A voice of the people

Publication Date: Friday Dec 1, 2000

A voice of the people

Israeli folk singer Chava Alberstein performs at Stanford

by Robyn Israel

Singers often credit another artist with influencing their decision to pursue a musical career. For Israeli singer Chava Alberstein, the inspiration came from American folk singer Pete Seeger.

Alberstein saw Seeger perform in Haifa in the early '60s, a time when her friends were more taken by Elvis Presley and his rock contemporaries. The concert was a revelation for the teenager, who had grown up in a house filled with European songs, classical and jazz music.

"Suddenly I saw this guy onstage with a banjo and a guitar, nothing behind him--no choirs or orchestration--singing like I did in my room. This was a shock," she recalls.

Enraptured by Seeger's simple and direct way of connecting with people, Alberstein has tried ever since to emulate his warm style in her own performances. Locals can see for themselves when Alberstein performs Sunday at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium, joined by percussionist Avi Agababa and bassist/guitarist Yankele Segal. The set will feature a retrospective of Alberstein's career, with old and new songs performed in Hebrew, Yiddish and some English, and a few surprises thrown in for good measure.

Alberstein's goal is not just to entertain, she says, but to tell stories about life and love, ones that touch people and encourage them to think differently.

"The songs I do are more sophisticated musically and lyrically than my folk music 30 years ago, but the essence and the search for meaning is still there," she says in a phone interview from San Diego.

Beloved by audiences around the world, Alberstein has been called a cross between Joan Baez and Barbra Streisand; her voice compared to Edith Piaf. She is Israel's most accomplished singer, having released over 50 albums since the late 1960s, many of them gold or platinum.

Alberstein career has certainly managed to stand the test of time, thanks to her willingness to evolve and try new material. She even started writing her own music and lyrics only 14 years ago, spurred by her displeasure with the songwriters she had been using.

"I needed a new voice and I found that voice in myself. I could tell my own story," she says.

Alberstein calls her decision to take up writing relatively late another mystery in the procedure of life--a surprise she didn't think about. The venture has been successful and well-received, making her one of the most in-demand songwriters in Israel today.

Another novel experiment was "The Well," (1998) an album of 15 Yiddish poems she transformed into folk songs with the renowned New York klezmer group, The Klezmatics. The inspiration for the project sprang from interviews Alberstein held with Yiddish poets in her award-winning 1995 documentary film "Too Early To Be Quiet, Too Late To Sing." Directed by her husband, Israeli filmmaker Nadav Levitan, the film profiled modern writers who compose in the old German-based language of European Jewry.

Instead of looking nostalgically at Yiddish as a dying language, Alberstein became inspired to create new music. She decided to collaborate with the Klezmatics, with whom she she had played at festivals and had long wanted to work. One tune, "Mayn Shvester Khaye," (My Sister Khaye"), by poet Binem Heller, is a tribute to his late sister, who perished in the Holocaust.

"It seemed like an impossible mission," she recalls of the poem's painful subject matter. "I never thought I'd write music to this poem or be able to sing to it.

Alberstein considers the project not only an artistic achievement, but a precious and personal endeavor.

"It's special for me," she says. "In a way it's connecting with the past--the first songs I did as a young girl were in Yiddish. It's a personal way for me to express myself. And it keeps me in touch with a past I never knew."

Yiddish was the mother tongue of Alberstein's family in the small town of Szczecin, Poland, where she was born. She lost all of her family in the Holocaust, and her parents and brother immigrated to Israel in 1950, when Alberstein was 4 years old.

Alberstein was 17 years old when she made her first public appearance, appearing as a singing guest on Israeli radio. Then, when the Columbia Broadcasting Society (CBS) formed its Israeli branch in 1964, they quickly signed her and Alberstein's recording career was launched. One of her singles, "Song Of My Beloved Country," made it onto the hit parade and propelled her into Israeli stardom. Army service followed, and based on her hit, Alberstein spent two years as a one-woman band entertaining the troops several times a day.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Alberstein has often used her music to express her political views. When the Intifida (the Palestinian uprising) began more than a decade ago, Alberstein was horrified at the Israeli army's treatment of the Palestinians, and decided to express her worry and outrage in song.

She adapted the traditional Passover song "Chad Gadya" ("One Goat") to suit the situation. The tune deals with a circle of violence, in which a dog bites a cat, a stick beats the dog, fire burns the stick, and so on. Ultimately, the Angel of Death comes--a message that Alberstein wanted to impart in her rendition.

"We saw our soldiers behaving in a new way, having to confront women and children--something we didn't think about before. It was difficult to look at the picture of violence." Leading politicians tried to ban the protest song, and despite death threats, Alberstein continued to sing the piece in her concerts.

With the situation in Israel turning ugly once gain, Alberstein remains concerned.

"I try not to think about it too much--it's choking me. I'm very sad. We're in a bad situation. I hope our leaders will be clever enough to stop it before it gets even worse. Hopefully the price will not be so terrible.

Alberstein, who currently resides in Ramat Hasharon (a suburb of Tel Aviv), relishes her time off from touring, spending time with 24-year-old son, Meir, and 29-year-old daughter, Uri. She plans on recording a new album next year in Vancouver, B.C., a project that will reteam her with Ben Mink, who produced "The Well" and is well-known for his work with Canadian-born singer k.d. lang.

Fans of the Israeli chanteuse can rest assured that this prolific artist will continue creating music that, regardless of the language, people can appreciate and enjoy.

"If you perform it in a convincing way and you believe in what you do, people really understand what you want to say and they connect to it. This is the big magic of art."

Who: Chava Alberstein

Where: Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium, Serra St. at Galvez, across from Hoover Tower

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Tickets are $20, $26 and $32. Half-price for children 15 and under; discounts availbale for students. Tickets are available through the Stanford Ticket Office at Tressider Memorial Union, and at (650) 725-ARTS to charge by phone. Order online at http://livelyarts.stanford.edu and through all BASS outlets.

Info: Call (650) 725-ARTS or visit http://livelyarts.stanford.edu



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