For decades, Shlomo Gronich, the acclaimed Israeli folk singer and progressive rocker, has heard the same bittersweet compliment — that his music is “ahead of its time.”
“I used to hear that a lot: This isn’t the time, the things you do will only be absorbed years from now, the audience isn’t ready,” Gronich, 66, tells The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Tel Aviv. Some of his songs, he observes, “were like aliens from outer space in Israel then. I agreed that it wasn’t the time for them, but I couldn’t do anything else.”
The times may finally be catching up.
When Gronich, 66, kicks off a six-city U.S. tour next week in Tenafly, N.J., to be followed the next night by a show at Stephen Free Wise Synagogue (Feb. 12, 8 p.m.), it will be the first time the former New Yorker is back in town since the 1970s.
It’s been a long, strange trip for the versatile composer/lyricist/pianist/choir conductor and peace activist whose songs from the 1970s and ’80s have only recently become popular.
Like most of Israel’s veteran entertainers, his showbiz career began in an army band. After his service he went on to perform and record with stars-to-be like Matti Caspi, Chava Alberstein and Yoni Rechter.
But the commercial success of some of his compatriots eluded Gronich. His first album, “Why Didn’t You Tell Me,” recorded after his first divorce and full of psychedelia, is today one of Israel’s most influential classics — but back then it was a flop. Gronich later formed a trio called A Little Different (which it was), and once again he was disappointed by the lukewarm reception.
On a whim, he moved to New York in 1975. “I was doing progressive music, and there was no audience for that in Israel,” he explains. “New York has such a wealth of options, venues, audiences. No matter what you play, there is an audience.”
Five years later, Gronich returned to Israel, and got his big break as house musician for the TV satire “Zehu-Ze,” or “That’s It.” With his wild long hair and frenzied playing, his weekly performances on the show had him branded as a “crazy genius.”
But his insistence on music that was seen as “too sophisticated” at the time kept him on the cultural margins. When in the late 1980s Gronich released a new album, “Cotton Candy,” he was surprised that Israel’s No. 1 radio station (out of a total of three) would not play it, opting for his old hits. “So I called up one of the station’s top managers … He told me, ‘Your new album is too sophisticated. They don’t want so many chords. People want simple songs,’” Gronich recalls. “I slammed down the phone and wrote ‘Simple Songs.’”
“Everybody wants simple songs / Songs with two chords / Everybody wants simple words / That don’t mean anything to me,” the piece (translated from Hebrew) goes. Ironically, this catchy two-chord ditty immediately became Gronich’s most popular hit.
In 1990, Gronich hit the right chord again with Makhelat Shva, an Ethiopian children’s choir he founded, composed for and performed with. The move resonated both musically and politically, and Gronich’s popularity soared. In 1994, he and the choir performed at the signing of the Jordan-Israel peace agreement, a show he remembers as “one of the most uplifting” of his career.
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Gronich, who hasn’t been to the U.S. since the 1970s, seemed surprised and pleased by the love Israeli expats are showing him.
“In preparing for the tour, one thing that touched me was how excited people here were to hear I was coming,” he says. “That did feel good.”