One of the best international jazz musicians of today, philosopher, humanist thinker and author, Gilad Atzmon has been challenging all of us (and primarily Jews) for several years now to examine what defines Jewish Identity Politics (JIP), its core supremacist beliefs, and the many issues that arise from it: its strategies, the various disguises of racism, concealment and suppression of free speech.
The response has never been lukewarm: he has been hailed by some of the most distinguished intellectuals and academicians as “brilliant,” “original” and “profound” or he has been denounced with uniformly unsubstantiated accusations as being a “racist” and/or a “self-hating Jew.”
Since none of those charges carried any credibility, new ones will probably be manufactured in the attempt to silence him.
What is certain is that nobody has yet found him boring or inconsequential.
I have recently returned from a trip to Argentina where I had traveled to meet GA, who had been invited there upon the publication of The Wandering Who in Spanish (La Identidad Errante) by Editorial Canaán in Buenos Aires.
Copies of his book were available in bookstores already.
Buenos Aires is a reading town: it is hard to walk more than four blocks in any direction without finding a bookstore. Gilad marveled at seeing philosophy books displayed in the window of one. (I do not know about the UK but in the US only a bookstore manager bent on bankruptcy would display philosophy books instead of the usual shop window fare, something like “Quick Guide to Having Great Sex While Eating, Shopping and Investing Smartly.”)
He was generous with his time: I ended up spending a couple of full days with him, talking for many hours on end, accompanying him to radio interviews, to a talk he gave to history professors, an engagement in a jazz club, browsing through musical instruments stores and simply walking and enjoying together the unique and stunning beauty of Buenos Aires.
His reception was enthusiastic everywhere we went, although “la identitad politica Judia” is nowhere near as familiar a term as JIP has become in Europe and North America. Here, in South America in general, he does not (or not yet) benefit from the unintentional but helpful marketing support he has received from zionists and “anti-zionist zionists.”
I observed his interactions with people and watched their reactions to his ideas and his music, and most of all talked with him in a desultory fashion on a wide range of topics from the politics of marginal identities to sexual identity (“Sex and Character”), the difficulties of translating German philosophy in other languages, pro-Palestinian activism and its new ‘dietary laws,’ the beauty of national cultures and music, his nostalgic love of his native land, Palestine, his itinerant life style (he had flown to Buenos Aires straight from Japan), people we both know, and even about what constitutes a perfect pizza.
Turning the tables on him, so to speak, and using his own premise, it seems fair to ask:
If GA, a born Israeli Jew (who occasionally refers to himself as a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian), musician, philosopher, humanist thinker and finally a man, insists on critically examining JIP, then we have a right to try to find out who is GA, the itinerant saxophone player and story teller and what is his identity? Gilad Atzmon Who?
For each of us personal identity is made up of many strands of qualifiers with which we identify: idiosyncratic personal identity, sexual identity, professional identity, allegiance to a family, to one’s ethnic group, religion, national identity, universal human family. One of them will always be primary. After all, we know that some men rendered impotent in battle prefer to die than live without their ‘sexual identity,’ while others turned paraplegic but with their intellectual functions intact wish to live, religious zealots would rather kill and die rather than not prevail over their “enemies,” and so on.
It is reasonable to make the assumption that one’s primary identity, that which one chooses as a defining descriptor above others (e.g., “As a Jew, I think that….”) is the allegiance in whose perceived service one is willing to make the most sacrifices, often to the detriment of other “identities. “
Using that assumption, Gilad’s primary identity is without a doubt that of an artist.
What follows is like Magritte’s pipe
It is not Gilad. It is only my impression and rendition of him.
At Jazz & Pop in Buenos Aires
That he is a consummate jazz player and a talented composer needs no elaboration at this point. His music has been acclaimed worldwide and not just by those who ever listened to him live or bought his CDs. When I returned to Montevideo I went to my favorite neighborhood caffe to give a gift to the owner – a copy of La Identidad Errante. He looked at it, read the author’s name and said: “I know this guy. I listen to him on youtube.”
“Songs of the Metropolis” was discussed in both of the radio interviews to which I accompanied him. They played Buenos Aires and he explained his admiration for Astor Piazzolla whose music is beautifully evoked by his song.
Gilad also expressed his delight in the Argentineans’ proud attachment to and nurturing of their musical heritage and traditions. Indeed, everywhere we went we could hear tango tunes pouring out of stores, cabs and caffes. In fact, walking in La Boca we passed by an impromptu street scene of ordinary people dancing tango, which I felt worth capturing:
Pride in the tango can be fierce and the controversy about whether the great Gardel was really a Uruguayan or an Argentinean is a cause of rancor between the two neighboring nations. In this light, Gilad’s expression of sincere and deep admiration for Piazzolla alone could make him an honorary Argentinean citizen.
The format of the two radio shows was pretty much the same: a presentation of the artist by the interviewer as musician and writer, a discussion of Songs of the Metropolis, a few intelligent questions about the transformative effect of Gilad’s early acquaintance with jazz and its stellar black performers on his thinking and ethical view of the world, including his “discovery” of Palestinians and their national tragedy, and the message of The Wandering Who. They played Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv and Scarborough and at the end gave the listeners information about his upcoming shows and about the availability of his book in Spanish in local bookstores.
I have no way to gauge the reception of the radio interviews by listeners but later I recognized some of the radio station staff among the audience in the jazz club.
The show was memorable. The jazz club was packed and Gilad seemed, if anything, energized by lack of sleep and the jetlag and totally connected with the audience.
Women seem to be thronging around him at his shows and talks, a fact he dismisses and attributes only to his fame. That is entirely plausible for some of them. It is perhaps the “triangular desire” that Rene Girard describes in Mensonge Romantique et Verité Romanesque, “mediated desire” or “desire according to others.” In other words he is “vetted” as charismatic by the arbiters of fame. Others may find him attractive because—no offense to Gilad—almost any man can become attractive when he plays his saxophone with abandon. Bill Clinton, although he never seems to have advanced beyond the saxophone version of Chopsticks surely knows that. There is perhaps something about the sight of a man passionately immersed in his playing (not the tuba though) that makes some women wish to grab some of that intense concentration and try to have it turn on themselves. John Berger thinks that “to be passionately desired is perhaps the closest one can get in this life to feeling immortal” (“ser deseado con pasión es tal vez lo mas parecido que se pueda alcanzar en esta vida a sentarse inmortal”—El Cuaderno de Bento). Nevertheless his incessant talking about his beautiful wife, with evident admiration, must be a killer to the hopes of even the most determined female stalkers or the fakers wishing to test his “male chauvinism.”
The audience was electrified by his performance (with the somewhat self-effacing Juampi Juarez trio) and brought to an ovation by his scatting, pouring forth from somewhere deep, almost in a frenzied trance.
The Story Teller
It was his scatting also that made me think that, indissolubly linked to his identity as a musician, he has a twin primary identity as the Story Teller, in the mold of Mario Vargas Llosa’s main character in the eponymous novel.
In the Amazonian jungle, among the natives, Llosa narrates, there was a Story Teller, a man whose life mission was to roam from one isolated group/tribe to another and another, all across the vast and almost impenetrable jungle to sing the truth and to record and revise history. Given the difficulties and perils of the trek he only got to visit each community once a year.
Upon his arrival all gathered to hear him sing the Story that told them about themselves and others like them, from the beginnings of creation to present day events, like news of births and deaths and impending perils in all the places he had been visiting since his last meeting with them.
The Story was never quite the same from one visit to the next not only because it was growing with more additions of news and events but also because the memory of the past was changing and enriched by new learning.
The Story reminded them that they were not alone although they were isolated and only rarely got to really know any of the other tribes, with whom they became acquainted mostly from his Story. Nevertheless, it was clear from his Story that the others were very much like them.
To be the Story Teller was a function of great responsibility but also great personal sacrifice: enduring the life of a lone wanderer.
Llosa eventually reveals that the Story Teller was a Peruvian Jew who had abandoned his “tribe” and the larger urban culture he belonged to, and chose to live among the real people of the land, the old inhabitants pushed deep into the jungle by the “civilization” of the invading colonists. When they honored him by appointing him Story Teller, he became their singer of history, keeper of truth and teacher.
His recital, in the form of a sung epic, also contained a refrain, much like an invocation, a repetition that, when uttered fast over and over unraveled words and became only sound, like scatting.
In his own way, combining music with his Story and carrying the compact universal message to all as he wanders all over the world, Gilad Atzmon is also the Story Teller.