Music woven out of conflict and sorrow

Local composers and singers turn their Hamas war angst and worry into the ballads that listeners want to hear right now

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The newsroom of Army Radio, which contains both conscripted soldiers and civilians who work on its programming. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90/File)
The newsroom of Army Radio, which contains both conscripted soldiers and civilians who work on its programming. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90/File)

Even a war has a soundtrack. For local singers, songwriters and Galgalatz, the army’s pop music radio station, the past weeks of the Gaza operation found the stress and sorrow stimulating some intensive musical creativity.

“Etzlenu BaGan” (In Our Kindergarten), a mournful ballad written by Iftach (Ifty) Kerzner and sung by Shaylee Atary, is currently number six on the Galgalatz radio station.

Kerzner, who lives in Tel Aviv and writes songs as a hobby, said he caught a glimpse of two kids huddling under a blanket, playing around with a flashlight — an image that spurred the refrain of the song, which is about a group of friends, growing up together.

But during the cold nights/
With a flashlight under the blanket they talk/
And he tells her what she is for him/
His whole world is protected under the blanket.

“Here are these kids, learning about love for the first time, and then comes the war and squashes that whole thing,” said Kerzner. “It’s the distance between those two situations.”

Composer Ifty xx said he wrote his latest song out of fear for the young soldiers who get sent to fight, but believes in Israel's right to defend itself (Courtesy Iftach )
Composer Ifty Kerzner said he wrote his latest song out of fear for the young soldiers who get sent to fight, but he believes in Israel’s right to defend itself (Courtesy Iftach Kerzner)

Kerzner, a lawyer by training who is an entrepreneur in his professional life, said he writes quickly, doing his best work when he is under pressure and has something to say.

“The need to write things down is a bug that you never release from your system,” he said.

Many artists record and release songs when an army campaign begins, said Or Celkovnik, the music director at Galgalatz. “We’ve received a couple of dozen songs which we listened to, and then broadcast the ones that we think will work for the listeners.”

Galgalatz is considered Israel’s number one radio station, reaching nearly 30 percent of Israeli radio listeners according to a recent survey by market research company TGI. It was founded 20 years ago under the aegis of Army Radio (Galei Zahal) as a music and traffic report station, aiming to reduce the number of traffic accidents with a regular series of public service announcements.

It broadcasts 24/7, and over the last month, said Celkovnik, was dedicated to the soldiers and families participating in the campaign in Gaza. The radio station also reported each siren that warned residents of rockets falling throughout the south and center.

“It’s very delicate work for us,” he said. “We would receive terrible news, hard news, and we tried to broadcast sensitive, sad and comforting music with a little bit of hope.”

Kerzner’s song was an immediate hit, said Celkovnik. The composer also wrote the song “A Million Stars” during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, about his friend, Tom Farkash, a soldier killed during the war. The song became something of an anthem for those who fought in Lebanon and lost loved ones during the difficult conflict.

“Relationships are the most personal thing you can write about,” said Kerzner. “But in our country, and in our complicated situation, you end up adding politics to the mix.”

His latest song is a continuation of the same pain he experienced in losing his friend, just under different circumstances, said Kerzner.

“As I get older I realize that I’m older than he was when I looked up to him,” he said. “He was always bigger and stronger, and now he’s becoming younger as I get older. And then I comprehend how young these people are who have to defend Israel. They’re experiencing their first loves and life situations, and we’re sending them out to defend us.”

His partner in the song, Atary, is the 25-year-old niece of singer Gali Atary, and is a recent graduate of the Nissan Nativ acting school who has been working on her own album with producer Shmulik Neufeld.

She dedicated Kerzner’s words to her 20-year-old younger brother, who fought in Gaza for the last month.

Shailee Atary said she was moved by the works of "In the Kindergarten, which reminded her of her younger brother, who spent the last month down in Gaza (Courtesy Shailee Atary)
Shailee Atary said she was moved by the works of ‘In the Kindergarten,’ which reminded her of her younger brother, who spent the last month in Gaza (Courtesy Shailee Atary)

“I felt connected to the song the second I heard it,” said Atary. “To me, he’s a kid, not a hero, who’s defending us. These guys are 18, 19, 20 — they haven’t even lived yet, and Ifty gave us this song to describe what we’re going through.”

Like the songwriters who strive to offer some emotional support, Galgalatz works to create a soundtrack that helps the soldiers cope, said Celkovnik.

The songlist during Operation Protection Edge was mostly Israeli, but the radio station also heard from soldiers that they didn’t want to hear depressing music all the time. Galgalatz usually broadcasts a diverse mix, from hip-hop and rap to pop, rock and rhythm and blues.

“It was a weird routine,” said Celkovnik of the last six weeks.

Some of the latest releases haven’t yet made it into the station’s programming.

“Nachamu Ami” (Console My Nation), a single by songwriter Aharon Razel, the younger brother of pianist and songwriter Yonatan Razel, was just released this week.

Razel said he began thinking about a “catch” in the Biblical verse in the book of Isaiah, Nachamu ami, or Console my nation, after the kidnapping of Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, he said, had wanted people to consider the different ways the text could be understood.

Aaron Razel studies each morning before working on his music in the afternoons (Courtesy Aaron Razel)
Aaron Razel studies each morning before working on his music in the afternoons (Courtesy Aaron Razel)

“It could be God saying, ‘Be consoled, my nation, nachamu ami,'” said Razel, who calls himself “post-Carlebach,” part of a stream of alternative religious music. “But I once heard Reb Shlomo say it could also be understood as the opposite, that God is saying, ‘You, my nation, should console Me.'”

He came upon a midrash, a form of rabbinic literature, that explained the late rabbi’s thoughts.

“It’s in the words of the refrain,” he said, referring to a song that Carlebach himself wrote to accompany the same words. “They’re very strong words: ‘Who has to be consoled? The ones whose sons are captured.’ That’s what pushed me into this song.”

Razel said he wasn’t sure it was appropriate to release a song during what has been a very difficult period for the country. But after finding that working on it helped him, he thought it could help others as well.

There’s a lot that these professional and occasional composers, as well as the radio stations that play their songs, want to share. But there are those who have been thinking about the issues that have come to the fore in this latest conflict for a long time.

Songwriter Ori Mark said he had thought about putting music to “Here Lie Our Bodies” — the iconic poem written by 90-year-old Israel Prize-winning poet Haim Gouri after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence — since he was a 19-year-old soldier.

Music for Gouri’s anguished poem — dedicated to the “Lamed Hey,” the convoy of 35 Hagana soldiers who were ambushed and killed during an attempt to resupply the kibbutzim of Gush Etzion in 1948 — had been on Mark’s mind for months.

“I’d been walking around with the music in my head for a long time,” said Mark. “I didn’t do anything for a long time, even though I felt so strongly about it.”

Composer Ori Mark said the first he heard Haim Gouri's iconic poem about the 1948 War of Independence was when he was a 19-year-old soldier (Courtesy Ori Mark)
Composer Ori Mark said he first heard Haim Gouri’s iconic poem about the 1948 War of Independence when he was a 19-year-old soldier on guard duty (Courtesy Ori Mark)

When he finally composed the wartime ballad, he first brought it to Gouri and his wife at their home in Jerusalem, seeking their approval.

“They got very excited and encouraged me to record it,” said Mark. “I decided to release it once the forces in Gaza were finally out.”

Now that the ground forces have withdrawn from the Strip, he’s hoping his original tune will get some radio play.

It will take a while to return to the regular routine and leave the wartime ballads behind, noted Celkovnik.

Galgalatz extended its daily show, “Voices of the Soldiers,” to next week as well, featuring the musical requests of soldiers who have been serving down south.

It’s a continuation of what the station did during the ground operation, when Galgalatz and Army Radio broadcast together from Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, interviewing wounded soldiers and featuring a special show with musician Idan Raichel.

Hoping that “the storm has past,” said Celkovnik, the radio station would like to go back to normal, with happier music.

“Next week is Tu B’Av,” he said, referring to the Israeli version of Valentine’s Day. “Hopefully we’ll play a full day of music about love.”

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