“I can understand the boycott on Israel, but you have to play fair” – an interview with Dubi Lenz

Marseille – At Babel Med Music, held in March 2013, News & Noise spoke with Dubi Lenz, broadcaster, artistic director of the Red Sea Jazz Festival, and man of many other virtues. Lenz would rather not politicize music, but as the pressure on artists who want to play in Israel is increasing, there is no way to keep out of the discussion. Instead, he prefers to think of building bridges and tries to show that music can be a peacemaker. How does Lenz deal with artists who hesitate to come to Israel and is it possible for Israeli artists to perform in Muslim countries. The interview reflects some interesting thoughts and new insights.

by Charlie Crooijmans and Petr Dorůžka

Last year we posted an article on News & Noise about artists who are boycotting Israel. Are you personally confronted with this?

“Yes, at my last winter festival we had Yuri Honing, he got really pressured, but he came! The problem is like this: when I approach an artist and at the moment I put his/her name on the site, he/she will get all the pressure in the world through Facebook and Twitter. “There are artists, they say, “yes we are coming, of course”. But last festival I had a story with Stanley Jordan and he even got paid. Less then a week before the festival started, he said he is not coming, because he can’t stand the pressure, he is afraid. Although he had many Israeli musicians that played with him, they phoned him: “don’t be afraid to come”. He was afraid that somebody would blow his head off, I don’t know. Anyhow, I think that artists have the right to have a political opinion, but when we approach you, say it, say it in the beginning! I don’t think musicians are so dumb, that they see the light two days before the festival. If they are not acquainted with what is happening in the Middle East, so they are not. Cassandra Wilson, got paid, not in my festival, but in another concert, just one day before she said, “we are not coming”. This is not the way!”

Did you get the money back?

“Yes, we got the money back, that’s not the point. I am very good in finding substitutes. One journalist wrote that the substitution was much better than the original. I don’t know if it’s a compliment or not (chuckles)”

Do you tend not to mention the artists on your site, out of protection?

“What we started to do this year, is to speak to the artist we are approaching, “Look, as soon as we put your name on our site, you will start to get all kind of mails, so you have to tell me now, if you think that you are not sure, tell it now and we won’t discuss it anymore”. But it is really unfair, unethical. Who are you to speak about fairness and ethical. Because I know that Erik Truffaz got pressured. He wanted to know if the festival is subsidized by the government and if the government uses this festival to make propaganda. I told him, “Yes, we are subsidized by the Ministry of Tourism in Israel. But this festival is the last place where they can do propaganda”. And I told him, “Who are you punishing, who is coming to the Jazz festival? Mostly people from the left wing, that think the same thing you are thinking”. If I would be a musician outside of Israel, maybe I would boycott Israel as well. I can understand the boycott on Israel. But you have to play fair. So he arrived! Then I have the French pianist, Jacky Terrasson, who was also a substitute, he heard that Erik Truffaz is not coming, “ I am not coming as well”. It’s not a kindergarten, my God! So it is really a problem. Look, Paul Simon was accused when he went to South Africa on those days of boycotting. I really believe that music is something very positive in our world and you can use it to express you opinions. I am telling the artists, if you have a political opinion, say it on stage! Come and say it, it is much more effective than boycotting.”

Did anybody ever express any opinion on stage?

“No! And all those sites, all these organizations is done by Israelis. All these people who are calling for boycotting, are from Israel. Yes, BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) is Israeli, the head of BDS. And that is the last thing I can understand. Self-hatred? You don’t need to have enemies if you have such friends. And really this world is full with hatred. So from your family?”

Is the BDS connected to some political movement?

“I didn’t get really into it, but is a wonderful mail that Christophe Deghelt, the manager of Jacky Terrasson, wrote as an answer to BDS, wonderful, really Chapeau!”

You can read the letter in French here, and the reaction on the letter, in English, is here.

If you look back the past 5 years, is the pressure going up?

“Yes of course, the pressure is now in the last 2, 3 years.”

Does the BDS have an Israeli/ Hebrew name?

“No, they don’t have a Hebrew name, I know that they have a lot of assistance from South Africa, because it was an Apartheid country and they knew what they are talking about.”

So it’s the same people who criticized Paul Simon?

“Yes, well maybe not, because they were still very young.”

How many artists went under this pressure?

“All the foreign artists are. Even if they don’t know the name they put pressure on the person. You see, there are many artists who are no member of this organization, but they are fighting against those who are coming to Israel. Like John McLaughlin is really pressuring all his friends not to come to Israel. I know that a friend invited Zakir Hussein to his festival, I told him “Forget about it he won’t come”. “Oh, but he is my friend we played together many years”. “You don’t know what you say, he won’t come.” I am sure that John McLaughlin was one of the persons who said “What are you doing?”. So he just cancelled. But he has a case. Me instead of him I wouldn’t say yes, because he is a Muslim. He has all the cases to say “No not now, I do it another time”.

“Look, I had many talks with Souad Massi of her coming many years ago, 2004 it was. And she wants very much to perform in Israel, she was in Ramallah performing, we already had a date to Israel, to Tel Aviv. She said that the musicians didn’t want to come. I can understand that. “I am not coming till there is peace”. I can even understand Chico Buarque that said “we are waiting”.

How is it like for Arabic artists to perform in Israel?

“I got a Facebook message that Dhafer Youssef is performing in Haifa, a big city in Israel. And it was like hash, hash incognito but he played in a venue of 2500 seats, you know, in the congress centre of Haifa. It was organized by the Israeli Arabs and it was just for an Arabic audience. So he played with Trio Joubran. I phoned and I started to inquire who is producing this concert, because I like Dhafer Youssef very much I played him a lot in my radio show, so I asked, “Can I buy a ticket as an Israeli Jew?” They said, no you can’t buy a ticket, but we will invite you, if you want, to sit in the first row with all the Arabic journalists. I don’t have any problem with that. So it was a wonderful concert and Dhafer wants very much to come, you know. The same with Ibrahim Maalouf. When he was a newcomer we started to communicate through Facebook and we became very good friends. He would like to come but he has family in Beirut, he couldn’t come. He was laughing that, after his concert at the Womex me and Gil, another radio guy from Israel, we were the first to come and congratulate him after the concert. He said, “Look at this world that two Israeli come to congratulate me”. And he really wants to come, but not everything is possible.”

“In my first winter edition of the Red Sea Jazz festival in 2011 I had two Egyptian brothers musicians playing with two Israeli brothers musicians in a concert, and I named it “brothers for brotherhood”. As the festival is on the border between Egypt and Israel I wanted to make a statement beyond the message of music and it was a big success. I don’t think that the message of peace and harmony through music should scare the musicians, on the contrary!!!”

Are there any plans to bring the El Gusto ensemble?

“I didn’t consider it yet, but you never know. This was like this guy from Gnawa Diffusion. I played them a lot in my radio show. “Do they have all French passports?”, he said “Yes, no, this guy has an Algerian passport”. Forget it. The security in Israel are making all the artists so much troubles, going in and going out, even if you are not Arabic and don’t have an Arabic name. Sometimes they are coming with letters from the festival. We sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot.”

How is it for an Israeli artist, like Yasmin Levy, to perform in a Muslim country, like Turkey?

“Oh, Turkey is no problem. We have relations with Turkey. Bad relations, but we have relations with Turkey. Yasmin Levi is such a star in Istanbul. She is a wonderful example of an artist that people don’t mind what her religion is. But we have another example in Istanbul, of Orphaned Land. Orphaned Land is a heavy metal Israeli band. Their lyrics are based on Jewish prayers from the bible and they mix a lot of oriental music in this heavy metal. And it’s peculiar. I was in Oslo, in the meeting of EBU, there was a young guy giving a lecture about heavy metal groups all over the world. And I heard this band for the first time in this lecture of Oslo. And they are performing every couple of months in Istanbul because they have thousands of followers, Syrians, Lebanese, coming from all the Arab countries. There is a documentary about it. Thousand of people singing in Hebrew or even in English, really. So music doesn’t have any borders.”

Are there any other Arabian or Muslim countries easy on Israeli artists?

“Israeli artists are performing in the festival of Fez (Morocco). No, not in Algeria. Egypt could be. Some Israeli pop artists, what we call Oriental Music Pop, that are very famous outside of Israel. But now people are hesitating to perform outside of Israel in those countries. I can imagine. But really when I started with the World Music festival, I had always collaborations with Palestinian and Israeli musicians, which with the years has disappeared. The musicians, the Palestinians are willing to come and play in your home with Israeli musicians, but they don’t want to find their name on the billboard because for their community they are treated like collaborators. So I can understand that.”

“But look, I did once, I was working in the Israeli National Radio, but there too, one of them belongs to the Israeli military radio, which is the most liberal radio in Israel. It was founded with the State of Israel because Ben-Gurion said he want to have a station that will teach the newcomers, the language etc. Now it is the most popular station in Israel and the only one who plays Palestinian music, in talk shows, we have a lot of, it’s very difficult to explain to people. Because they say, “military radio is Good Morning Vietnam. It’s not, not at all! I made once a project with an Israeli singer, very famous, David Broza and Sabreen, which is a Palestinian Rock group. They made a song, it’s called In My Heart, they sang in Hebrew, in Arabic and in English, and there was a Jewish and a Palestinian children choir, everything to squeeze out some teardrops. But anyhow, when the song was finished, we sent it to the radio station in Gaza. The broadcaster in Gaza got the cd and we spoke about how music can bring peace etc, all this nonsense, and then at the same second we started to play the song from there, from Gaza and the Israeli military radio station. So you have to be really naive, despite all the things I said before, that that music will bring peace. But small steps…”

2 thoughts on ““I can understand the boycott on Israel, but you have to play fair” – an interview with Dubi Lenz

  1. I wish I could understand when Lenz said “I can undrstand..”. Its really hard to comment on the inverview. And the last words, “small steps” make me more pessimistic, all we need big steps for peace. so we need to be more politicize, take more responsibility, bla bla bla. of course music is a power, and can be used to legitimate the “things” we dont like.
    its time to listen “had gadia”. good luck lenz. congrulations charlie.

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