Musical mission in search of the heart of the land

A legendary cowboy's dying wish was the latest fork in David Broza's road, writes Michael Dwyer.

A legendary cowboy's dying wish was the latest fork in David Broza's road, writes Michael Dwyer.

WHEN an Israeli musician starts talking about the connection between poetry and the land, you know his story won't be simple. But the late arrival of Texas country legend Townes Van Zandt is a twist that even David Broza still can't fathom.

"I was a stranger to him, he was just a bit less than a stranger to me," the Tel Aviv singer-songwriter says of the night the two storytellers met, sharing the bill at a Houston theatre in 1994.

"We did a show where he would do a song and I would do a song and this went on for four hours. He was fascinated by the fact that I sang in different languages. It was beyond him that I would sing blues in Hebrew.

"At the end he gave me his phone number and said, 'Please call me, I have some poems'."

Attempts to reconnect failed, but when Van Zandt died three years later, Broza received a call confirming the near stranger's last wishes. After "a painful process", he composed, recorded and finally released Night Dawn: the Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt last year.

A superstar in Israel since the '70s, Broza began making albums in English and more recently Spanish to explore the delicate craft of bringing melody to poems by Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Federico Garcia Lorca and more.

"Music is in everything," he says. "Music is in our conversation now. It's in any book you read. Words have musicality. All I have to do is decipher them and figure out the musicality, the rhythm and then adapt Hebrew music to it."

The simple job description belies years of research. With the luxury of a large and faithful following back home, Broza has spent much of the past 20 years steeped in corners of the US and Spain, "trying to connect, to understand the intricacies and the depth; the beat of the words.

"The connection to the heart of the land is its poetry and I want to be in the heart of the land," he says.

With a bloodline that goes back 150 years into pre-partition Palestine under the Ottoman Empire, Broza is acutely aware of the weight of his words.

His political awareness began with his mother, Israeli singer Sharona Aron, a revered contemporary of US folkie/peaceniks Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Odetta.

Her father was Wellesley Aron, a British-born pacifist and educator who co-founded Israel's Arab-Jewish "oasis of peace", Neve Shalom.

Dig a generation deeper and there's even an Australian connection. Wellesley's father emigrated here to make his fortune during tough times in Palestine, before returning in the 1890s.

"So I have family in Sydney and Perth, oddly enough," Broza says. "Thanks to music, I can now come to Australia and reconnect."

Such global connections naturally warm the heart. But the glaring disconnect at the heart of Broza's homeland causes him to draw a deep breath.

"I lament the fact that there is hardly any artistic interaction between Israelis and Palestinians," he says, "and I wish that my work with [Lebanese electronic artist] Said Murad, for example, would, if only a little bit, inspire other artists to put away their paranoia, their differences, their distrust.

"We're artists. We are the soul and the core of the society. This is not about the material world. This is a thing of the soul and the heart."

As he discovered after the death of Townes Van Zandt and, more recently, that of his mother, even those connections can take time.

"Being that I come from the rock'n'roll generation, I didn't connect with my mother's music," he admits. "I wanted something that had a revolution in its backbeat.

"But mind you, when I perform these days, I often think that I inherited from her the love for folk. I mean, what is my essence of connecting from poetry to the land? I must have taken her way of looking at music and art and culture on to another level which fits my generation and my way of thinking."

David Broza performs on Tuesday at the National Theatre, St Kilda.

nationaltheatre.org.au or 9525 4611.