David Broza: Making the Music the Poem Wants
PostedFebruary 20, 2014
Singer-songwriter David Broza has woven his songs with the poetry and influences of three countries: Israel, where he was born and spent his childhood; Spain, where he lived during adolescence and for years after; and the United States, where he traveled extensively and lived for many years as an adult. In twenty-three albums spanning twenty-five years, collaboration with poets has been a mainstay of Broza’s career. He wrote his first song with Israeli poet Yonatan Geffen on the eve of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s arrival in Israel in 1977 for peace negotiations. That song, "Yihye Tov" (There will be goodness), became an overnight hit, and it wasn’t long before he was offered a contract to record an album.
Broza spent the following years recording albums in Hebrew, setting the poetry of such Israeli poets as Yonatan Geffen, Natan Alterman, and Motti Baharav to music. His 1983 album, Ha Isha Sh’Iti (The Woman by My Side), became a quadruple platinum album and made him a superstar in his native country. But in order to reach audiences outside his homeland, Broza knew that he needed to immerse himself in other languages and cultures. Already incorporating Spanish rhythms into his music, the artist set off for America in 1984 and traveled the country in an attempt to absorb both the culture and the language.
In the United States, he met with poets, writers, and musicians, and buried himself in books, particularly at New York City’s literary gem, the Gotham Book Mart. "I read a lot of American poetry," Broza said of his stay in New York. "Occasionally, I would find a great poem that I wanted to set to music. So I would set it aside, and I would work on it. When it was ready, I tried to find the poet [if still alive] to see if he was interested in making a personal connection…I would have the poem in front of me, and look for the music that this lyric would want."
Broza has developed lasting collaborative relationships with many of the poets whose work he has covered. About Liam Rector, whose poem "In Snow" Broza recorded, he said: "He invited me to his home to come and stay and talk about poetry and music. These meetings were the essence of my creative research. Liam has always directed me towards poets that he thought should be interesting for my work. And so he introduced me to Theodore Roethke, Alberto Rios, Heather McHugh and many more. In a sense, Liam Rector has been a mentor over the years."
Other poets who sparked Broza’s imagination range from Percy Bysshe Shelly and Walt Whitman to Elizabeth Bishop. Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was also a source of inspiration, and in 1986, for the fiftieth anniversary of Lorca’s assassination, Broza was invited to record a song on the album Poets in New York, a tribute to Lorca featuring artists from around the world, including Leonard Cohen, Donovan, Chico Buarque, and Paco de Lucia.
In 1989, Broza recorded his first English-language album, Away from Home, which the New York Times deemed one of the year’s best pop albums. The album included a haunting setting of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz." He followed with many more albums, most including poetic collaborations. His 1995 release, Stone Doors, includes settings of Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" and Shelly's "If You Don't Kiss Me." Painted Postcard, his bilingual English and Hebrew album released in 2002 contains Rector's "In Snow," Bishop's "One Art," "A Night in Wyoming" by Wyn Cooper" and "Chileno Boys" by Alberto Rios.
Broza’s popularity seems to come from his ability to switch musical styles as easily as he switches languages. He infuses some songs with flamenco rhythms, others with a country-western feel, and still others with pop-rock chords. His rock-style song "A Night in Wyoming" has drawn comparisons to Sting’s Field of Gold album, and Sting invited Broza to open for him in 1995.
"In giving pop musical form to written poetry," wrote the New York Times, "Mr. Broza has avoided the pitfalls of creating songs that sounded either too singsong or verbose. The poetry, most of which has a narrative flow like a short story, blends comfortably with Mr. Broza’s dramatic folk pop tunes."