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5 March 2018

Orphaned Land: the Israeli heavy metal band with fans across the Middle East

The band fuse Jewish and Arab music with heavier sounds, but they can't escape the contraditions at the heart of their homeland.

By Keith Kahn-Harris

In the scuzzy backstage of the Camden Underworld, Kobi Farhi, the vocalist of the Israeli metal band Orphaned Land is looking weary. “Being on tour is so tiring, especially for a singer. My voice is really broken. And it’s so cold!”, he complains.

At first, Kobi’s fatigue seems to be one common to most touring bands. It’s a Monday night in the coldest week of the year, on the third gig of a 20-date European tour, at an uncomfortable venue. But there’s something else going on here too. Kobi points to the dressing room fridge and a half scuffed-out Orphaned Land sticker. “Look at the sticker. We put that their when we last played this venue a few years ago. Now look at the other band stickers. We are the only one that’s been scratched out!” Kobi will later post a photo of the sticker on the band’s Facebook page, and similar photos are posted from other venues on the tour in the following days.

Still, Orphaned Land have it much easier than other Israeli artists. There were no Palestinian Solidarity campaigners demonstrating at the London show, and they have never been targeted by the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In fact, the small but active Israeli metal scene seems to lead a charmed life. BDS campaigners seem to be apathetic or ignorant about the steady stream of foreign metal bands playing in the country, and equally indifferent when Israeli bands play abroad. It’s almost as if pro-Palestinian campaigners have decided that metal is too politically beyond hope to be worth boycotting.

Unsurprisingly, Kobi is as opposed to BDS as one might expect from an Israeli artist. “You don’t boycott art. Music can change the world. Think of Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters Of War’. What would have happened if you boycotted it? Saudi Arabia and Iran have terrible governments but I would play there if I could.”

The distinction between art and politics is clearly important to Kobi. He resists being reduced to an avatar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and avoids adopting straightforward political stances. “Look, I don’t like the current Israeli government,” he explains, “but people make the mistake of thinking we are left wing. We are not. We are not right wing either. We don’t like politicians and their corruption.”

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Band stickers at the venue for Orphaned Land’s London gig. Photo: Keith Kahn-Harris

Still, politics has a way of creeping up on you whether you like it or not, particularly if, like Kobi, you are trying to forge an idealistic path in a war-torn region.  

Orphaned Land started out 26 years ago as a straightforward death metal band. They rapidly developed a unique sound that fuses Middle Eastern music with some of metal’s most musically challenging sub-genres. When I met Kobi in London, they had just begun touring their sixth album, Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs, that came out in January this year.

However tough being on tour is, it’s central to the band’s mission. “We’ve played in 46 countries. We’ve played in China, in Russia, in Turkey. Everywhere”, he says proudly. Having such a global following is virtually unique for an Israeli band. It’s no coincidence that a metal band has the honour of being one of the first acts to escape the country’s often inward-looking music scene. As Kobi points out, “Metal is a global family, a global community. We support each other. More than any other scene probably. It’s like in the mosh pit; it seems aggressive, but we pick each other up when they fall. It’s a kind of violent love.”

What metal does so well is fuse an internationalist outlook with a strong local rootedness, and Orphaned Land’s work reflects this. They emerged in the 1990s, when metal bands were beginning to explore ways of incorporating local influences into a global idiom. Sepultura, from Brazil, were particularly important here, with their 1996 Roots album fusing death metal with Afro-Brazilian music, samba and even a collaboration with the Amazonian Xavante people. While Sepultura’s agenda was determinedly cosmopolitan and progressive, the 1990s were also a time when Scandinavian and other bands began developing forms of black (Satanic) metal that drew on representations of local musical and ideological traditions that, in some cases, were chauvinistic and racist.

Unsung Prophets And Dead Messiahs is, like much of Orphaned Land’s work, definitely in the cosmopolitan camp. The bedrock of their style is a hybrid of death, doom and progressive metal; a melange of crunchy riffs, virtuouso musicianship and complex song structures. This raw metallic material is twisted in an unmistakably Middle Eastern direction, with melodies and vocals that evoke Arab modes and styles.

And there is much else on the album besides that: There’s a choir, a guest appearance by ex-Genesis guitarist and the Middle Eastern strings of the “Orphaned Land oriental orchestra”, sometimes combined with Oud, Saz and Darbuka. As with their previous albums, it all mixes together to form a heady sonic blend.

Orphaned Land’s lyrical aspirations are as ambitious as their musical ones. Unsung Prophets is a concept album, inspired by Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which humanity confines itself to a world of semi-darkened ignorance. This interest in the wisdom of the past runs through Orphaned Land’s work. “It’s incredible when you think about it: people like Plato who hundreds or thousands of years ago had such wisdom that still means something today,” he tells me.

While committed to a cosmopolitan search for wisdom wherever it is found, Jewish tradition often provides the lens through which other traditions are filtered. One of the most striking tracks on the new album is “Yedidi”, a setting of a piyyut, a medieval Hebrew poem, some of which translates as:

My friend have you forgotten resting between my breasts?

Why have you sold me to my enslavers for aye?

Then, upon an orphaned land I chased after you?

“There will always be piyyut on every Orphaned Land album,” says Kobi. “This one is by Judah HaLevy and it mentions orphaned land! He was a poet in the golden age in medieval Spain. But it’s really about the cave and being left chained and enslaved in darkness. You know it’s like the Rambam [the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonedes]. He was Jewish and yet he was fascinated by Greek wisdom. And at the same time he was part of the Arab world and wrote in Arabic.”

This fascination with Jewish-tradition as a route into wider traditions, runs through the band’s work. The title track on their 2013 album, All Is One declares:

From the Middle Eastern lands we ride, all children of Abraham

Our only sword, the light within, that burns as bright as sun

We’re the orphans from the Holy Land, the keepers of Or-Shalem [complete light[

So we bow to you our warriors for being simple men

At their London gig, you could buy a pendant that intertwines the crucifix, star of David and Muslim crescent. This statement of Abrahamic unity seems to resonate with the band’s audience. They have fans across the Middle East, including in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Kobi tells me that in recent years, exiles from Syria have turned up at their shows in Europe. A few years ago they toured the continent with the Israel-Palestinian band Khalas. One of their publicity shots from a few years back featured the band dressed as Muslims and orthodox Jews – with Kobi in the middle dressed as Jesus. Indeed, for years he wore what he calls a “Jesus robe” onstage.

More recently though, things seem to have taken a darker turn. “We Do Not Resist” on the new album features growled death metal singing for the first time in years. It’s not hard to see what he is getting at when Kobi sings:

On the pulpit the false messiah speaks

Hand them your papers now cease and desist

Spreading fake news and selling such lies

‘Twas the night the lie rose

And truth finally died.

“I don’t know,” Kobi sighs, “the world seems to be getting worse and worse. It’s hard to remain optimistic. It seems like everything we do makes no difference. We’re sick of governments and war. We’re older and more cynical.” Later, on stage, he tells the crowd that, “we’re angry and frustrated right now. Mostly just angry. I got rid of my Jesus outfit – fuck that.” Later on he insists that “one of the biggest misconception of Orphaned Land is we are just Kumbaya let’s hug each other. It’s not just the case.”

Orphaned Land have been walking a narrow line for years and perhaps this new-found anger is simply a waking up to the inevitable contradictions of being an Israeli band that preaches metal-inspired Abrahamic coexistence. Maybe Kobi is discovering that “politics” cannot be avoided.

Kobi used to treasure the band’s semi-regular performances in Turkey – the only Muslim country where an Israeli band could play in the region – and the band were even given awards in the country for a benefit show they played for the victims of a 2011 earthquake. Things are more difficult now. “I contributed the vocals to a song on a compilation album of songs for peace. It turned out that the lyrics were written by Fethullah Gülen, who the government accused of being behind the recent coup attempt. I didn’t know that at the time but now I’ve been told it’s not a good idea for us to play in Turkey at the moment.”

I ask Kobi whether he would accept that being Israeli puts him in a privileged position compared to the Palestinians. “To be Jewish is not privilege! Look at our history,” he says. And while he may not face difficulties from BDS in the west, Kobi points out that there are countries where they cannot play. “We are boycotted across the Middle East. We have fans in Egypt, but we can’t play for them. And it’s just a car drive away!”

The band’s Middle Eastern fanbase are also strikingly limited in one respect – Kobi’s contacts with Palestinians in the occupied territories and Gaza are very limited. “We get comments on our YouTube videos from Palestinians but, look, it’s not a free society. You can’t be gay in Palestine, you can’t be a feminist.” Nonetheless, he hopes to go to the Palestinian Music Expo later this year in Ramallah.

Kobi may be more trapped in Plato’s cave than he had previously thought; trapped by the strange duality of the privilege that being Jewish-Israeli endows (for all his denials) and the suspicion and anger that Jewish Israelis are subjected to outside the country.

Still, Orphaned Land offer a powerful rejoinder to the simplistic stereotyping that pervades images of Israel in the west. Kobi is of Sephardi-Bulgarian descent and his other bandmates are from a mixture of Sephardi, Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) and Ashkenazi backgrounds. Throughout their work they have demonstrated the inconvenient fact that Jewish culture is inextricably linked to the history of Mediterranean and Arab cultures. And they are doing this through metal, with all its real and potential subversiveness. At its best, metal scenes have an extraordinary ability to encapsulate the plurality of our identities; to be a space in which we recognise both our global interconnectedness and our multiple local histories and traditions.

Of course, metal cannot conquer all. In the video for the first single for the new Orphaned Land album, “Like Orpheus”, we see an Israel man and a woman preparing to go to a metal gig. The man is a strictly orthodox Jew, the woman an observant Muslim. We follow them separately as they secretly change into metal garb and travel alone to the venue. At the show, they join ecstatically into the darkened moshpit, as they watch the German thrash band Kreator. They are joined in the crowd, even though they do not know each other. Then, after the gig, we see them the next day at the bus stop, both changed back into their regular uniforms, both unaware that they shared the same transcended experience earlier.

The video is the perfect encapsulation of the ways in which metal, like other musics, can bring us together, but only up to a point and sometimes only furtively. We can come out of Plato’s cave for a while, yet it’s hard not to return to it. Kobi is rightly proud of the video. He tells me that “the girl is based on a real character. She comes from a very conservative Muslim family in Jaffa, where I live. She went to metal shows secretly but then she got found out because she had a picture taken with Nergal [the frontman of the Polish metal band Behemoth] and her family saw it. I haven’t seen her in the metal scene for months. It’s very sad.”

Their London gig also demonstrated the power and the limitations of Orphaned Land. This time the limitations were more physical than political or religious. The modestly-sized Underworld was not sold out, Kobi was not in good voice and the bitter weather cast a pall over proceedings (sweat was definitely not dripping down the walls). Yet for those who came it was a memorable experience – if you love Orphaned Land, you really love them. When audience and band joined together in singing “All Is One”, it was possible to believe, just for a moment, that it was actually true. The violent love of the mosh pit won out, at least temporarily.

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