“Artists are the best way to communicate” – an interview with Yvonne Kahan

Yvonne Kahan from Norway is the manager of the international booking agency Olamalé. We spoke with her at Babel Med 2013 where one of her artists, the Alaev Family was having a showcase. It was one of the most cheerful and energetic groups at the festival. The 80-year-old master drummer Allo Alaev who has deep roots in the music of Tajikistan and the Jewish music of Buchara, emigrated with the entire family to Israel in 1991. Under enthusiastic supervision of Allo Alaev, the younger generation in the multi-talented band makes true cross over from the old to the new. Kahan reveals the difficulties she encounters working with Israeli artists in the international field.

by Petr Dorůžka and Charlie Crooijmans

The Alaev Family played in Australia recently, right?

“Yes, the band played this year in WOMADelaide and New Zealand.”

Everything was planned, everything went smoothly, but later you learned that somebody tried to push them out?

““Yes, actually it was very interesting, because I had contact with the festival every day, before the festival, and during the festival as well, and nobody had told me anything about any boycotts for the Alaev Family. I actually learned it through googling , trying to find press documents on the concerts. I realized that there was a lot of pressure from some group trying to exclude the Alaev Family since they were partly supported by the Israeli government for flight tickets to Australia. I suppose it’s not a protest against the Alaev Family, but more the idea of the festival having someone performing from Israel. I learned it actually, through Australian newspapers on the internet.” (Green Left)

We heard from Dubi Lentz that artists get pressured when they are going to perform in Israel. Sometimes they decide not to come, sometimes they stand against the pressure. So in this case the organizers of the festival stood against the pressure.

“Yes, I do believe it’s a big difference for artists coming to Israel and Israeli musicians performing abroad. I completely respect the choice of the musician, he can choose wherever he wants to play. That is his personal opinion, political opinion. He or she is surely free to decide to come or not to come to Israel. But if he or she  has decided to play in Israel, and later is pressured, I think the artist is weak not to come. There have been many cases like that. For instance, I can remember Elvis Costello. A year ago he was supposed to perform in a huge amphi theatre in Israel and a week before his concert, he apparently was pressured and he cancelled the performance.  In my opinion , really bad.  If you have a strong political opinion and you want to boycott Israel, because you believe that is the way to peace- welcome.

In my opinion there is a huge difference to boycott Israeli artists abroad. I truly believe that Israel should not occupy any land. I truly believe that there should be a Palestinian state. And we should do everything for the states to create peace. To create peace you have to talk to each other, you can not exclude each other. The Arts, music in particular and performances is the best way to communicate and to express. We have so many great examples of that. Especially festivals like WOMAD, which whole existence is based upon building bridges between people. It is the feeling of utopia when you meet all these different artists. And mostly – 20 years of working in the world music business – most of the artists who connect in these festivals, are Israeli and Arabs together, more than Israelis with Scandinavians. Always you will see Muslims and Israeli together, because they have so many common roots. Only look at the language, how similar that is.

If an Israeli artist, music performer, in my opinion, writer, author, or academics, music, dance, all kinds of expression, is boycotted , it would be a kind of cutting off – freedom of speech. If I choose not to buy tooth paste which is produced in the occupied territories – I choose not to buy things from there because I don’t think it’s right! – that’s different, but if you choose to boycott an artist you are cutting of also the artist only channel to express himself.  So that is something I don’t agree with in general, for all.”

Do you have any information about the pressure groups?

“I didn’t really do a big research about it, and it’s even not clear where the protesters come from. There were no protesters physicaly at the festival or at the concert. It was only on the internet and in the newspapers. The world is so small and it could even have been that those people who did the protest they don’t even live in Australia. They could just look up where there was a festival supported by Israeli government. What was most scary was that their statement was not only an anti Israeli statement, it was clearly also an anti Semitic statement. It was actually like Zion’s Protocols. The boycotters were claiming that the Israeli state is trying to control the world by supporting Israeli artists everywhere in the world. Far out and scary at the same time. I can not accepts this kind of protest to be honest.”

You have been working with so many Israeli artists, did you experience any other case?

“Yes, many cases, sadly. I had experiences in France where I even had a big group of Israeli Bedouin musicians from the Negev in Israel together with a Jewish Israeli artist, Yair Dalal. We were invited to a festival and the only way they could get us to the festival was with a financial support from the government. But the festival decided that they didn’t want to get this governmental support so they canceled their invitation.”

Have you ever been threatened?

“No, we only had some unpleasant moments from radical groups. But mainly, I have to stress this, those were never Palestinians, those were Europeans born in Europe who support the Palestinian case. So that is also something I want you to think of. I think that was also the case of this last boycott. The manager of WOMADelaide answered so beautifully to this group of boycotters in the Australian press. “Womadelaide is a cultural festival, it’s not a political platform to argue about political issues of the day,” Mr Scobie said.

Another boycott happened in a series of music in Vienna Concert hall for Oriental Music, the Alaev Family and other Arab musicians were invited to play in this series that was going on for some months. I learned that an Arabic music group,  I don’t know their names, denied to play in the same series because the Alaev Family was supported by one flight ticket from the Israeli government. The artistic director told them, “Well this is actually your own problem if you do not accept the Alaev family”. So they didn’t get into that pressure. I know that obviously there are many more Arab musicians than Jewish. So that was again a brave decision from the producer.”

So the best thing is just to ignore?

“Yes, I think so. If one really wants to open political discussions than there is no ending of it we wouldn’t have any musicians left, I think. Should we also boycott all China? They also occupy Tibet? From what I can see is that, I don’t know many artists from Israel who do not have the message of peace. Maybe there are, I don’t know them, most probably they will not be invited to perform. So I guess in that sense, if you are inviting Israeli artists and maybe you are even encountering him or her with somebody else, which is happening all the time, please use that platform to create peace. Not exclude it. I think the only way is dialogue, so if you do a cultural – academix boycott  for simple people or musical groups, with free ideas, it is not like boycotting a country. It will maybe create just more hate. I want to mention that any of the most critical films towards the Israeli regime are supported by the Israeli government. This is still a democratic right we have in Israel, which most of our neighboring countries do not know of.”