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Gilad Atzmon: “With true music I want to go back to those kinds of unique feelings of authenticity”


Silvia Cattori: Is your new album Song of the Metropolis different from previous projects?

Gilad Atzmon: To start with, I have been touring with the Orient House Ensemble for more than 12 years. Until now our music was an attempt to integrate the oriental sound into Jazz and vice versa. Song of the Metropolis album is a completely different project; it is an attempt to find the sound, the colors that remind us what home is all about.

In the last three decades we have been invaded by globalism, by big monopolies, those who tell us what car to drive, what music to listen to, what clothes to wear, and I am really tired of it all.

We have seen too many people who rather than exploring their authentic self, they for some reason prefer to identify with one sort of margin or another. They speak ‘as a Jew’, ‘as a black’, ‘as a gay’, ‘as a woman’, ‘as a musician’. Rather than thinking for themselves, they prefer to identify with something else. I really thought that music is the way to knock it down; to try to remind you of the colors that make you (as yourself) cry, make you feel, make you love, make you hate; every city in Europe has a bell, a unique bell. If you travel a thousand miles but suddenly you hear the bell of the church of your home town you feel like home, you are at home. That is what I try to do. I try to bring to light different bells. Look at us, I am here with you having breakfast in Thalwil [village in the German part of Switzerland], and everything we eat here is from here; and if I do a blind test when I am in America, you put Gruyere cheese on my plate it would feel for me like Switzerland.

I want to celebrate authenticity; not to be afraid of patriotism; not to be afraid of national feelings; to learn how to celebrate nationalism but not at the expense of anyone else. The problem that we have with nationalism is that many times in the past it has been celebrated on others. Zionism was celebrated at the expense of the Palestinians. Nazism was celebrated at the expense of the rest of Europe. But at the moment this is not unique to nationalism. Because when we look at liberal democracies such as America and Britain we see a clear repetition of the same pattern. They are clearly celebrating their symptoms at the expense of the entire Arab world.

With music and beauty I want to go back to that kind of unique feeling of authenticity. However, it is not very simple; I play a tune from Buenos Aires and I am not Argentinean. I play a tune from Berlin and I’m not German. I am under an imminent danger of becoming a Zelig. This in itself is a clear Jewish phobia that I have to deal with. I believe that my humor is there to rescue me when I surf too close to the wind. You witnessed it yesterday; people are really having a great time listening to this music. It is a lot of fun to watch.

In Germany a lot of people complained about my Berlin tune. They say: “How is it possible that you gave Argentina ten minutes and for us you give just two”. They say that it is kind of Germanism, they complain that I reduce Germany into a Weimar cabaret. And they are actually correct. For some this is how I connect with the ‘German sound’. Interestingly enough, the people who produced that type of Weimar Cabaret were largely Jewish. There must be a subconscious bond here that I myself fail to grasp yet. After all, I was a Jew for the first 30 years of my life.

Silvia Cattori: Last night’s the audience was so enthusiastic at the Thalwil Jazz club. Were you happy to play there?

Gilad Atzmon: It was really a positive experience. We started the European tour 5 days ago. There is nothing I hate more then touring Europe in the first days of the spring. After a long cold winter nobody wants to sit in a Club. I was really afraid when we started. In Frankfurt we didn’t have a big audience. But then in Vienna it was already very busy. Yesterday in Thalwil we were completely sold out.

We basically produce beauty by means of nostalgia. All my music is nostalgia; it is a cry to something that we lost, yet we still maintain a vivid memory of it. My music is that attempt to communicate with our lack. Intimacy is something I used to feel when I listened to music when I was young but now with TV, internet, we are all reduced into a herd of consciousness, we are expected to move en mass. The way around it is to identify with dwelling, with the soil we live on, with the fruits that grow around you, with the people who speak your language and love the music you happen to dance to. Now I am in Switzerland; so as I told you it is not a problem here because everything I eat, the cheese, the eggs, except the coffee, is from around here. In England you will sit for a dinner and nothing you put in your mouth would be from the land around you. In culture it is pretty much the same. I think that one of the reasons I am popular as you saw yesterday is because I remind people how to bond with themselves.

Silvia Cattori: So, cultural globalisation, music “industry”, are in your view the reasons why the young generation is less interested in jazz music than our generation?

Gilad Atzmon: Actually, there are a lot of reasons. This is a different discussion. One of the reasons we [The Orient House band] survive, and we do relatively well, is because our music appeals to a wider audience. In Vienna, for instance, the audience was quite mixed. Even yesterday at the Thalwil Jazz Club the audience was younger than the usual jazz panthers. But you are right, jazz, like many other styles of music, has been reduced into ashes because, the industry decided, for a very long time, what was right and what was wrong.

Thanks to the industry authentic English music pretty much disappeared. One of the reasons has something to do with the fact that London regards itself as a cultural globalisation Mecca. The music of London is supposed to appeal to people all over the world. So Robbie Williams and the Spice Girls are indeed British artists but their products seek a far wider appeal. The result: English folk has been annihilated. Only now it starts to come up because the industry is falling apart. Ten years ago I discussed this issue with a scholar of English folk, he told me “if you really want to listen to English folk music there is some smaller place in Upper State New York”. There are some remote regions in the USA where English folk has been maintained pretty much intact.

And when I visited Buenos Aires 10 years ago, I noticed that Tango artists were pretty old, 70 and more. Last week I noticed that the oldest Tango artist in Argentina is about 30. In the last 10 years they started again. They try to connect to the music; they had the crisis, they paid the price. They now try to re-launch their culture and celebrate their particularity exactly when it was stopped. Buenos Aires is maybe as big as New York. But every block you will find a massive book shop, music shop, record shop. In London we do not have a single record shop anymore; by the end of this year we may not see a single book shop. And those who still sell books are dedicating shelves to diet & cookery books, not exactly Kant or Heidegger.

Silvia Cattori: That means that the Montreux jazz festival no longer has any link with what it was when it started in the sixties; and that an authentic musician like you may no longer have a place in such exhibitions?

Gilad Atzmon: For sure. Montreux was a legendary revolutionary festival, it explored cutting edge music but it had to survive in a competitive world. At a certain stage, like many other festivals, it became a vehicle or shall we say an outlet for the industry. Now the good thing is that there won’t be a music industry in two or three years. So you know Montreux will have to find its way again and it is part of the cultural economy. However, I do not want to complain here, I am an artist; my job is to create a new voice, to re-invent myself. This is what I am doing for a living.

Some people asked me yesterday “Why do you come to Ulster [a Swiss village]. Why do you not play in Zurich”. In fact, I played in Zurich last year. This tour I am playing in Vienna, I am playing in Berlin, I am playing in Paris [April 24 and 25], I play in major music capitals. I can not be every time everywhere. But I am happy to play. Yesterday I played here in this small village; I even do not know where we are. But the place was full. And I am very happy. I could see people having a great time; I could see the band receiving a standing ovation; I am totally cheered.

I never ask festivals to host me; if a festival deems me fit, they know where to find me. I am probably at the moment, one of the busiest musicians in Europe. Why do I say that? Because I am playing every night; in the last six month I toured every continent. I am indeed problematic when it comes to my views; some people are offended by my writings (*). But when I see how I am sold in Europe, Japan, Latin America and the USA I am actually pleased. It reads like ‘Gilad Atzmon the philosopher Jazz artist comes to town’. I am pleased with it; it is a fair description of who I am and what I am.

Silvia Cattori: Many thanks dear Gilad Atzmon.

The Wandering Who? A Study Of Jewish Identity Politics and Jewish political interests..

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Silvia Cattori