Avital Raz: a singer/songwriter and theatre-maker taking on controversial topics and challenging audience expectations
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“I like to talk about uncomfortable things. I like bringing up taboos and making people think and question them…I’m hoping that, by doing [this], it will make people feel a bit more comfortable to open up…it will make things a bit more textured”.
Avital is a singer/songwriter and theatre maker based in the North West of England. She was born in Israel to US parents and has lived in several places, including Washington DC, USA, Varanasi, India, and Berlin, Germany. Her music combines a variety of influences from her journey, including American folk music, blues, psychedelic folk, art pop, Jewish melodies and Indian classical ragas, and, like her avant-garde theatre, her songs reflect on controversial topics and social taboos, from sexuality to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The politics in her performances is rooted in the personal and she has made several documentaries exploring the links between her music and theatre and her life experiences. She has faced criticism, hostility and even death threats for offering her own unique voice but, as a resilient creative artist, this has not stopped her from following her own path and speaking, or singing, out about her beliefs and experiences.
Avital’s Musical Life Story
Avital was born in West Jerusalem. Her parents had lived in Israel for a long time, after growing up in the USA. Avital began singing at a young age and, by 13 years old, she had started classical training and performing with a children’s choir.
“My mother, her father was a rabbi. They moved around a lot and the last place she went to high school in was Mississippi. Their synagogue was bombed, actually. She moved to Israel when she was 18 and she has been there ever since. And my father, his mother was a Holocaust survivor from Poland and his father was in the American army and they met in a DP [Displaced Persons] camp after World War Two. Basically, she agreed to marry him on the condition that they move to Israel. So they did, in the 1940s. My dad was born there but then they didn’t really cope and they ended up moving back to America, where he had family. But he also moved back to Israel when he was 17. My parents have been in Israel for a long time, but they’re basically American”.
“I sang in a children’s choir that sang mostly classical music from the age of eight. We performed and we would go on tour every year in Europe, it was kind of a big deal at that age!”.
Avital went on to study a degree in voice and composition in Jerusalem and, at the same time, she attended the School of Visual Theatre, where she discovered ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ theatre. However, an unfortunate performing experience that ended in injury not only put Avital out of action temporarily but put her off theatre for a long time.
“I actually did a very elaborate performance and I injured my knee and I couldn’t walk for six months…The injury was a bit of a traumatic thing that happened. Really stupidly, I was doing some sort of dance where I kept falling on my knees and I suddenly couldn’t get up. The school I was in, they encouraged you to do kind of ‘edgy’ type things, which was great, but I was a bit young – I was the youngest in the school – so I didn’t really know how to look after myself. So, I gave up on [theatre] for about 20 years”.
Avital’s attention shifted to music and she became an active performer. In one project, she worked with three other musicians to develop a performance using instruments as described in Biblical text.
“I worked with these three very, very good musicians. One of them was this kind of rock musician and he came up with this idea to build instruments based on the description of instruments in the Bible. He built them and we had a whole performance that we made with these instruments. We did that basically because that was something that could be funded, [because] it had a Jewish theme. We did that for about four years. We performed in in Jerusalem many, many times, we performed it all over the country and we went to Holland twice to a Jewish Music Festival to do it. I really enjoyed the music, I enjoyed the instruments”.
After finishing her studies, Avital was determined to leave Israel, a place with which she has a ‘complicated’ relationship. She moved to Varanasi, India, to follow a desire to learn the art of dhrupad. Drawing inspiration from her new locale and her own interests, she composed an album of songs which set James Joyce poems to raag frameworks.
“I shifted to India, where I lived for six years and studied dhrupad singing, which is the oldest form of Hindustani classical music. While I was in India, I started writing my own songs. I recorded an album – it was a strange combination – it was James Joyce poetry, composed in raag with Indian musicians. My teacher in India gave me some criticism – he called it ‘confusion’. He believes in the purity of the classical form and he doesn’t see the reason to do anything else…At the time, I couldn’t [release] it because James Joyce’s grandson was in charge of the copyright and he said no. So I had to wait seven years to release it, which [felt] pretty biblical at the time!”.
Avital reluctantly returned to Israel due to illness and she recounts feeling disillusioned by religion, writing ‘Bored Lord’ (see below) to express this. After three years, she found herself again ‘looking for a way out of Israel’, and this time she moved to Berlin. However, she found the historical resonances, as well as the cold winters, a difficult environment in which to nurture her creative output.
“You can get an artist visa in Berlin quite easily and it was easy to book gigs. At the time, my partner had a sister who had an apartment that was free, because she took a job somewhere else, so we had a place to live. But I didn’t really connect that well to Germany. It was the freezing winter. And also, I guess, my family background made it all a bit too much. I had too many associations with World War Two stuff that made it all weird for me. Also, every time I tried to speak German, it would come out as Hindi. I couldn’t get another language in there!”.
After one year in Berlin, Avital moved to the UK. She had always had a love for British folk music, citing Pentangle as a longstanding musical influence, and she had romantic ideas of England as a land of art, poetry and intellectualism. She moved first to Wigan, staying with a musician friend who was based there, and she subsequently went on to live and work in Manchester, Preston, Lancaster and Sheffield.
“To be honest, what motivated me [to move to the UK] was again wanting to not live in Israel. But I’ve always been influenced by British folk, in my kind of melodies and guitar parts. I did listen to that before I came to the UK – Bert Jansch and Pentangle – I think that is part of what may have brought me here…I always felt like, when I sang classical music, the music and the poetry I loved most was from this part of the world…I also kind of had a bit of a naive love of England. There is this idea that everyone in England is really intelligent…and, it’s a generalisation, but it’s the particular kind of awkwardness that people have here I think suits my personality”.
Avital has given performances all over the country and she has also been a member of world fusion collective Rafiki Jazz. She brought her passion for Hindustani music and her knowledge of traditional Jewish melodies to the ensemble, sometimes combining the two by setting Hebrew texts in raag compositions. Since being based in the UK, she re-discovered her love for theatre, returning to performing and creating shows in this context. She won residencies in Lancaster and Manchester to develop her main show, My Jerusalem, and she has also collaborated in projects with Word of Warning, Contact Theatre and Stun Theatre as well as the Manchester Jewish Museum.
“I got a residency in Lancaster to develop a song I wrote, ‘The Edinburgh Surprise’ – it describes a one night stand between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man – into a show. For the past two years, I’ve been doing a one woman show that is basically that song, dissected into little bits, with stories about growing up in Israel between it. I always wanted to come back to theatre, but I sort of lost my nerve and then I ended up doing other things, but it’s really nice to come full circle”.
Now, Avital is battling through the pandemic in full creative mode; she is working on a new show and a new album, which she is recording and mixing herself from her home. She plans to continue to use her music and theatre to tackle her own personal politics while also challenging audiences and making people think.
The Meanings of Avital’s Music
Avital identifies several purposes for her performances, including storytelling and reflecting on social and political issues. In many of her songs and her theatre pieces, these different purposes are intertwined; Avital’s own stories and experiences, from heartbreak to boredom, are mixed with artistic devices and political and theological references. This taps into a lineage of American folk artists including Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, who she describes as her ‘three rabbis’, as well as the work of leftist Israeli singer/songwriters, like Chava Alberstein. Avital sang one of Alberstein’s songs, ‘Chad Gadya’, with Rafiki Jazz and also used it in one of her theatre performances. She is not one to shy away from controversial topics or social taboos, and her own website bears the tagline ‘Making people uncomfortable since 1996’, but an important aspect of her creativity is that her political statements are neither abstract nor idealistic; they are grounded in her own deeply personal reflections. In relation to this, Avital describes performance as a kind of ‘personal therapy’, both for her and potentially her listeners too.
“I guess I like to talk about uncomfortable things. I’ve been struggling with the idea that sometimes maybe I’m too personal, especially in my show. Someone said that it seemed a bit sort of self-therapeutic. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and wondering if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, and then I actually answered myself and said ‘I’m happy to see people heal themselves on stage’. I hope that, if I can bring out quite profound, painful things, maybe it will touch someone on a deep level and maybe it will make a connection on a deeper level…The next show I’m working on now is all about infertility, which is quite an uncomfortable subject for a lot of people. I’ve had five years of numerous miscarriages and fertility treatments and all kinds of things. It’s a very lonely thing, really. I’m hoping that, by doing a show about it, it will make people feel a bit more comfortable to open up about it. I guess I like bringing up taboos [because I like to] make people think and question them, [to] make things a bit more textured”. “When I imagine people listening to my music, I imagine like one person alone in bed with the lights out listening to it. Other people have festival music and music that can be danced to, but I like having this individual connection”.
However, her radical artistry and political engagements have not come without difficulties. In all of the places she has lived, she has felt compelled to comment on Israel, leaving her feeling somewhat essentialised by her nationality and ethnicity, and, in many places, she has also experienced a great deal of discrimination and prejudice on the basis of her gender.
“Just being an Israeli, whether I like it or not, people interpret things I say as political. I kept getting people making assumptions about me, [that’s why] I wrote ‘The Edinburgh Surprise’, to explain my position. I’d like to be more political in general, not just about Israeli things. I do feel like I’m forced to talk about it. For instance, once when I performed in Berlin, this young woman came up to me and said: ‘How can you live with yourself, being an Israeli?’. I was like: ‘You’re asking me this as a German?!’. She said: ‘You’re the Nazis now!’. So, this forces me to come up with a response, because, even in this country [the UK], you don’t hear much from the Israeli left, you always hear about the right. Even in Israel, a lot of my family and friends are very critical of what’s happening there. So, I wanted to show that that exists as well. You can love something and be very critical of it at the same time”. “In Israel, we attracted a religious audience to [our performances using instruments as described in Biblical text] and every single time someone used to say to me ‘But you know that, in the time of the Temple, women would not sing in public?’. So I would always say something like ‘Well, when the Third Temple is built I’m sure women will sing there!’…In India, I didn’t even try to perform, because Varanasi is very, very traditional and it felt like a place that I couldn’t, as a woman, really express the kind of performance I wanted to make”.
Music and Theatre in Manchester
Avital suggests that, in the UK and particularly in Manchester, she felt somewhat liberated from the barriers she had faced in previous places. She reflects that she has felt welcome, at home and supported in the city.
“I’ve worked more in Manchester than any other place in the UK. There were a lot of great musicians, I went to a lot of gigs, there was a lot on. It’s just an inspiring place. When I write a song, I kind of have in mind who I’m going to sing it to and what they can get from it. I think if I had stayed in Israel, I probably would have been much less daring because I couldn’t afford to be as outspoken as I can here. This is one of the things I love about being here in the UK – I can do what I want and say what I want…I’ve even gotten money from the Arts Council to do my shows, there’s no censorship, and that’s great…I feel like that’s given me a huge amount of freedom, because I know I’m not gonna put myself in danger”.
She also points out that the diversity of musicians in Manchester has made an impression on her music and theatre. With artists from many different places, she has been able to have conversations and engage in collaborations that she suggests would not have been possible before.
“The people [I met in Manchester] influenced me. For example, I met an oud player called Mina Salama. He was in Rafiki Jazz with me. He’s Egyptian and he’s playing with me on a bunch of songs on my album. The people that I’ve been able to work with here, it’s very much because of being in the UK. He’s Egyptian and I’ve also met a lot of Palestinians and Muslims in general and we’ve made connections and music together. I never [would have known] any in Israel, because it’s very segregated. You’re not encouraged to trust each other or make friends”.
“I belong to a BAME theatre collective, based in Manchester, and I’ve just recently done a short piece of live art, called ‘A woman’s voice is her nakedness’. It was referring to a some rabbinical decree from the 10th century that compared a woman’s voice to other ‘exposed’ parts of her body that she shouldn’t expose and that’s why women shouldn’t sing in public…So I did this piece using a loop station and I just started my voice with a pitch bender and I had all these things that I said in a very low voice that sounded like a man’s voice and then things that sounded like a little girl and then a bit of singing in the middle…The interesting thing is I asked [other people in the collective] if they can relate to it, and it was interesting to hear that other people from other backgrounds could definitely relate”.
‘You Are My Jerusalem’ (see video)
This song, composed, recorded and mixed by Avital, tells the story of a past breakup while also reflecting on her complicated relationship with the city in which she was born. It describes the person/city as a ‘crazy ex-lover’ and insists that she has ‘tried to love [them] both for years’. A moment in the music video shows the smashing of a glass, referencing a Jewish wedding tradition that remembers the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem while simultaneously symbolising the destruction of her past relationship.
“I actually wrote that song about a person, so it’s about Jerusalem but it’s not about Jerusalem. It’s [about] having the last word! I guess it’s a bit of a love/hate relationship [with Jerusalem], similar to the actual relationship that I was writing about – being very attached to someone that you know is bad for you….So having this feeling like you have to go away, but maybe you’re making the worst mistake of your life, but you have to go away anyway”.
The song also features Hebrew quotations from the Book of Psalms that speak about ‘longing’ for Jerusalem, which Avital indicates are used both genuinely and ironically.
“I’ve always felt like, when I’m [in Jerusalem], I don’t want to be there and I feel very suffocated being there. But then, when I’m not there, I have this longing and this feeling of not being quite at home anywhere else. But I’m not at home there either! I guess Jerusalem is kind of symbolically like that – it’s like the home that will never be, it’s not the physical place, it’s an emotional state”.
‘Bored Lord’ (see audio)
In this song, Avital sings of her disillusionment with religion, particularly in an Israeli context but also to some extent influenced by her experiences in Varanasi. It confesses that she is bored of praying, giving thanks, scriptures, holy men/women and seeking holiness, all prescriptions within Orthodox Judaism. It takes aim at religious hypocrisy, particularly messages of peace juxtaposed against state violence, or ‘turning ploughshares into swords’. It muses: ‘It is Your Holy Sabbath, Lord/The Angels of Peace have been summoned, Lord/The candles burn, the bread is, and the holy wine is poured/But I can’t find my Lord’.
“I wrote that when I was in Israel, after my time in India. It was when there was a very big airstrike on Gaza. At the time, there were a lot of religious fanatics that were trying to justify killing Palestinians. I really didn’t want to be there…I was fresh out of six years in India as well and I left India with a bit of a sarcastic kind of cynicism…I like to joke that both of the cities I lived in, Jerusalem and Varanasi, they both have syndromes named after them. Jerusalem syndrome is when [someone] comes there and feels that that God has spoken to them and they start preaching. Varanasi syndrome is when Shiva has zapped you and you suddenly renounce all worldly possessions…I’ve spent most of my life in these two places with an enormous amount of religious zeal…and, at this time, I was really like thinking that it’s all about making money and it’s all kind of one big lie”.
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Avital Raz: a singer/songwriter and theatre-maker taking on controversial topics and challenging audience expectations
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