Israeli rock icon David Broza builds musical bridges

He dared to cross into East Jerusalem to record his latest album, and Palestinian actress-singer Mira Awad, among many others, followed

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      David Broza’s daring East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem was conceived and recorded in Israel in 2014, but the album couldn’t be more relevant to the ongoing insanity taking place in North America and beyond today.

      The project asks an important question, especially in this divisive new era of Donald Trump: what would happen if we put aside our religious, political, and ideological differences and tried to bond over the simple fact that we’re all human?

      Broza had no trouble finding like-minded artists who were willing to take a chance on doing just that. On the heavy-hitter front, East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem finds the Israeli superstar working with American producer Steve Earle, hip-hop legend Wyclef Jean, and Palestinian actress-singer Mira Awad. But Broza is even prouder of the friends that he and his less famous support cast made during the creation of the record and the accompanying documentary of the same name.

      The eight-day recording session took place in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian-dominated area that most Israelis avoid. When Broza first pitched the idea to the members of his backing band, they were afraid to sign on. Reached on his cell before a concert in Jerusalem, the 61-year-old Israeli legend—whose enduring stardom at home has earned him comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen—says that he understood their initial reluctance. Some fears are deeply ingrained.

      “I’m shown a door and told that if I walk through it I’m walking into hell, where I will suffer and burn and people will attack me,” Broza explains. “Then there’s another door where I’m told if I walk through it that everything is going to be okay. Psychologically, I’m not even going to bother opening that first door. I’m told time after time that East Jerusalem is inhabited by Palestinians who are Jew-haters and Israeli-haters, and it’s not a directive of the government or something that comes from the education system. It’s the way that we live—we live fearing the other.”

      That fear goes both ways. Awad—who joins Broza on his upcoming tour of North America—was born to a Bulgarian mother and a Palestinian father. The Tel Aviv–based artist considers herself both a Palestinian and an Israeli. But even as a celebrity, her determination to bridge those two worlds has come at a price.

      “Like David, I was raised to believe in human connections and human kinship—that you don’t really look at religion or nationality or colour as something that divides us or makes us less or more,” Awad says, speaking on her cell during a break on a film set in Israel. “Unfortunately, a lot of people do look at these things. I was raised in a home where I didn’t feel inferior to anyone, although we are somewhat seen as second-class citizens in Israel. I never felt second-class—I always knew what I was worth, because of my parents and my education. But I’m not immune to the divide here, and I have to deal with it every day—that’s a fact.

      “It affects my life and it affects my career,” she continues. “But when you’ve decided that something is important, all that becomes marginal. When I was younger—I’m 41 now and have done a lot in my career—I can tell you for sure that I was afraid. I was afraid how I was looked at, I was afraid of how I was judged, and I was afraid of being misunderstood. I was afraid, period. Everyone here judges you, and everyone wants you to be on their side.”

      For East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, Broza set out to get Israelis and Palestinians on the same page.

      THE PROJECT WASN'T without its challenges. Broza remembers being summoned to the East Jerusalem house of one of his closest friends and musical collaborators. That friend, a Palestinian, told him that, for political reasons, he wouldn’t be participating in the project, setting off a quick spiral of self-doubt in the singer.

      “It hurt, and I felt very vulnerable,” Broza relates. “I doubted myself for a second, but within minutes I managed to talk myself into believing emotionally ‘Okay, this is what’s going to be. Whether others come or don’t come, I am going to be there on January 20 and I’ll start recording.’ I was like, ‘Steve Earle is going to be there, I’ve got the budget, and Wyclef Jean, and I have written the song ‘East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem’. If the musicians don’t come, I guess it will be just me and my guitar.’ ”

      Awad notes it wasn’t only Israelis who were taking a chance by working with Palestinians on East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem.

      “The complexity of the situation is huge,” she says. “The musicians who play with David were afraid to come into East Jerusalem because they were sure that some Palestinian would take advantage of the situation and—I don’t know—abduct or kill them or hurt them. With the Palestinians, it wasn’t the physical fear, but the pressure that Palestinians are not supposed to be normalizing with Israelis. When you are a Palestinian working with Israelis, it can hurt your livelihood and your social status.”

      Palestinian actor-singer Mira Awad.
      Nahum Leder

      From a strictly artistic standpoint, East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem ends up being both uplifting and powerful. Broza starts out finding common ground between Spanish flamenco and Steve Earle–brand Americana with the shuffling “One to Three” and then takes an easygoing leap into the waters of Caribbean soul with the title track.

      Qanun, oud, darbuka, and bouzouki add an exotic air to “Ramallah–Tel Aviv”, and there’s a jazzy reworking of Timmy Thomas’s vintage R&B classic “Why Can’t We Live Together”. Pink Floyd’s “Mother” is reborn as a Middle Eastern jam more suitable for hookah-smoking than firing up the bong, while Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” is augmented by the Jerusalem Youth Choir, which is made up of Palestinian and Israeli teenagers from both the east and west sides of the city.

      Just as important as what happened in the studio was the magic that took place at the end of each day.

      “We had eight nights of banquets—every night Israelis and Palestinians laid out a banquet for up to 100 people,” Broza says. “There were only 40 of us in the crew, but I had everyone invite friends for the experience of sitting around the same table and eating and having fun. After the first night, the buzz was so big people started calling me and going, ‘Can we come and play?’ They were from all over the place, all coming together. I said, ‘You know that you will be documented for a film?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, yeah—we don’t care. We wanna stay for dinner.’ And so it happened. As it became word of mouth, people began to show up just to watch us, to be there for the recording. They weren’t even musicians—just activists and good people. We left the studio open for everyone to come in.”

      The singer’s lasting hope is that the bridges that were built with East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem will continue to grow, not only at home but around the world.

      “We live with scars, but when we constantly think about them we don’t even consider that maybe the person on the other side of the door or the wall is as afraid of me as I am of him,” Broza says. “That he has the same basic needs as I do and really only wants to break bread with me and maybe have a glass of wine or a coffee. When you walk through that door because you made that decision, and you find out that nothing happens to you, you realize that you were psychologically stopping yourself.”

      He laughingly describes himself as a man with a guitar who travels the world telling stories and playing songs amassed from a career that spans five decades. But that’s selling himself short. Broza is also an ambassador for world peace, delivering a message that, as depressing and divisive as Donald Trump–style politics might be, perhaps all is not lost.

      “Everybody’s nervous,” he notes. “There’s a nervousness out there, and it’s worrisome. But this isn’t about Muslims, Christians, and Jews. It’s about people, you know, because we’re all people. There’s so much friction and negativity in the Middle East that it makes an incredible laboratory for experimenting. And I’m saying ‘experiment’ because I can’t say we’ve initiated anything that’s brought mass results. But we are building platforms for reeducating people.”