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Alberstein, Chava (1947–) - PERSONAL HISTORY, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, The First Years (1967–69), BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, The 1970s

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Folk and pop singer-guitarist Chava (also Hava) Alberstein is one of Israel’s most important, respected, and prolific entertainers; one of the few Israeli artists whose popularity spans decades both in her native country and abroad. Her career resembles that of other female folk singers such as the American Joan Baez and the Argentinian Mercedes Sosa, illustrating the connection between folk music and the performance realm of musical self-expression combined with political and social activism. For her achievements she has received the degree of Doctor Philosophie Honoris Causa from Tel Aviv University.

Her success is even more impressive considering the fact that she has aimed for the highest artistic standards while remaining true to her political and social agendas. She has tirelessly promoted collaborations with the most prominent and respected Israeli poets, composers, and producers in tandem with developing her own compositional and lyrical skills. She is at home in a wide array of musical styles (including folk, world, pop and jazz) and is noted for her singular devotion to singing and recording in Yiddish.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Chava Alberstein was born on 8 December 1947 in Sche-chin (now Szczecin), Poland and immigrated to Israel at the age of four. She settled with her family in Kiryat Haim, a working-class suburb near Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. In an interview for Israeli TV, she recalled that her first guitar was given to her by her father, who had purchased it from a sailor at Haifa Port, and thus the instrument was covered with stickers from all over the world. This might have predetermined her artistic destiny; to be a “wandering gypsy” vocalizing the music of the people.

At the age of twelve she won a government fellowship for music studies, and five years later performed for the first time in public during a live radio broadcast. The musician Meir Harnik heard her performance on the radio and invited her to join his traveling singing show on a national tour. She accepted Harnik’s invitation, and it was during one of these shows that the prominent popular music composer Nachum Heiman heard her, and assured her on the spot that she was about to become a star.

Heiman secured her a contract with CBS Records (which later became the major label NMC), the most important record label in Israel during the 1960s and 1970s. She completed her compulsory military service in the Israel Defense Forces, performing as a solo singer-guitarist before the troops.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

The First Years (1967–69)

CBS did not wait long; in 1967 Alberstein’s first solo album Perah ha-Lilakh (Lilac flower) was released and went gold, with the young singer amply displaying her overall charm and ability to winningly present a melody. In the same year she also released her first Yiddish language album: Hineh Lanu Nigun (Here we have a song).

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Chava Alberstein

Birth: 1947, Schechin (now Szczecin), Poland

Family: Married. Husband: Nadav Levitan

Nationality: Israeli

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1967: Releases first solo album, Perah ha-Lilakh (Lilac flower)
  • 1970: Releases Me’shirei Eretz Ahavati (Songs of my beloved country)
  • 1986: Releases Mehagrim (Immigrants)
  • 1989: Releases London; one of its songs, “Khad Gadya,” decries Israeli policies toward the first Palestinian intifada, and creates controversy
  • 1998: Releases The Well with the Klezmatics
  • 2005: Receives honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University

The following year was very productive; she released a total of three albums. A careful examination of this 1968 vintage will demonstrate three main directions in Alberstein’s career: performing and interpreting songs from the Yiddish musical heritage (in 1968 she recorded an album with actor/singer Mike Burstein); exploring the possible mixture between her singing and a jazzy musical environment (her album Mot ha-Parpar [Death of the butterfly] was arranged by leading jazz musician Albert Piamenta); and her faith and commitment to the work of young and advanced Israeli musicians (the next album Mirdaf [The chase] was produced by Misha Segal [who later became a prominent Hollywood film composer and arranger]). Both Hebrew albums went gold and introduced a more sophisticated Alberstein, once again displaying her expressive and interpretive abilities. At this stage in Alberstein’s career, it was already apparent that she possessed a unique ability to take a song and make it her own. In 1969, she released her third Yiddish language album, Margaritkalach (Daisies).

The 1970s

A careful review of Alberstein’s career indicates that the roots of her mature personality can be traced back to her activities in the early 1970s, during which her constant quest for means of self expression took some interesting directions.

Her 1970 gold record Me’shirei Eretz Ahavati (Songs of my beloved country) included texts that had a strong personal and even political impact. The strongest of them was the perceived anti-war statement in “Chess” (with lyrics by Israel’s most potent poet-satirist Hanoch Levin and music by Alex Kagan), a somber song describing pawns in a chess game commonly sacrificed to protect the king.

In 1971 Alberstein mounted a solo show, accompanied for the first time in her career by a live band. Yaacov Agmon (an important personality in the Israeli entertainment industry) produced the show, which added a surprising theatrical ability to the already wide talents Alberstein had previously revealed to the Israeli public. In this show she addressed issues such as womanhood, love, and even some self-parody about singers who want to act and actors who want to be singers. Israel’s best writers joined forces for this production, which was an enormous success and established Alberstein as a star of the Israeli stage.

In 1972 Alberstein changed direction when she recorded an entire album of the music of upcoming young composers of the time. The gold record Isha Ba’avatiah (A woman in a watermelon) was seemingly addressed to children and included poems by poet Nurit Zarhi with music by up-and-coming composers such as Shlomo Gronich and Matti Caspi. The album set unprecedented musical standards of melodic complexity, harmonic sophistication and orchestration and was considered ahead of its time. By doing so, Alberstein once again displayed her courage and individuality. She also released the children’s record Hava Ve-Oded B’Eretz ha-Ksamim (Magic land) in 1972.

The 1973 Arab-Israeli war brought Alberstein once again to the public eye with her performance of “Lu Yehi” (Let it be), a simple song of hope composed by the beloved national poet and composer Naomi Shemer. Alberstein, like many other artists, took up her civil duty to entertain both soldiers and the public during wartime. However, in her post-war platinum album Lu Yehi (Let it be) she included a few somber songs with an overall pacifistic spirit. Some of the arrangements for that album were written by Roman Kunzman, the leader of the influential jazz band Platina. Once again, Alberstein was among the early vanguard of singers in placing her theatrical and musical talents in a jazz-oriented musical environment. Alberstein’s collaboration with Platina resulted in the 1975 triple-platinum album K’mo Tzemakh Bar (Like a wild flower), which to this day remains one of her most popular releases.

The year 1976 brought the release of another children’s album ( Elik, Belik Bom ) and 1977’s ha-Laila Hu Shirim (The night is songs) went gold and featured new arrangements of some of her classic hits. The year 1977 also marked the release of the Yiddish language Shirei Am Be’ Yidish (Yiddish folk songs) as well as the “Carousel” cycle of albums ( Karusella 1, 2 & 3 ). In 1978 she recorded Hitbaharut (The skies are clearing) in Italy, characterized by impressive lyrical melodies and mellow pop arrangements by Natale Massara. This album eventually went gold.

In 1979, one of her most popular Yiddish albums, Chava Alberstein Sings Yiddish , was released. She also recorded yet another children’s disc and during that same year an album recorded in a live show in Tel Aviv was matched by an album recorded in London, with arrangements and musical production by Heiman, the man who had discovered her when she was seventeen. Among the studio players who participated in the recording was Brazilian composer-arranger Carlos Miranda.

The 1980s

The next step in Alberstein’s career took her for the first time into the realm of creation. In 1986, her twenty-eighth album Mehagrim (Immigrants) contained music set solely to her original lyrics. Prior to this album Alberstein continued to explore various musical styles and means of expression. Her second solo show (1980) was musically arranged and produced by keyboardist and violist Nahum Perfekovitch, a member of the show’s backup jazz band, her old friends Platina.

She worked with rock musician Misha Segal for her 1982 album Kolot (Voices) and entered into a highly unusual collaboration with Menachem Wiesenberg, a respected composer of symphonic and chamber art music. The same year saw the release of the children’s album Shiru Shir Im Hhava (Sing a song with Chava), which included a Hebrew language cover of the ‘60s psychedelic Beatles classic “Yellow Submarine,” followed by 1983’s gold album Nemal Bait (At home). In 1984, for the second time in her career, Alberstein choose to work with young composers such as Yoni Rechter and Shem Tov Levi for the album Avak Shel Kokhavim (Stardust). Musical production was given to veteran producer Yaroslav Yaakobovitz.

The year 1986’s Mehagrim (Immigrants) featured Alberstein as a lyricist for the first time, together with composer Gideon Kafan (who soon was to leave the popular music field). The album was produced by guitarist Yehuda Eder (from the mythological rock band Tapuz) with the contributing musical talents of some of the country’s best rock studio players and contained songs with strong statements about Israel’s social problems.

In between the release of Mehagrim and before 1987’s ha-Zoreh Be’Mila ha-Zoreh Ba"Shtika (Words and silence, an album that contained for the first time both her own lyrics and music), Alberstein recorded yet another Yiddish album, Od Shirim Be’ Yidish (More songs in Yiddish). It is interesting to speculate why she continued to periodically work in Yiddish; perhaps because of a sense of duty (a continuing effort to preserve the pre-World War II Jewish culture), a need to return to musical roots, or simply a need to express her love for this musical context.

Ha-Zoreh Be’Mila ha-Zoreh Ba" Shtika marked the beginning of Alberstein’s career as a creator-performer. From this point she focused on recording her own material. For her next album, the 1989 platinum release London (with lyrics and music by Alberstein, produced by Yaakobovitz), she even added modern texts to two folk tunes. One of these songs “Khad Gadya” (Lamb), which addressed the moral issues of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, created a national mini-scandal.

In some ways this reflected the end of an era: On a national level, Alberstein had become a controversial artist. She had begun to feel strong opposition from the far right-wing political bloc and was publicly booed during the traditional torch lighting ceremony for 1987’s Independence Day celebrations.

The 1990s and International Expansion

At this point, Alberstein began to seriously consider expanding her international career. In addition to the release of the controversial ha-Zoreh Be’Mila ha-Zoreh Ba"Shtika in 1987, Alberstein closed out the decade with 1989’s Chava Zingt Yiddish (Chava sings Yiddish). By 1990 the first retrospective collection of her songs, Me’Shirei Eretz Aha-vati (Songs from my beloved country) was released, and the year after that she began to work periodically with producer Oved Efrat.

Ahava Mealteret (Improvised love), an album released in 1991 that went gold, had most of the songs written by Alberstein, and was characterized by a world music sound and featured instruments like accordion, bouzouki and ethnic drumming. In 1992 her first compact-disc collection was released and during the same year she produced an English-language album, The Man I Love (including a version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” among others).

In 1994 she composed the soundtrack for the feature film Groupie , directed by her husband, Nadav Levatan, and re-released it as Margaritkalach (Daisies). In 1995 she wrote the lyrics and music for most of the songs in Derekh Akhat (My own way), which was produced by Ilan Wurtzberg. This rock-flavored album included a protest song named “Gitara Khadisha” (New guitar). Her next album, 1996’s Yonat ha-Ahava (The Dove of love) was once again produced by Efrat and included Alberstein’s original music set to texts by major Israeli poets such as Esther Rub and David Avidan. The year 1997 was relatively quiet by Alberstein’s standards, with the release of one retrospective album Adaber Itkha (I will talk to you).

WE REALLY MUST SAY WHAT WE FEEL

Even though I have lived in Israel nearly my entire life, I am constantly questioning my place in the world. Maybe this searching comes from being an artist, maybe it comes from being a Jew. I’m not really sure. No matter where I am, even if it’s in my own country, I feel like a bit of a guest. People can appreciate this today, because they move around so much. Every country you go to in the world is filled with so-called foreigners.

AVIV PRODUCTIONS WEBSITE: HTTP://WWW.AVIV2.COM/CHAVA/

Basically, I believe that artists should criticize governments whenever they can … we are not politicians that we need voters to vote for us and we don’t need to please the crowds. So we really must say what we feel….

  “CHAVA ALBERSTEIN, ISRAELI SINGER AND PEACE ACTIVIST,” NPR (24 APRIL 2002): HTTP://WWW.NPR.ORG/PROGRAMS/MORNING/FEATURES/2002/APR/ALBERSTEIN/

The year 1998 marked an international breakthrough for Alberstein; The Well , a joint record with the highly regarded avant-garde klezmer group The Klezmatics for the Xenophile label, gained her world-wide recognition. Strangely enough, this album was never distributed in Israel. A CD box set of sixty songs ( Chava Alberstein, The Collection ) was issued in the same year and went gold. The 1999 album Tekhef Ashuv (Be right back) contained strong protest songs such “The Magician” (which mocked then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu), the anti-religious coercion title “Shalom Rav” (Blessed be), and “Rebecca” (protesting the way that Israel treats its foreign workers). This album was produced by long-time collaborator Efrat and featured top ethnic hand drummer Zohar Fresco. The end of this decade was capped by the release of a box set collection of Yiddish songs called Chava Alberstein, Yiddish Songs .

2000 and Beyond

In 2003 she composed and recorded the single “ha-Tzel” (The shadow), a protest song (set to lyrics by her husband) dealing with the plight of foreign workers that serve the elites of the first world, and soon after released “Tehilim Ktanim” (Little psalms), a song which related the story of a born-again Jew. In the same year, the album End of the Holiday (with lyrics by Liviatan and music by Alberstein) was released and sold an impressive (by Israeli standards) 14,000 copies in the first two months of sales, together with the release of another CD box set collection, The First Years . The year 2005 saw the release of Kokus (Coconut) and the Yiddish language Lemele (Lamb).

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

Chava Alberstein is a veritable institution in her native Israel. But her career and stature have not been without controversy. In a controversial interview for Israel TV, Alberstein declared that she currently is not ready to perform for Israeli audiences, because of the lack of artistic tolerance and the deterioration of the popular music scene. She also has been criticized in Israel for her political views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her version of the Passover song “Khad Gadya” from the late 1980s, decrying the government’s harsh repression of the Palestinian intifada, was banned from Israeli state radio. A boycott was mounted against her when she was chosen to light the flame at the 1990 Israeli Independence Day celebrations. Despite all this Alberstein remains a popular cultural icon in her native country, continuing to produce an impressive amount of works that reflect her trademark intensity and personal voice.

Internationally, Alberstein also is well known and acclaimed. In 2001, a Czech-language film included two songs sung by Alberstein in its soundtrack and was nominated for an American Academy Award for Best Foreign Movie. In the same year, the album Foreign Letters (produced by Canadian-American multi-instrumentalist and composer Ben Mink for the label Rounder Records) was released internationally, with impressive sales in Korea.

LEGACY

Chava Alberstein already is a legendary icon within Israel. She will be remembered for her music, her attempts to keep Yiddish culture alive, and her passionate insistence on using her fame as a platform for speaking out on political issues.

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