It's to her credit that Israeli-born composer and double bassist Daphna Sadeh has embraced the vibrant multi-culturalism of the great melting pot of Israel to be the defining character of her music. Her exile is less political than driven by more basic human needs, and her openness to all cultures and a brighter future shines through the beautiful music she creates with The Voyagers.
Now based in the UK, this most original of bass players has led The Voyagers since 2003 and is now touring to promote the release of Reconciliation (2009), the group's third release and first for John Zorn's Tzadik label. It is a fascinating musical blend of all the cultures that have helped shape the modern Israeli identity. The title of the album, as Sadeh explains, stems from her belief in the power of music.
All About Jazz: Tell us about your background.
Daphna Sadeh Neu: I was born in Israel and grew up there. I started studying music seriously at the end of my teenage years but before that the last thing I thought I would be, really the last thing I thought I would be, would be a musician. It's funny how life can surprise you, but I thought I'd be a visual artist or a graphic designer but definitely not a musician.
AAJ: A lot of the music on Reconciliation sounds kind of cinematic, particularly the wonderful opening track "Queen of Sheeba"; like the soundtrack to an Emir Kusturica feel-good film, set in Jerusalem. Are you very visual in your mind when you compose?
DSN: Well, you have good ears I have to tell you; [Goran] Bregovic (who has scored several Kusturica films) is really one of my favorite composers. Yes, I am very visual but also when I compose music I try not to think, basically. Sometimes I just start with an idea. It depends, sometimes I sit at the piano and it can come out in five minutes. The piece "Reconciliation" I composed in just five minutes, but this is the exception as usually it takes me a long time.
I try to think of a picture I would like to bring, or a mood I would like to describe. When I say mood, it could also be a philosophical idea or thought. Maybe that's the visual artistic side of me coming out in the music.
AAJ: Talking about the mood of the music, Reconciliation seems to be positive, quite joyous and a little bit surprisingly as there is very little in the way of melancholy, which is quite typical in a lot of Middle Eastern music and Eastern European Jewish music. Do you tend to shy away from melancholy?
DSN: I think it's a matter of approach to life really. For me, the easiest thing to do is to compose melancholic pieces, perhaps not in my nature but in my ability.
But what I'm trying to do on some of the CDs is to bring a different approach. "Kadish" is a very melancholy piece; I don't know what you thought about that.
AAJ: Yes, it's slightly melancholic, but not in the way Rabih Abou-Khalil can be melancholic, that melancholy that makes you want to cry.
DSN: Yeah, maybe not on this CD but if you visit my Website and listen to Out of Border (Independent, 2002) you could hear it much more. It's not melancholic because I'm not a melancholic person but it is kind of thoughtful.
AAJ: Were you born into a musical family?
DSN: Not at all. Really, I am the first musician in my family for generations as far as I know.
AAJ: So how did you come to unite with the bass guitar?
DSN: I played music as a child but it was so unsuccessful, so traumatic, you know, the wrong teachers, and everything was wrong for me. At the end of my teenage years I had this very strong urge to be around art, in an artistic environment, and then I started meeting people who were musicians and I started playing percussion first of all and I still love percussion.
One day I saw a bass guitar and I thought, "wow, that's a sound I like." So I started as a bass guitarist and three months after I started studying I was on stage already.
And then everything happened really quickly. A few months after I was on stage, I saw a double bass which wasn't really a familiar instrument. I mean I knew what it was but I had never seen one live. Immediately I hooked into that and very quickly after that, I was in New York studying music.
AAJ: So it was love at first sight when you saw the double bass then?
DSN: Yes, it went really quickly.
AAJ: Before you went to New York what sort of music were you exposed to growing up in Israel?
DSN: Basically everything. For me, eclectic music is a very natural state of mind; that's how I grew up and I'm not he only one. I think it's true of Israelis in general. Some of them come from European countries; my father was born in Germany, so my background is very European. When you grow up in Israel you hear lots of Arabic music and you hear Jewish music from the diasporait's so natural.
AAJ: What kind of contact did you have with Arabic music?
DSN: I had very close contact. I used to work for quite a few years with a group of Arab-Israeli musicians, Christian Arabs from the north of Israel whose families are originally from Lebanon. It was a group of six Arab men and although they were very open-minded, I think it was the first time they had ever played with a woman musician. I'm not talking about vocalists, that's a different story.
They were looking for a double bassist and I went and met them and there was an immediate chemistry between us and we played their repertoire, it was more Lebanese music. The music was mainly song but some was instrumental and we played quarter notes. I had learned it before in Israel but with them it was very practical. I learned it through practice.
1:r: Daphna Sadeh, Stewart Curtis, Eddie Hession, Nim Schwartz, Ronen Kozokaro, Nawroz Oramari
AAJ: Did you play many concerts around the country?
DSN: Yes, mainly in Israel, and I even recorded a CD with them. One of them was a guest of the Voyagers in London when we gave a performance in the Purcell Room.
AAJ: Was this the East-West Ensemble?
DSN: No, that was an Israeli group which actually also had Jewish musicians who came as new immigrants to Israel from Tajikistan and they joined the East-West Ensemble. They played a percussion instrument called doira; it looks like a frame drum but they were magicians with it, a father and two sons, one of whom also played accordion and sang as well. So that was a different group.
AAJ: It seems terribly ironic that Israel, which is one of the most multi-cultural countries on the face of the Earth should also be one of the most divided. Are there any projects to bring together Palestinian and Israeli musicians that you are aware of?
DSN: Well, I wouldn't say Palestiniansyou know sometimes the Arab-Israelis call themselves Palestinians, that's why I called my previous CD Walking the Thin Line (33 Record, 2007) because there is a very thin line all the time. It doesn't exist here in the UK; on the contrary, sometimes I was rejected by venues where the owners were Middle Eastern. They wouldn't let me perform there because I'm Israeli. And I'm a very left-wing person.
But in Israel there are lots of musical collaborations between, if you want to call them Palestinians, and Israelis, but not Palestinians from Gaza. It used to be like that but not now.
AAJ: Do you think improvisational concerts between Palestinians (living on the West Bank) and Israelis would be possible or would it be too politically charged?
DSN: They wouldn't let it happen now, unfortunately. I have to tell you that one of the reasons I'm not in Israel right now is because I have a feeling that unfortunately things are not really possible right now and I just didn't want to be part of this cycle of violence.
We have a friend in Gaza who basically we support. We've sent him money. It's someone we've known for years when he was in Tel Aviv but now he can't go there. There are collaborations, but not really with Palestinians because you can't really do much now. It is my hope that it will change.
AAJ: This is maybe a good time to talk about the title of your new album, Reconciliation; would you like to talk a little about where that title comes from?
DSN: Reconciliation is not only political; if people were more at peace with themselves then the ability to create peace around them would be much greater. I think in general reconciliation is something which the world needs a bit, and not only between Israelis and Palestinians.
AAJ: Do you think music has that power to reconcile?
DSN: Yes, very much. I think music has the power...maybe that's one of the reasons on this CD I didn't want to compose melancholic music which you referred to. Although it's part of human emotions, I've been in too many situations where it was really sad and I wanted to bring the other side of the coin, at least on this CD.
I do think music can make people connect to themselves and of course to make more dialogue between people. Can you imagine the world without music? It's not possible.
AAJ: What prompted you to go to New York?
DSN: Well, I didn't want to study in Israel. At first I had thought of going to Europe, but sometimes you plan something and something else happens and that's exactly what happened. I really wanted to go to Europe but found myself studying in New York, and I'm happy that that's how it happened.
AAJ: That could almost be most people's autobiography title: "I found myself here."
DSN: [laughs] Yeah, it's exactly like that. I think this is maybe the reason that I came back to Europe now. I thought that music making for me could be very good in Europe. It was very good to study in New York, although it wasn't easy at all.
AAJ: Did you go to study classical music?
DSN: Yes, although I was into jazz really, contemporary music, let's put it that way. But I needed the foundation of classical music, classical technique, to do whatever I wanted later on. I never studied composition, just playing my instrument.
AAJ: Are you surprised at the surge in this last 10 years or so of Israeli jazz talent that has arrived in New York?
DSN: First of all, Israelis are very curious, and they are also very ambitious and because we have got used to a very high sense of...surviving, it makes you become more productive and creative. But also in Israel there's not enough room; if you want to develop people go either to New York or to Europe; there are also loads and loads of Israeli musicians in Europe.
AAJ: After New York, you went to London, another great melting pot.
DSN: I moved back to Israel first and then went to the UK.
AAJ: How did you find the music scene in London compared to New York? Was it very different?
Very, very different. Although I loved studying in New York I didn't want to stay there because for me, and this is very personal, there wasn't soul there. There were great technicians and also everybody was so oriented towards their career, career, career. But I didn't find any real soul in what was going on there. So that's why I decided not to stay and I moved back to Israel but I found I just can't be there anymore and so I moved to the UK.
Here in London it is much more laid back than in New York and maybe more open to culture in general, especially to music. But it's a very personal thing; other people will tell you New York is just amazing. It's a question of preference.
l:r: David Lasserson, Koby Israelite, Numan Elyer, Daphna Sadeh, Stewart Curtis, Nim Schwartz and Tigran Aleksanyan
AAJ: Coming back to the album, Reconciliation, there's a real mixture of music which gels very well, and to my ears the music sounds predominantly Jewish; is that a label that you identify with your music?
DSN: Not necessarily, but I have to say that because the CD was commissioned by John Zorn for his label, and his label has different categories.
If I record another CD for him I'll probably do it differently. It was my first experience with him. He's a very nice person but not easy to work with in the sense that he really knows what he wants. He wanted to hear and approve every single track of the CD so it was quite a difficult process really.
AAJ: Did you have to exclude some of the music that you would have liked to include on the CD?
DSN: Yeah, he rejected I think the best piece. I don't think there was a logical reason for that, I don't know what the reason was but he rejected it. But that's life. It was a good experience for me not to let my ego work, you know. OK, if that's what you want that's what you get.
AAJ: I don't know very much about the label, Tzadik, other than it's John Zorn's and that it's a non-profit label, is that right?
DSN: Well, they sell CDs but I don't know if they sell all the CDs they are releasing. I think he himself sells a lot of CDs and he makes a lot of music for films and I think that's how he makes his money. He actually commissioned the CD. It's not a commercial record label in that sense; he's the director and he knows exactly what he wants.
AAJ: Your CD Reconciliation comes under Zorn's record label category of Radical Jewish Culture; do you see yourself or your music as radical in any way?
DSN: Not at all, and that's what I told him, I said, "Listen, it's not me to try to do radical music." There was a point after he rejected that track, the first track I sent him and I said: "John, it's OK if we're not going to continue; that's what I am and I have to be loyal to myself. I'm not going to produce music that I'm not happy with so if you don't like the style I won't be offended, we'll just call it off." But he said, "No, no no, I want you to continue."
Then I sent him the rest and now he just loves it. When he called it "radical" he kind of narrowed the options; maybe he should have called it differently, some other name which is less of a title and more open because I'm not avant-garde. I used to play avant-garde jazz but it's not my style, I'm not interested in that. I just want to make music that will come into the hearts of people. That's it. Even if it's happy or sad it doesn't matter but when people listen to it they feel some emotion because to me that is music. It communicates on that level. So he (Zorn) loved the music but it's definitely not radical.
AAJ: It seems like a very strange name for a record label category; I associate radicalism in most shapes and forms as something OTT, something perhaps even negative, and to put "Radical" in front of "Jewish" is not going to do this music any favors, in my opinion, in trying to promote it around the world.
DSN: It's not going to help, yeah. He's used this label "Radical" for quite a few years , at least since the '90s you know, and he's managing to do whatever he wants so I guess he knows what he's doing.
AAJ: I guess he does. Let's talk a little about the musicians on Reconciliation. . It's a tremendous ensemble. How did you all come together?
DSN: Well, I basically found them all. [laughs] As soon as I came to the UK, I started to look for musicians. I didn't know anyone here in the UK, apart from Asaf Sirkis and I knew Gilad Atzmon a little bit from Israel, but I didn't have any contact with him and I don't have any contact with him now. So I started looking for musicians and the group changed until I found musicians I was really happy to work with. Stewart Curtis is one of the first musicians I worked with and for me he is really a friend, not just a musician I work with. He's the heart and soul of this group. And I think he feels very strongly a part of it for he's Jewish himself and I think there's a very strong connection for him as well.
AAJ: His clarinet playing is beautiful, as is his flute playing which I would like to have heard more of.
DSN: He plays saxophone as well. It's funny because we experimented at the beginning and quite quickly I realized that saxophone was not the right instrument. Also, at the beginning he played a very klezmer-like sound; you see, he wasn't exposed to world music or Middle Eastern music at all before, and then I played him some Turkish sounds and he started changing his sound. And he got this dark sound on the clarinet which he didn't have before. Before his sound was very high and klezmery, and now he can produce this really Turkish sound; it's quite amazing.
AAJ: Tell me about your trombonist, Mark Bassey. On the opening track "Queen of Sheeba" that the trombone sounds almost like a tuba in its bass profundity, kind of like the way Rabih Abou-Khalil uses a tuba.
DSN: Yeah. Mark is an incredible musician and an incredible person; his life story is extraordinary. I really admire his abilities, not only his musical abilities but also his personal abilities. He's a well-rounded musician, he's a composer and arranger, you name it. When he's performing his fire is just amazing. I really feel so lucky because not only are they amazing musicians but they are also amazing people. We work to make good music together, but also to have fun together.
AAJ: Turning to your own bass playing, you have a very personal sound. Are you more influenced by musical tradition rather than by any individual musician?
DSN: I think I'm more influenced by individual musicians than by styles. I don't go by the book. For me, playing the bass is about finding my own sound. Why do you ask that?
AAJ: On Reconciliation, your bass playing is not really coming from the jazz idiom, but then again it's not easy to say where it's coming from. It's almost beyond categorization.
DSN: It's true what you say. It comes from the fact that I'm not trying to create one style or another; this CD is not really jazz, it's somewhere in between, more world music with jazz elements.
AAJ: It seems you are much more of an Israeli musician than most of the Israeli musicians who have come to New York in recent years, people like the Cohens whose music is more straight ahead, but your music really represents the cultural diversity of your county.
DSN: That's true, that's a good observation. In America, jazz making is the best because that's their language. You have to grow in it, to live it. It's not my natural language; it's something I've learned. My next CD might be less Jewish but it will always be eclectic. I don't think I would like to lose that because that's my natural musical language.
AAJ: Reconciliation is about 45 minutes long, the length of an old record which often used to be around 40 minutes long, 45 at a push. A lot of CDs are 60 minutes or 75 minutes long and very often it seems too long. Do you like this slightly shorter format, or were there other considerations?
DSN: Yes, that's interesting. If I had the other track which was rejected, the CD would be about 50 minutes, which I think is still OK. If I have to listen to a CD which is an hour or more it's too much, I mean you lose it after a while and the last thing I want to do is lose the people who listen to my CD. It's exactly like a performance, if it's too long you lose your audience, even if it's interesting. Quantity is not always quality.
AAJ: Did you have control over the length of the CD or did John Zorn have a say in that too?
DSN: He said eight tracks would be OK, and also I wanted more vocals but he said no. He didn't want any vocals, so he had some control over it, but it was commissioned. It was almost like composing music for a film. He didn't want too much Middle Eastern music, so I had to follow his guidelines. It was a one hundred percent artistic project but with guidelines. It was not an easy process.
AAJ: Was that a one-off project for John Zorn or can you see yourself recording for Tzadik again?
DSN: It's hard to know, but if I did it again I would definitely do it differently.
AAJ: Where do you see music taking you in the future?
DSN: I really want to develop myself as a composer. Our next project in the summer is to collaborate with a string orchestra and conductor Miguel Estaban in Spain, with the music from Reconciliation. When I talk about a conductor, I'm talking about a very open musician who could have been a jazz musician but he chose to be a classical musician; it's not a rigid classical approach. He's young and open minded. So we formed an orchestra in the north of Spain and he's going to do the arrangements. I suggested calling it the Three Cultures Project, because of the history of Spain, the coexistence of three religions, three cultures in the past. It will mostly be the music from the CD, the music of the Voyagers and myself, but I'm also going to compose some medieval music which we might incorporate.
AAJ: You are obviously drawn to convergence of cultures.
DSN: Yes, definitely. I like to collaborate with different cultures, but mainly I'm looking for interesting projects and this looks to me like an interesting project and a chance to expand my abilities as a composer and a performer.
Daphna Sadeh and the Voyagers, Reconciliation (Tzadik, 2009)
Daphna Sadeh and the Voyagers, Walking the Thin Line (33 Records, 2007)
George Samaan & Salem Darwish, Hella (Nana Disc, 2003)
Daphna Sadeh, Out of Border (Independent, 2002)
Eve's Women, Eve's Women (Independent, 2002)
Eve's Women, Paradise (Independent, 1999)
East West Ensemble, Zuma (Magda Records, 1994)
First group photo: Claire Borley
Second group photo: Rainlore's World of Music