated Jewish Leftists. However, it is important to mention that since Jewish leftists have never produced any cars, this specific loathing didn’t mature into a conflict of interests between himself and my dad. Being a follower of Zeev Jabotinsky, my Grandfather obviously realised that Leftist philosophy and the Jewish value system is a contradiction in terms. Being a veteran right wing terrorist as well a proud tribal Jew, he knew very well that tribalism can never live in peace with humanism and universalism. Following his mentor Jabotinsky, he believed in the “Iron Wall” philosophy. He supposed that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular should be confronted fearlessly and fiercely. Quoting Betar’s anthem he repeatedly said, “in blood and sweat, we would erect our race”.
My Grandfather believed in the Jewish race, and so did I in my very early days. Like my peers, I didn’t see the Palestinians around me. They were no doubt there, they fixed my father’s car for half the price, they built our houses, they cleaned the mess we left behind, they were schlepping boxes in the local food store, but they always disappeared just before sunset and appeared again around dawn. They had never socialised with us. We didn’t really understand who they were and what they stood for. Supremacy was no doubt brewed in our being, we gazed at the world via a racist, chauvinist binocular.
When I was seventeen, I was preparing myself for my compulsory IDF service. Being a well-built teenager fuelled with Zionist spirit and soaked in self-righteousness, I was due to join an air force special rescuing unit. But then the unexpected happened. On an especially late night Jazz program, I heard Bird (Charlie Parker) with Strings .
I was knocked down. It was by far more organic, poetic, sentimental and yet wilder than anything I had ever heard before. My father used to listen to Bennie Goodman and Artie Shaw, these two were entertaining, they could play the clarinet, but Bird was a different story altogether. He was a fierce libidinal extravaganza of wit and energy. The morning after, I decided to skip school, I rushed to ‘Piccadilly Record’, Jerusalem’s No 1 music shop. I found the jazz section and bought every bebop album they had on the shelves (probably two albums). On the bus, on the way home, I realised that Bird was actually a Black man. It didn’t take me by complete surprise, but it was kind of a revelation, in my world, it was only Jews who were associated with anything good. Bird was a beginning of a journey.
At the time, like my peers, I was pretty convinced that Jews were indeed the chosen people. My generation was raised on the Six Day War magical victory, we were totally sure of ourselves. Since we were secular, we associated every success with our omnipotent qualities. We didn’t believe in divine intervention, we believed in ourselves. We believed that our might is brewed in our resurrected Hebraic soul and flesh. The Palestinians, on their part, were serving us obediently and it didn’t seem at the time as if this was ever going to change. They didn’t show any real signs of collective resistance. The sporadic so-called ‘terror’ attacks made us feel righteous, it filled us with some eagerness to get revenge. But somehow within this extravaganza of omnipotence, to my great surprise, I learned to realize that the people who excited me the most were actually a bunch of Black Americans. People who have nothing to do with the Zionist miracle. People that had nothing to do with my own chauvinist exclusive tribe.
It didn’t take more than two days before I hired my first saxophone. The saxophone is a very easy instrument to start with, and if you don’t believe me you better ask Bill Clinton. However, as much as the saxophone was an easy instrument to pick up, playing like Bird or Cannonball looked like an impossible mission. I started to practice day and night, and the more I practiced, the more I was overwhelmed with the tremendous achievement of that great family of Black American musicians, a family I was then starting to know closely. Within a month I learned about Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Monk, Oscar Peterson and Duke, and the more I listened the more I realised that my initial Judeo-centric upbringing was totally wrong. After one month with a saxophone shoved up my mouth, my Zionist enthusiasm disappeared completely. Instead, of flying choppers behind enemy lines, I started to fantasize about living in NYC, London or Paris. All I wanted was a chance to listen to the great names of Jazz and in the late 1970’s, many of them were still around.
Nowadays, youngsters who want to play Jazz tend to enroll in a music college, in my days it was very different. Those who wanted to play classical music would enroll in a college or a music academy, however, those who wanted to play for the sake of music would stay at home and swing around the clock. Nonetheless, in the late 1970’s there was no Jazz education in Israel and in my hometown Jerusalem there was just a single Jazz club. It was called Pargod and it was set in an old converted pictorial Turkish Bath. Every Friday afternoon they ran a jam session and for my first two years in jazz, these jams were the essence of my life. Literally speaking, I stopped everything else, I just practiced day and night preparing myself for the next ‘Friday Jam’. I listened to music, I transcribed some great solos, I even practiced while sleeping. I decided to dedicate my life to Jazz accepting the fact that as a white Israeli, my chances to make it to the top were rather slim. Without realising it at the time, my emerging devotion to jazz had overwhelmed my Zionist exclusive tendencies. Without being aware, I left the chosenness behind. I had become an ordinary human being. Years later, I realised that Jazz was my escape route. Within months I felt less and less connected to my surrounding reality, I saw myself as part of a far broader and greater family. A family of music lovers, a bunch of adorable people who were concerned with beauty and spirit rather than land and occupation.
However, I still had to join the IDF. Though later generations of Israeli young Jazz musicians just escaped the army and ran away to the Jazz Mecca NYC, for me, a young lad of Zionist origin in Jerusalem, such an option wasn’t available, a possibility as such didn’t even occur to me.
In July 1981 I joined the Israeli Army but, I may suggest proudly, that from my first day in the army I was doing my very best to avoid any call of duty. Not because I was a pacifist, not because I cared that much about the Palestinians or subject to a latent peace enthusiasm, I just loved to be alone with my saxophone.
When the 1st Lebanon war broke, I was a soldier for one year. It didn’t take a genius to know the truth, I knew that our leaders were lying. Every Israeli soldier realised that this war was an Israeli aggression. Personally I couldn’t feel anymore any attachment to the Zionist cause. I didn’t feel part of it. Yet, it still wasn’t the politics or ethics that moved alienated me, but rather my craving to be alone with my horn. Playing scales at the speed of light seemed to me far more important for than killing Arabs in the name of Jewish redemption. Thus, instead of becoming a qualified killer I spent every possible effort trying to join one of the military bands. It took a few months, but I eventually landed safely at the Israeli Air Force Orchestra (IAFO).
The IAFO was made of a unique social setting, you could join in either for being an excellent promising Jazz talent or just for being a son of a dead pilot. The fact that I was accepted, knowing that my Dad was amongst the living reassured me for the first time that I may be a musical talent. To my great surprise, none of the orchestra members took the army seriously. We were all concerned about one thing, our very personal musical development. We hated the army and it didn’t take time before I started to hate the state that had such a big army with such a big air force that needed a band that stopped me from practicing 24/7. When we were called to play in a military event, we always tried to play as bad as we could just to make sure that we would never get invited again. In the IAFO orchestra I learned for the first time how to be subversive. How to destroy the system in order to achieve immaculate personal perfection.
In the summer of 1984, just 3 weeks before I took off my military uniform, we were sent to Lebanon for a tour of concerts. At the time, Lebanon was a very dangerous place to be in and the Israeli army was dug deep in bunkers and trenches avoiding any confrontation with the local population. On the 2nd day we arrived at Ansar, a notorious Israeli concentration camp on Lebanese soil. This event changed my life.
It was a boiling day in early July. On a dusty dirt track we arrived at hell on earth. A huge detention centre surrounded by barbed wire. On the way to the camp headquarters we drove through the view of thousands of inmates being scorched under the sun. It is hard to believe, but military bands are always treated as VIPs. Once we landed at the officer command barracks we were taken for a guided tour in the camp. We were walking along the endless barbed wire and the post guard towers. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Who are these people?” I asked the officer. “They are Palestinians” he said, here are the PLO on the left and here on the right are the Ahmed Jibril’s ones, they are far more dangerous (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine PFLP-GC) so we keep them isolated.
I looked at the detainees and they looked very different to the Palestinians I saw in Jerusalem. The ones I saw in Ansar were angry. They were not defeated and they were many. As we moved along the barbed wire and I was gazing at the inmates, I realised that unbearable truth, I was walking there in Israeli military uniform. While I was still contemplating about my uniform, trying to deal with some severe sense of emerging shame, we arrived at a large flat ground in the middle of the camp. We stood there around the guide officer and learned more from him, some more lies about the current war to defend our Jewish haven. While he was boring us to death with some irrelevant lies I noticed that we were surrounded by two dozen concrete blocks the size of one square meter and around 1.30 cm high. They had a small metal door and I was horrified by the fact that my army may have decided to lock the guard dogs in these constructions for the night. Putting my Israeli Chutzpah into action, I asked the guide officer what these horrible concrete cubes were. He was fast to answer. “These are our solitary confinement blocks, after two days in one of these you become a devoted Zionist”.
This was enough for me. I realised already then in 1984 that my affair with the Israeli state and Zionism was over. Yet, I knew very little about Palestine, about the Nakba or even about Judaism and Jewishness. I just realized that as far as I was concerned, Israel was bad news and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Two weeks later, I gave my uniform back, I grabbed my alto sax, took the bus to Ben Gurion airport and left for Europe for a few months. I was basking in the street. At the age of 21, I was free for the first time. In December it was too cold and I went back home with a clear intention to make it back to Europe.
It took me another 10 years before I could leave Israel for good. In these years I started to learn closely about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, about oppression. I started to accept that I was actually living on someone else’s land. I started to take in that devastating fact that in 1948 the Palestinians didn’t really leave willingly but were rather brutally ethnically cleansed by my Grandfather and his ilk. I started to realize that ethnic cleansing has never stopped in Israel, it just took different shapes and forms. I started to acknowledge the fact that the Israeli legal system was totally racially orientated. A good example was obviously the ‘Law of Return’, a law that welcomes Jews to come ‘home’ after 2000 years but stops Palestinians from returning to their land and villages after 2 years abroad. All that time I had been developing as a musician, I had become a major session player and a musical producer. Yet, I wasn’t really involved in any political activity. I scrutinised the Israeli left discourse and realized that it was very much a social club rather than an ideological setting motivated by ethical awareness.
At the time of Oslo agreement (1994), I just couldn’t take it anymore. I realized that Israeli ‘peace making’ equals ‘piss taking’. It wasn’t there to reconcile with the Palestinians or to confront the Zionist original sin. Instead it was there to reassure the secure existence of the Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinians. The Palestinian Right of Return wasn’t an option at all. I decided to leave my home, to leave my career. I left everything behind including my wife Tali, who joined me later. All I took with me was my Tenor Saxophone, my true eternal friend.
I moved to London and attended postgraduate studies in Philosophy at Essex University. Within a week in London I managed to get a residency at the Black Lion, a legendary Irish pub in Kilburn High Road. At the time I didn’t understand how lucky I was. I didn’t know how difficult it is to get a gig in London. In fact this was the beginning of my international career as a Jazz musician. Within a year I had become very popular in the UK playing bebop and post bop. Within three years I was playing with my band all over Europe.
However, it didn’t take long before I started to feel some homesickness. To my great surprise, it wasn’t Israel that I missed. It wasn’t Tel Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem. It was actually Palestine. It wasn’t the rude taxi driver in Ben Gurion airport, or a shopping center in Ramat Gan, it was the little Humus place in Yafo at Yesfet/Salasa streets. It was the Palestinian villages that are stretched on the hills between the olive trees and the Sabbar cactuses. I realized that whenever I felt like visiting home, I would end up in Edgware Road, I would spend the evening in a Lebanese restaurant. However, once I started to explore my thoughts about Israel in public, it soon became clear to me that Edgware Road was probably as close as I could ever get to my homeland.
I may admit that In Israel, I wasn’t at all interested in Arabic music. Supremacist colonials are never interested in the culture of the indigenous. I always loved folk music. I was already established in Europe as a leading Klezmer player. Throughout the years I started to play Turkish and Greek music. However, I completely skipped Arabic music and Palestinian music in particular. Once in London, in these Lebanese restaurants, I started to realise that I have never really explored the music of my neighbors. More concerning, I just ignored it, though I heard it all the time. It was all around me, I never really listened. It was there in every corner of my life, the call for prayers from the Mosques over the hills. Um Kalthoum’, Farid El Atrash, Abdel Halim Hafez, were there in every corner of my life, in the street, on the TV, in the small cafes in old city Jerusalem, in the restaurants. They were all around me but I dismissed them disrespectfully.
In my mid thirties, away from my homeland, I was drawn into the indeginous music of my homeland. It wasn’t easy. It was on the verge of unfeasible. As much as Jazz was easy for me to take in, Arabic music was almost impossible. I would put the music on, I would grab my saxophone or clarinet, I would try to integrate and I would sound foreign. I soon realized that Arabic music was a completely different language altogether. I didn’t know where to start and how to approach it.
Jazz music is a western product. It evolved in the 20th century and developed in the margins of the cultural industry. Bebop, the music I grew up on is made of relatively short fragments of music. The tunes are short because they had to fit into the 1940’s record format (3 min). Western music can be easily transcribed into some visual content within standard notation and chord symbols.
Jazz, like every other Western art form, is partially digital. Arabic music, on the other hand, is analogue, it cannot be transcribed. Once transcribed, its authenticity evaporates. By the time I achieved enough humane maturity to face the music of my homeland, my musical knowledge stood in the way.
I couldn’t understand what was it that stopped me from encompassing Arabic music. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t sound right. I spent enough time listening and practicing. But it just didn’t sound right. As time went by, music journalists in Europe started to appreciate my new sound, they started to regard me as a new Jazz hero who crossed the divide as well as an expert of Arabic music. I knew that they were wrong, as much as I tried to cross the so-called ‘divide’, I could easily notice that my sound and interpretation was foreign to the Arabic true colour.
But then, I found an easy trick. In my gigs, when trying to emulate the oriental sound, I would first sing a line that reminded me the sound I ignored in my childhood, I would try to recall echoes of the Muezzin sneaking into our streets from the valleys around. I would try to recall the astonishing haunting sound of my friends Dhafer Youssef and Nizar Al Issa. I would hear myself the low lasting voice of Abel Halim Hafez. Initially I would just close my eyes and listen to my internal ear, but without realizing I started gradually to open my mouth and sing loudly. I then realised that if I sing while having the saxophone in my mouth I would achieve a sound that was very close to the mosques’ metal horns. Originally I tried to get closer to the Arabic sound but at a certain stage, I just forgot what I was trying to achieve; I started to enjoy myself.
Last year, while recording an album in Switzerland, I realized suddenly that my Arabic sound wasn’t embarrassing anymore. Once listening to some takes in the control room I suddenly noticed that the echos of Jenin, Al Quds and Ramallah popped naturally out of the speakers. I tried to ask myself what happened, why did it suddenly started to sound genuine. I realized that I have given up on the primacy of the eye and reverted to the primacy of the ear. I didn’t look for an inspiration in the manuscript, in the music notes or the chord symbol. Instead, I was listening to my internal voice. Struggling with Arabic music reminded me why I did start to play music in the first place. At the end of the day, I heard Bird in the radio rather seeing him on MTV.
I would like to end this talk by saying that it is about time we learn to listen to the people we care for. It is about time we listen to the Palestinians rather than following some decaying textbooks. It is about time. Only recently I grasped that ethics comes into play when the eyes shut and the echoes of conscience are forming a tune within one’s soul. To empathise is to accept the primacy of the ear.
Postscript by Manuel Talens:
Gilad Atzmon or Exile’s redemption
Ever since I met Gilad Atzmon a few years back for a lengthy interview I’ve been convinced that this man listens to the world with the ears of an artist. It wasn’t by chance that I entitled it Beauty as a political weapon, as both his music and his writings always exude a profound and beautiful poetry, even if they deal – as they usually do – with the unrelenting Palestinian tragedy caused by Israel. This paper, which is the core of a talk he delivered recently at Brighton, UK, is no exception to this rule. Yet, instead of treating the subject from the outside – a literary technique that establishes a distance and “cools it down” – here the former Israeli Atzmon adopts the painful role of a subject who places himself at the thick of things and tells us his own itinerary from the racist hell of the Zionist state, where he was born, to the only ethical escape he had in front of him once he heard the light through the miracle of music: voluntary exile. Exile, as well-informed readers of this great jazzman already know, is one of his finest albums. To me, it is also the main argument of this current piece. It is not by chance if other Israelis as honest as Ilan Pappe have also chosen exile – like Atzmon – as the only way to redeem themselves from the shame of belonging to a state where indigenous population are treated as if they were despicable beasts. But Atzmon’s recapitulation has a wonderful plus in itself – at least for music lovers – and it is the sharp narration of his awakening from the sinful Israeli nightmare he was immersed in to the liberation of ceasing to belong, all this thanks to Charlie Parker’s art. Art is the communicating vessel uniting Parker and Atzmon. But there is more: the fact that Parker was Black – a race as looked down by all-time colonialists as Palestinians by today’s Zionists – serves symbolically to the purpose of Atzmon’s redemption: embracing the cause of Black music meant for him to kill two birds with one stone, as he simultaneously embraced the cause of liberating Palestinians through political activism. Texts like this one, written by people like Atzmon who have decided to join mankind without tribal discriminations and who define themselves as ex-Zionists help us to maintain the hope that one day the land of Palestine will be free of this racist post-modern plague and all its inhabitants will live in peace regardless of religion or ethnicity.