It would have been enough for David Broza, the multi-platinum Israeli superstar who will perform at Guild Hall in East Hampton on July 7, to rest on his laurels, even in his early 20s.
And why not? He had already successfully broken into the art world and had penned and performed international hits “Yihye Tov (Things Will Get Better)” and “Haisha She’iti (The Woman by My Side),” written with poet Yonatan Geffen. The last 35 years could have been spent in relative comfort, enjoying a fame that gently ebbed over the years.
But Broza — who has been compared in other publications to Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Bob Dylan (always preceded by the words “the Israeli”) — clearly enjoys pushing himself, whether it’s embarking on a quest to meet the greatest living American poets, visiting refugee children, recording album after album, or bringing peace to the Middle East.
We’ll get to that part. But let’s back up a bit first.
Broza was born in Israel but moved to Spain with his family as a youngster, a fact that influenced his music and guitar playing. He had great success in the art world, and then with his music. In his late 20s, Broza landed in New Jersey, with a mission to deepen his knowledge of American culture.
“I started my career at 22, and very quickly I had my first number-one hit record, then my second number one. Every album hit really big. I felt like it came too quickly for me. I hadn’t had time to establish myself as a musician. I felt accomplished as a painter, an artist, but not as a musician.”
He came to the U.S. in search of the essence, the source of the music he loved — blues, jazz, folk. “John Coltrane, David Crosby, Jimi Hendrix, this is what interested me. I started out in New York City, and then I realized I had to search way beyond.” He trekked through the Midwest and the Deep South, meeting some of America’s greatest wordsmiths.
Putting existing poems to music isn’t a thing here, but it is overseas. “It’s quite common in Israel, but nobody did it in the states. It seemed like a natural to me. I just had to set out and find the poets. I crisscrossed the country. Not only was I into reading the poetry, but I wanted to meet the writers,” he said.
He spent time in Arizona, on the West Coast, in Indiana, all up and down the East Coast. Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, and Theodore Roethke, poets that Broza respected, had died, but he met with Liam Rector, Donald Hall, Matthew Graham, and Albert Rios over the ensuing years. “The travels didn’t ever stop. And I started producing albums based on these poems,” he said.
Broza was invited to give a lecture at Bennington College. “I ended up staying there for 10 years as an associate professor, giving MFA courses in creative writing, which I have no clue about,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not a poet myself, I’m a reader. I found a way to explain to would-be poets where to find the music in the language.”
He produced two albums set to American poetry and sent them to Bruce Lundvall of EMI, the record company executive who had signed artists like Herbie Hancock and Norah Jones. “And he got what I was doing. But he said to me, ‘Don’t forget, in this day and age, poetry in America is a four-letter word.’”
Broza produced six albums in the U.S. “mostly dedicated to American poetry,” one-sixth of his existing recording repertoire. His penultimate album, Night Dawn, produced by G.E. Smith, is exclusively dedicated to the poetry of American singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. When Van Zandt died, he willed to Broza a shoebox filled with unpublished poems and lyrics, “but it took me 12 years after that to make the album,” he noted.
Broza credits Smith with bringing him even closer to American culture. “G.E. is so knowledgeable about the blues and songs from the Civil War. He’s a real Americana man.” Broza and his wife, famed fashion designer Nili Lotan, are tight with Amagansett residents Smith and his wife, Taylor Barton — who is producing the Guitar Masters series in which Broza will perform — and have become frequent visitors to the East End.
A CHORD FOR PEACE
But Broza’s most ambitious project was yet to come. An album and a documentary film of the same name — East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem — follows eight days during which Broza, a lifelong activist, gathered together musicians from both Israel and Palestine, culminating in a poignant and profound recording session featuring the album’s producer, American legend Steve Earle, rapper Wyclef Jean (who cowrote the title track with Broza), and the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an Israeli-Palestinian ensemble of high school singers who believe in “transcending conflict through song.”
“It’s what everybody wishes for. Peace, love. I had been working on the conflict resolution issue for a good part of my life, at least 40 years. I was influenced by my grandfather, a visionary, who co-founded a village [the Arab-Israeli peace settlement Neve Shalom], the oasis of peace.”
Broza has spent time bringing music to the children at the Shuafat refugee camp, an overcrowded settlement in Jerusalem not normally visited by Israeli Jews. “It’s about sowing seeds of peace everywhere,” he said.
In 1999, Broza was introduced to Sabreen, a Palestinian band, and its frontman, Said Murad. “We fell in love with each other, the closest friendship you could think of. [It was] made even more amazing by the fact that I’m Israeli, he’s Palestinian, and no Israeli and Palestinians really worked toward doing things together. It’s almost a forbidden thought to visit East Jerusalem, even though it’s part of Israel.”
The friendship blossomed into musical collaboration, recording several albums together over the years. “Then one day, someone — it may have been Said, it may have been my manager, Danny Goldberg — someone said, ‘If you do an album with your Palestinian friends, it will really make people think.’”
It wasn’t about business, Broza explained. It was about peace and love.
“We recorded it. We filmed it. The rest is history,” he explained. The documentary, billed as “eight days and eight nights of music, food, and camaraderie of Israeli and Palestinian musicians — a damn good story and one groundbreaking album,” will be shown as part of Guild Hall’s “Guitar Masters” series, prior to Broza’s Saturday night performance on July 7. The film is also available on Netflix and has been a contender in several film festivals.
“The Jerusalem Youth Chorus was only three months old when we did this. Now it’s been three years. And they have traveled the world, become friends for life,” he said passionately.
“There is no owner to this story,” he concluded. “There are two sides. And each side is the real side.”
For more information about David Broza and the Guitar Masters series, visit www.guildhall.org.