Long a superstar at home, Israeli guitarist hopes for elusive American success




By Matti Friedman

TEL AVIV, Israel – David Broza, one of Israel’s most beloved musicians, has lived for years with dissonance – between adulation at home and relative obscurity in the United States, where he spent years trekking with his guitar from state to state but always fell short of stardom.

Broza, 52, hopes this is about to change. Beginning in December, he’ll have his best shot yet at reaching a broad American audience when a sunrise concert he put on in the Israeli desert is broadcast by PBS affiliates across the country as part of their pledge campaigns.

The 3 a.m. concert, filmed over the summer, featured Broza along with rocker Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin. Organizers flew 20 tons of equipment from England to Masada, the stark Israeli mountain fortress that provided the backdrop.

“This is something I’ve been working toward for 30 years,” Broza said.

Broza’s career has been exceptional by any standard. After becoming famous in Israel for a protest song he put to music when he was 22, he went on to cut albums in Israel, the United States and Spain, with his different ventures cross-pollinating each other, resulting in a trademark blend of Israeli folk with flamenco and country. Broza collaborated on Israel’s most popular children’s album and released some of the country’s best-known love songs.

Broza, an Israeli Jew, records in a Palestinian-run studio in east Jerusalem. He performs regularly at peace rallies, and was a common sight strumming in bomb shelters during Israel’s war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last year.

His musical abilities survived a 1998 car accident that left his upper body mangled and his arms useless and led doctors to conclude he wouldn’t play again. Broza had to relearn the guitar, changing his technique to fit the limited movement of his nerve-damaged hands, but a year later he was back on stage.

“I felt like I conquered the Everest, that I’d overcome something huge, and I still feel that way,” Broza said.

Many Israeli artists have tried to make it in the United States. Most have failed, though some – like Ofra Haza and Ahinoam Nini, better known as Noa – found moderate success in the world music niche.

But perhaps none have tried as hard as Broza, who lived in New Jersey for most of the 1980s and 1990s as he tried to crack the top ranks of American musicians. To make ends meet, he would return to play concerts in Israel every month, filling the country’s largest venues, and then head back to the United States, where he tirelessly toured small clubs, bars and any stage that would have him.

Shying away from being labeled an ethnic musician and aiming at American working-class authenticity, Broza made several albums, won some critical acclaim, and shared bills with Sting, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. But he never managed to produce the hit that would make him a star in his own right.

Music writer Seth Rogovoy, who covered Broza’s U.S. career as a cultural critic at the Massachusetts paper The Berkshire Eagle, praised him for “an uncanny appreciation for the English language and American poetry” who took varied influences and turned them into “poignant folk-pop songs.”

Broza never made it, Rogovoy suggested, because his time in the United States coincided with the eclipse of the singer-songwriter genre by pop and grunge, but also because American audiences were confused by his origins.

“I think that in some ways he had to fight against the fact that he was foreign, and Israeli, because that set up certain expectations in his audience – he transcended the expectations that one would have about an Israeli folk singer. They weren’t going to hear Israeli folk,” Rogovoy said.

More than once, Broza recalled, he found himself in school gyms, or “in a small room with 40 people, playing and then passing a hat around.”

The difference was jarring, but he didn’t care how many people were listening or who they were, Broza said.

“I can make a hillbilly happy, or a gypsy, or a lawyer,” he said, “just give me five minutes and let me sing you a song.”