Lady sings the Jews

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By Henry Shires

Henry Shires meets Deborah Conway, original 80s pop star now turned Director of the Inaugural Melbourne International Music Festival, Shir Madness.

There is always a potentially combative Frost/Nixon aspect to any celebrity interview.

And despite being up half the night “in training” watching every old hit by Deborah Conway and her 80s pop band Do Re Mi and every interview she has ever done – her usual MO is polite but not effusive – I still feel I may be punching above my weight.

Not physically though.

Deborah, even more than in her model days, when she launched, if not a thousand then certainly a decent number of, chart hits and probably broke a fair few twenty something hearts to boot, is now most prominently perfect bone structure and pristine teeth. In fact, she would probably have no difficulty-making featherweight.

And despite having snatched only a few hours sleep, as a result of my nocturnal You Tube surfing, Deborah still looks more tired than even I.

In fact, she looks very tired.

Probably as the result of trying to establish, pretty much non-stop, over the last 14 months, the first-ever Melbourne International Jewish Music Festival, Shir Madness.

Conway has been heading up a team of volunteers and working alongside her largely silent, musical, business andlife partner, the wonderful Willy Zygier (who spends most of the interview in their kitchen cooking the dinner, while still finding the time to appear to be one of the nicest, most benign, kind and helpful fellows you could ever have the privilege of meeting). Shir meaning “song” in Hebrew, by the way.

I start out gently by asking Deborah (don’t call her “Deb” that was a bad start) how you successfully launch yet another Melbourne Festival.

She concedes “it’s difficult to find a spot in the calendar. There are always some competing interests.” But is very keen to point out that the festival is “not specifically targeted at the Jewish community. It is targeted at people who are interested in lots of different kinds of music. This festival is a curated art event bringing lots of different genres together but with a strong thematic quality throughout the day.”

When asked to pick the festivals major USPs (unique selling points) she highlights:

“Song of songs. Members of the Melbourne music community were asked to pick a favourite song from a Jewish composer or songwriter and sing it.”

And there are a lot of very visible names Archie Roach, Kate Ceberano, Ron Peno, Rebecca Barnard, Shane Howard, David Hobson, Linda Bull and even Tim Rogers. The list goes on and on. None of whom are actually themselves Jewish.

I think people will be surprised at how many Jewish composers have made such significant contributions to pop music. It’ll be fun!

In fact, you could perhaps get the wrong impression from it being called a Jewish music festival. “Jewish” music maybe implies a more narrow focus.

Actually there are a lot of different ways to interpret that, from Irving Berlin imagining America as the promised land to the wonderful dancing that certain cultural events engender when a lot of Jews get together and fling themselves wildly round a room.

With so much talent on show, I next ask Deborah “Why just one day?”

“Oh, look we are just starting. If I even dreamed it would be such an extraordinary undertaking I don’t know that I would have taken it on. My innocence has been a boon in that way, I suppose.

There is also a brilliant Hassidic Neo Hipster Band, Zusha, coming from New York. They will appear as an 8-piece and I imagine will rock the marquee. Who knows how crazy they’ll get, there is a great capacity for ecstatic joy in Jewish music!”

“Is there any genre of music that Jews can’t do well?” I counter.

“No doubt, but we’re even examining the relationship between orthodox Jewry and Reggae in a film called Awake Zion. It’s one of three films we’ll be screening during the event around Jews and music.”

When I feel confident enough to tease Deb, sorry Deborah, just a little at this point, I ask her about one of her quotes from a previous interview in which she said that a piece of music was “too cheerful to be traditional Jewish music”.

She laughs heartily for the first time and quashes this myth immediately with “the whole idea of Shir Madness is to celebrate the contribution of Jews to the enormous sphere we call music. In all its different forms.”

In fact, we did toss around the idea of changing the festival’s “Madness” name from the already successfully established in Sydney title. But, if nothing else, it is the best word to summarise my last 14 months.

I’m not giving away my Jews-as–musical-miserabilists theory that easily however. I pull out the giant of a musician but miserable old codger Leonard Cohen card.

Deborah gives great analysis. “I think Jews have a strong strand of melancholy running through our cultural psyche. At every wedding we smash a glass to signify, even at a very happy occasion, the destruction of the Second Temple. To remind ourselves that it wasn’t always so good. That there are always sorrows.”

The two things, celebration and sadness, are inextricably linked for us. The Jews have always had a pretty tough time. Even with so many people trying to mow us down. We continue to be. There is adaptability but there is also this strength of knowing what ties you together. The deep inherent feeling of what being a Jew is. In our own music Willy and I regularly walk that line.

Leonie Cohen, who is performing at Shir Madness, has just brought out this absolutely glorious record of Jazz interpretations of traditional Jewish tunes.

Where as, by contrast, Robbie Avenaim is playing with computers. And Monsieur Camembert, who is actually from Sydney rather than France, is just sheer (or did she mean shir?) joy and celebration.

And who are the biggest names from the festival on the world music scene? Not Deborah and Willy themselves as I had naively expected. “Zusha have been selling out concerts at home in the States and are top 10 in the World Billboard charts. Tal Ben Ari (or Tula) has already visited Australia a couple of times to play at the Byron Bay Blues Festival, and Tinpan Orange, are a hugely popular folk trio.”

I start to wrap it up by quoting back to Deborah her own wonderfully poignant and poetic lyric from their song The Book of Life. “Next year I won’t disappear in fire or flood, next year I’ll still be here to do some good.” And ask her what good would she most like to achieve through the festival.

“I love the idea that people can experience the exotica of Womad, the breadth of Blues Fest and the quality of Port Fairy but they can do it in Elsternwick. I want our audience to come prepared to take some risks, to see and hear things they haven’t heard of and be blown away by them. That would be a brilliant outcome for Shir Madness.”

And finally did she even invite Leonard. “No I didn’t. I don’t think he would have been able to squeeze us in.”

I think Deborah Conway sells her fantastic festival a bit short here.

If I was her, I would definitely ask him next time. I think he might well really enjoy it.

Shir Madness: Melbourne International Jewish Music Festival. 1 Day, 5 Stages, 11 Hours, 30 Acts from USA, Israel and Australia

Sunday 6th September. Classic Cinemas, Kadimah Hall and Selwyn St, Elsternwick

Bookings shirmadness.com

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