You wouldn’t accuse Kobi Farhi of excitability. In fact, the beardy, kind-eyed
A kitten, one of a legion of strays that inhabit this ancient, sun-blasted port city, darts in and out of the shadows as Kobi recalls his childhood growing up amid this cobblestoned jumble of Coptic churches, synagogues and mosques that stand in solemn opposition to the late-partying, cosmopolitan vibes of neighbouring Tel Aviv. But then Israel, as the overwhelmingly friendly frontman will pleasantly explain, is a place of contrasts, and the rich diversity of Jaffa proves people can live in harmony regardless of belief. It’s that childhood experience that gave Kobi his inexhaustible, wide-eyed faith in the ability of music to join people in ways that peace treaties can’t. And it’s the appeal of that idealism among music fans throughout the Middle East regardless of creed that’s elevated Orphaned Land to god-like status over the course of 20 years and five rapturously received albums. It hasn‘t been without controversy.
“We’re very critical of religion but our way is not the Norwegian way,” he says. “People ask us how we can embrace Arabs, they all want to kill us, they’re terrorists – all those idiotic stigmas and stereotypes. It’s brainwashing, but you can see why. You pick up a newspaper and all you read is conflict, conflict, conflict. We saw tens of thousands of people burning Israeli flags in Istanbul not long ago. What about the 20 million inhabitants who didn’t? Headlines only tell half the story. Every religion’s got its assholes and its angels.”
Later tonight, Orphaned Land will play a massive long sold out gig at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv, and if Kobi seems bleary-eyed then it’s because he and his bandmates were up until 4am wrapping vinyl copies of their new album ahead the ensuing tour. Their support act will come in the form of Khalas, a Palestinian band whose name - as Kobi explains – means ‘enough’ in the most forceful sense of the word. It’s a provocative move. We are, after all, in Israel – a tiny, frightfully armed state surrounded by hostile countries with a history so bloodied and pock-marked by nightmarish conflict that, on first-arrival, it’s surprising just how relaxed it all seems.
“You expected tanks?” he says, grinning. “Yeah, we get that a lot.”
And yet Kansas it ain’t. Back in 1991, at the height of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein began hammering Tel Aviv with Scud missiles in an unsuccessful bid to draw Israel into the war. Kobi’s abiding memory of the experience was the sound of air-raid sirens, of running for cover. As itt happens the same siren sound appears at the end of _Escape on Metallica’s Ride The Lightning_. Late one night., Kobi fell asleep with the cassette playing, and the sound triggered a post-traumatic reaction which somehow connected the dots It was, for the young metalhead, a profound experience.
“God, it was a cassette wasn’t it?” he says with a bemused grimace. “I feel so old.” A young man in shorts walks past, a large green duffel thrown over one shoulder, an M-16 on the other, presumably on his way to work at the Israeli Defence Force – this tiny nation’s equivalent of national service. Within sight of us is the stretch of beach where a local expat bar, Mike’s Place, was blown up close to the US embassy not long ago, by two suicide bombers from England, and everywhere, but perhaps less so here than in other parts of this very young nation, are hatted, heavily dressed orthodox Jews who are emblematic of the depth and fervour of belief that courses through the ancient veins of the Middle East whatever the local word for God happens to be.
Do you believe?
“Yes,” he says, almost defiantly, but as with most things in Israel not all is as it appears. He’ll explain that his upbringing was secular, that the seemingly Hebrew tattoos on his arms are actually just stylised Leonard Cohen lyrics, and that the large brass medallion around his neck is actually the Auryn, which will only mean something to you if you’ve seen The Neverending Story. Casual observers will note that the artwork for Orphaned Land’s latest album, All Is One, combines a Christian cross, a Star Of David and a Muslim crescent into a single image. but while the message of unity seems a simple one, Kobi’s real concern is that his fans don’t understand the messengers. As the title track’s lyrics go, ‘Who_ cares if you’re a Muslim or a Jew/The one to make a difference now is you_’.
“I don’t follow any religion,” he explains. “I want to send a message to anyone who thinks we are religious – no, we are not. I see God in good people, and music is my religion.What’s that lyric? ‘Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood’.” (From The Animals’ Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood).
Spend a little time with Kobi Farhi, and you rapidly get the sense do a quiet strength, and a ballsy disregard for what’s considered acceptable. nI metaldom that’s not uncommon, but sticking a middle finger up to the Man has an altogether different significance when living in a geopolitical powder-keg. Death threats are a common occurrence,and quite understandably he worries. They all do. Back in 2010, not long after relations between Turkey and Israel hit an extreme low point after a flotilla of aid to Gaza was raided by commandos after violating Israel’s blockade. Orphaned Land played Turkey.
“The picture was surreal,” he says of their festival appearance. “The crowd consisted only of Muslims with flags of Iraq and Lebanon and Egypt and Iran. I was all over the Israeli news and they flew with us to report it, so there’s a part where I say, ‘Hello, we’re from Israel and isn’t it the greatest thing in the world we’re here in the name of music?’. It was really wonderful, but then I thought, ‘It’ll only take one lunatic…’. We always get messages like, ‘We will find you in Europe and kill you’, or, ‘Too bad Hitler didn’t finish the job’. When I was younger my temper was to go and pick a fight, but now I’m older I realise that people are really brainwashed by the media and by religious leaders, so I have to be compassionate towards them.
“I played a show and someone came with a swastika on his shirt. I asked the promoter, ‘On behalf of six million Jews, can you do something?’. The promoter said he couldn’t, so I went to the guy directly. I said, ‘I’m an Israeli and a Jewish person, but before that I’m a musician and I just want to play my music for my fans, and I can’t while I’m looking at that’. He was so impressed he took his shirt off and I brought him an Orphaned Land shirt. That may not happen every time, but that did happen. I chose a different way. You can change people.”
And nowhere is that more evident than in Orphaned Land’s success in the Arab world, something Kobi prides himself on, not out of vanity, but in its ability to dismantle. Still, there are pitfalls to being so visible, and Kobi reveals an intense frustration at his band’s constant appropriation by political parties looking for a high profile spokesperson – something he’s keen to steer clear of,.
“So Roger Waters decides to boycott Israel. I said that I’m against punishing the fans,”
he says of the Pink Floyd man’s recent move. “All of a sudden people are saying I’m right-wing. People always try to fit us in with their agenda. There’s no algorithm for me, I do and say as I believe. Check out any video clip of us you find on YouTube – you will always find political debates in the comments below, all of them are fighting. It’s never, ‘Your music kicks ass,I headbanged all day’. It’s never about the guitar solo!”
For the record, Orphaned Land’s music kicks ass. It’s late evening but the sea air here is still hot to inhale…Support band Khalas have just played their penultimate song, complete with a whirling dervish onstage, and their searing blend of Arabian folk melodies that, in a sardine-packed crowd dotted with yamulkas and, perhaps more importantly, Dream Theater and Iron Maiden shirts, presents a striking image. The cheers of support go beyond an appreciation of the music. Their presence here is a powerful message. Before this sweating throng, it only matters that they are metal, and you’d be made of stone not to be moved by it all.
Backstage, the members of Orphaned Land are swapping jokes in Hebrew, and gorging themselves on an enormous banquet-like spread of food cooked by guitarist Chen Balbus’ mother. Among the throng of family and friends is Arab-Israeli inger Mira Arwad, a national celebrity and TV persona who – in a high-visibility gesture of support for Orphaned Land that will be repeated throughout the night by a host of guests – will be taking the stage and drawing attention to the plight of a band whose popularity in the Arab world is startling and, unsurprisingly, irksome to some.
“It’s crazy,” says Kobi. “It’s a fact that in all of Israel you will not find one Israeli more famous in the Arab world. People may ask, why not a pop singer, left-wing politician, actor, or director, why a heavy metal band? The answer is that there is something very sincere with heavy metal music; it’s never tried to fit in with the collective part of society – it never compromises, it has to come from the heart to mean something.”
And it has to be good. The band stride out for what will become a marathon and electrifying three-hour set tinged with progressive indulgence and the kind of crowd call-and-response usually reserved for Baptist revivals. Yossi Sassi takes his one-of-a-kind dual necked guitar-mandolin to the extreme of musical possibility, while songs like Brother and the more recent title track All Is One thumb through a space that been described by one fan here tonight as a Synagogue Of Metal. He’s not wrong; this is genuine rapture, and the only thing surpassing the supremacy of the musicianship here is the unstoppable energy of the crowd who Orphaned Land command like preachers on a pulpit. Set amid the nighttime scenes of Tel Aviv, a city frequently rocked by violence in a land that’s known nothing but for millennia, it’s clear that there is much of these earnest musicians’ story still waiting to be written, and we can hardly wait.
**This was published in _Metal Hammer_ issue 248**
Orphaned Land play the Ronnie James Dio Stage at the Bloodstock Open Air Festival on August 9
Read about the band’s UK tour later this year here