ALMA ZO­HAR AC­CI­DEN­TAL SU­PER­STAR

Singer Alma Zo­har was warned she would alien­ate fans if she spoke out for asy­lum seek­ers. It didn’t stop her

The Jewish Chronicle - - Front Page - BY JESSICA ELGOT

ALMA ZO­HAR is Is­rael’s ac­ci­den­tal su­per­star. The singer-song­writer ac­ci­den­tally picked up a gui­tar, ac­ci­den­tally recorded an al­bum, ac­ci­den­tally topped the charts and swept the Is­raeli mu­sic awards, win­ning two BRIT award equiv­a­lents, and ac­ci­den­tally put the is­sue of refugees in Is­rael back on the po­lit­i­cal agenda. Or at least, that is how she tells it. “I came to mu­sic al­most too late. I was a car­pen­ter, I re­ally had noth­ing to do with mu­sic, but then I went through a per­sonal cri­sis. I had a work­shop with my hus­band. We made very fine hand­made fur­ni­ture but sold none; we got di­vorced and I found my­self with noth­ing.Ididn’tlis­ten­to­myJewish­motherandIhadn’t stud­ied. I went back to be­ing a waitress at 26.

“I didn’t know what to do. So I de­cided the best thing would be to fol­low my child­hood dream. I was at that pointin­mylife,to­be­hon­est,thatif my­dreamhad­been to climb Mount Ever­est, I would have started climb­ing. But I wanted to be a rock star.”

Now 34, Zo­har achieved huge sales with her de­but al­bum, Speak, in 2008 and sim­i­lar suc­cess with last year’s fol­low-up Thirty-three. This month, she will play her first ever gig abroad, at Lim­mud Fest.

Born in Jerusalem, she “ran away to the coun­try” aged 18, and now lives in on the coast, north of Tel Aviv. “I’m a coun­try girl at heart,” she says. “I can’t even park a car.”

She spent a few years as a child in Lon­don. “I went to Si­nai school in Hendon. I hated it. It was a cul­ture shock com­ing from Is­rael and get­ting used to Bri­tish men­tal­ity. I was so­cially lost.”

An avid globetrotter, her songs are in­spired by her trav­els to places like Uganda and Oman, and many draw on Jewish sym­bol­ism to raise po­lit­i­cal is­sues. In Out of Egypt, Zo­har draws a par­al­lel be­tween the bib­li­cal story of the ex­o­dus and the plight of mod­ern refugees.

As an older, po­lit­i­cally-in­spired artist, Zo­har as­sumed there was no place for her in the main­stream. “I knew some­gui­tar­chords­fromhigh­schooland­fellintoareg­gae crowd, dread-locked my hair and started writ­ing. I wasn’t very am­bi­tious, but then I met [mu­sic pro­ducer] As­saf Ayalon. I played him my silly songs and he said: ‘Lis­ten, this is go­ing to be huge — we have to make an al­bum’.

“It ex­ploded. But I was not ready for it, I couldn’t play or sing live. Sud­denly I had chart-top­ping ra­dio hits.”

Zo­har says she be­lieves it was this un­so­phis­ti­cated ap­proach which ap­pealed to mu­sic fans in Is­rael. “I wasn’t try­ing to be hip. I was very mod­est and hon­est and naïve. Peo­ple feel that the mu­sic in­dus­try to­day is soover­pro­duced,andtheysaythatwhatI’mdoingisn’t part of the busi­ness. I made the record by my­self with my friends and you can feel it.”

Fromthe­be­gin­ningof her­ca­reer,Zo­hartalked­about an is­sue close to her heart, the plight of asy­lum seek­ers and refugees in Is­rael. This de­spite the fact that she had been cau­tioned against be­ing po­lit­i­cal. “The Is­raeli mu­sic scene is re­ally, re­ally small so if you alien­ate half your lis­ten­ers, it’s the end. Your man­ager will ad­vise you not to speak about any­thing even re­motely con­tro­ver­sial; the vast ma­jor­ity of per­form­ers keep away from pol­i­tics.

“I’m very ac­tive with the refugee com­mu­nity — I was even be­fore the al­bum came out. But when I started be­ing in­ter­viewed in the press and I men­tioned it, I be­came the voice of the refugees.

“We are way be­hind the rest of the world, in the way we treat this whole is­sue. We have had gov­ern­ment min­is­ters talk­ing about dis­eases you can catch from for­eign­ers. And when they say ‘for­eign­ers’, they don’t mean Jews from Bri­tain. If a Bri­tish min­is­ter said this, they would have to re­sign, but there was noth­ing like that here.

“We feel we shouldn’t aid non-Jews. We think they will in­fil­trate and marry our daugh­ters. But we have 250,000 asy­lum seek­ers, and they can­not find work.”

Speak­ing out about such a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue has not been easy. “Some­times you get huge pop­u­lar sup­port for the trendy is­sues, like the econ­omy, which is what all the protests at the mo­ment are about. Some is­sues are very con­tro­ver­sial, and I have come un­der a lot of fire. But peo­ple can en­joy my mu­sic and still not agree with my causes and what I stand for.”

The dou­ble-edged mean­ings of her sub­tle He­brew lyrics are play­ing on her mind as she pre­pares to per­form for a non-Is­raeli au­di­ence. “This is my first time singing abroad, and it’s in­tim­i­dat­ing be­cause I’m a lyri­cist. I want peo­ple to hear what I’m singing.”

New lis­ten­ers should not be put off think­ing Zo­har’s songs are ex­clu­sively po­lit­i­cal. “The first al­bum is all bro­ken hearts,” she says. “The most suc­cess­ful track is called Ego Trip, about a fling I had with a very fa­mous Is­raeli singer, when I was a waitress. He took me home and threw me out three days later. The song is about the per­sonal heart­break — I thought we would be to­gether for­ever, like ev­ery other girl he ever picked up. But it also about the na­ture of celebrity, and putting some­one on a pedestal. I guess all my songs have a wider mean­ing.” Alma Zo­har will be per­form­ing at Lim­mud Fest from Au­gust 25-29. www.lim­mud.org/fest

Zo­har: un­der fire for be­ing po­lit­i­cal

PHOTO: EILAM GIL

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