Faith In Metal: Orphaned Land Push For Peace In The Middle East

Metalheads are fickle when it comes to approving a band’s metal cred. But it’s safe to say that your group qualifies if: 1) Fans can get arrested for listening to you; 2) You get arrested trying to record an album; and 3) You preach a message so radical that it makes some metalheads cringe.

Enter Orphaned Land, a metal band from Israel that meets all those criteria.

Frontman Kobi Farhi caught up with me earlier this year to talk about his decades-long effort to use music (specifically, heavy metal) as an instrument of forging interfaith unity between the three major Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. While he stressed that Orphaned Land – who count Metallica’s Kirk Hammett among their fans – are not a religious band, they do preach a clear message of hope and peace.

“It would have been easier for us to be a more ordinary band,” Farhi admitted over the telephone from his homeland. But “the only hope for this region is music. … Knowing that you and your enemy can sing the same song could be a door for a dialogue between the two.”

Paradoxically, while some of the world’s most nihilistic metal bands hail from relatively peaceful countries like Norway and Sweden, Orphaned Land are a pacifist metal band hailing from one of the world’s most battle-torn countries.

Equally paradoxical, Farhi proved over the course of our conversation his relative lack of ego – even though he’s serving a much higher purpose than arguably every metal band led by a self-absorbed singer.

Indeed, Farhi is a rare breed – as is his band, which believes healing can be achieved, not prevented, through contradiction. And with the Middle East peace process making headlines again – as well as Orphaned Land’s The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR (Century Media) having just earned a spot on the Bad Penny’s list of best metal albums of 2010 – it seemed like the right time to finally publish our extensive discussion.

(In the interest of preserving the power of Farhi’s words, his sometimes-broken English has only been corrected where his meaning might be confused.)

How’s it going over there?

Everything’s pretty cool. I got a cold a few days ago, so I’m just staying at home doing nothing. I got the flu from a friend. One day it’s very rainy, the other day it’s really sunny, and everybody’s getting a cold.

Do you tend to get more sick on the road or at home?

I’m very healthy. It sometimes happens on the road, but I would say that most of the time I’m pretty much OK.

We had a very big launch party last week, so luckily it happened now and not [then], because I’m far from being able to sing at the moment.

I imagine if you guys were going to travel abroad, getting sick would make things very difficult.

Yeah, definitely. Singing so much, doing vocals and stuff like that … I was onstage in Germany one time, actually, when I was ill. And during the whole day, our tour manager and other bands were giving me these soups and special liquids.

How did you learn to sing?

I never learned in a [proper] way. I never actually went to learn how to sing. … I was just listening to a lot of music during my whole life, and I would say that listening to so many kinds of music and singing along with them was the fact that, according to that, I learned how to sing. I never went to a teacher to know how to sing or anything, but I was just listening to so many kinds of music, and I always wanted to sing along with them, and that’s how I learned, actually.

What bands did you sing along to most often?

Mostly I was influenced by music that I was listening [to] at home. My father used to listen to a lot of opera music and these Italian hits. My mother really liked the ’60s, what was going on in America back then.

So I was listening to that, and with that said, [my love of music] was just growing in general, so I was listening to a mixture compilation of Muslims, Christians and Jews. I was pretty much exposing myself to all kinds of music till I discovered metal music, when I was around 15, maybe. And ever since, I am a metalhead and addicted to metal, but I am also a music lover, and I like music in many forms.

Did your parents also provide you with the framework of being accepting of other religions?

I grew up in a very cultural city, which is Jaffa [a small city in Tel Aviv], but my education was not religious by any way. I was simply influenced growing up with Christians, Jews and Muslims in my own way. I’m very much self-educated in my perspective to life or my philosophy to life. I got a lot from my parents, but in terms of culture and religion, I was well-educating myself.

Being an artist means that I have this sensitivity in me – I have a receiver that can receive everything surrounding me. And with that happening, I very much influenced by all the cultural things in my childhood city.

On the other hand, Jaffa is a very complicated city. There’s a lot of junkies in Jaffa. It’s very dirty. And the percentage of crime is very high. So I would say that my personality is pretty much coming from Jaffa and not necessarily from my parents, but just from growing in a very strong city.

Maybe this is my band at the end of the day: playing really heavy and singing with growling and stuff. My band is probably a reflection of my home city [in part].

Would it be easier to be a metal band that doesn’t promote interfaith harmony?

In terms of technical matters, of course. … The message is positive, but attached to it are so many instruments, and everything involved with making our record is always so complicated.

Singing our messages in a scene which is very darkened and cauldron-like … death is a very common word in [metal] lyrics … I would say it would have been easier for us to be a more expendable, ordinary metal band, but on the other hand, how unique we would have been just being the ordinary metal band?

Everybody knows American bands and metal bands from Europe, and I think our contribution to the metal scene is to reflect something from the region that we come from. I mean, it wouldn’t make sense for me to come from the Middle East, to come from Israel, and to make Norwegian black metal. Or to create this Florida-type of death metal. It doesn’t make sense. I really like this metal, but I think we should contribute something [unique]. People are always looking for new [types of metal] and some refreshing sounds, and I think this is an angle we can use for our benefit. We talk from a different place. We have a different color, a different mentality, and everything is different over here. It should be fascinating for a metal fan to check [out] our music.

Which quarters have been the most accepting and which have been the most resistant to your message?

Well, I live in Israel, which is a democracy, and we have the freedom to do whatever we want. Israel is very much attached with religion and culture and stuff like that, but with that said, the country is a democracy, so you can do and say whatever you want. The only subject that is really sacred for Israelis is the Holocaust or Nazis, so we don’t want to touch that or insult people or deal with that. But other than that, we do whatever we want.

Of course, we have a lot of criticism, but it’s in a way which is, I would say, respected. A lot of people are criticizing our band photos. A lot of my Orthodox Jewish friends were criticizing me, like, “Why are you dressing up as Jesus Christ?” Or they were criticizing, “Why are you bowing like Muslims, and why are Muslims reading the Torah, which is Judaism?”

And you know what, even metal people were criticizing the band photo, thinking, like, “What, is it a white-metal band? Are you a Christian band? Are you missionaries?” But the answer is, in big capital letters, NO. Because we’re not anything of these things. We just did it to create utopia.

We come from a very tragic region where the three Abrahamic religions – the religions that are supposed to represent morality, tolerance, charity and friendship … have forgotten completely their essence, and they’re killing each other for centuries. And the most bizarre thing about it is that they do it in the name of God. So how ridiculous are we in comparison to that?

[The photo] is very important to explain, because there is so much about it – more than meets the eye. And I think that this is our way to tell people in our region, we are not religious. We do deal with spirituality and a positive message, but we don’t take any sides. We don’t support any group more than any other one. We don’t support the Jew more than the Christian, or we don’t support the metalhead more than the one that loves jazz music. We simply say that everything belongs to one and everything should be united into one. Everyone is entitled to be who he is, but we should all mingle as one, and respect and accept one another. And this is what we’re trying to say with this photo: Why can’t you just get along?

That’s profound, and I appreciate your clarity. The way you speak is so inspiring and reassuring. Are people surprised when they find out you’re in a metal band?

Yes. [He laughs.] When people hear me speak, they could think that I belong to some [peace-activist group] or something.

On the other hand, that’s why we chose to be in a metal band, because we like to take – artistically – everything that exists. We like to go to the blackest, and we like to go to the most shining white, and we like to combine them together. We call this concept [behind the photo shoot] “The tango between God and Satan.” We like to take these two opposites, these two conflicts, and we like to put them together so that they will create something new. Like some kind of a salad that creates a new flavor and taste.

This is what we do in a musical level. Sometimes people don’t get to the bottom of it, because people like to judge stuff, and they like to categorize things. For example, a lot of people think a metal band is all about fatalism or being rebellious. A lot of people think that if you have a positive message, you’ve probably been to India a few years … and you’re doing meditation all day long.

But if you put that aside, all of us have all these things are combined in us to be the humans that we are. We have good sides about ourselves, and we have these bad sides about ourselves. We have this black room in our hearts, and we have this very shiny room in our hearts. So this is our music: It’s metal music – I scream, I growl, but I can sing these lyrics from Islam or from the Koran or from the Torah or just dealing with this unification. This is, at the end of the day, a cycle that we are a part of, and we can put everything aside and make a salad out of it.

I love it. Obviously, you speak English very well, and I imagine you speak Hebrew. Do you speak Arabic too?

Well, I do speak Arabic. Unfortunately – and this is a very sad story for me – when we grew up, every Arab and Israeli youth, when they are growing up, they teach them to dislike the other. I was growing up knowing that the Arab hates me and wants me dead. And, because of that, I didn’t want to learn Arabic in school. So I was sleeping in class and just flying with my mind – anywhere you can imagine – but I wasn’t really concentrated on the lesson.

And that’s the way I missed Arabic: It was because of this propaganda in my mind. And I’m really sorry for it today, because one of the most amazing results that Orphaned Land has ever achieved is that we have dozens of Arabic fans. And I do speak Arabic in the sense of I can have a small talk with an Arab guy. But that’s it; I cannot go into detail the way I can go in English.

And it’s really unfortunate, because I really want to go and finish this one day. I really want to go and learn Arabic, because just the fact that I’m Israeli and have dozens of Arabic fans is so bizarre. I don’t know if your readers can really get to the bottom of it, but imagine that the al-Qaeda people will follow an American artist. Or imagine that the Lakers fans will cheer the Boston Celtics.

[We both laugh.]

How bizarre it is that Arab people will follow an Israeli band when they educate them to hate them. Just the simple fact that the Israelis and the Arabs are killing each other for decades. So why should they do it, why should they make a tattoo of an Israeli band?

This is really amazing. I really found out through Orphaned Land that, in comparison to religion, music is really holiness – the way that it can unite people, the way it could enter the hearts of people. I simply have dozens of Arab fans, and I know that they were educated to hate me, but music is so strong that it’s succeeded to break all these boundaries.

This is an amazing cure for healing our world. … In most cases, we believe that we have nothing in common with our enemies. We believe that they represent everything that we’re not standing for. And knowing that you and your enemy can sing the same song could be a door for a dialogue between the two.

I know I speak a lot about this subject, but I really want you and your readers to understand that this is just because I’m coming from a place that is described as the Holy Land, the Promised Land. And everyone was here, you know: Jesus was here and Abraham was here. And I’m not a religious guy, but I really feel that this Holy Land is so filled with wars and bloodshed, and this blood circle is so useless and pointless that I really feel that the only hope for this region is music.

I don’t think that we are going to change the world with music. I don’t think that we are going to be the leaders that are going to bring peace. But I definitely think that, with music, we could help people to think differently. We could give them a seed of something else to see how, with music, we succeeded to create this so-called “heaven on earth.” Because we combine all these languages, all these elements, all these religions in metal music. So everything is in there. We are an individual example of how to live a rich life, because our music is very rich. And if people would learn to translate our rich music into making their own life as rich as our music, then this is a success.

I know that having so many fans in Israel and also in the Arab countries, it’s definitely a small movement, [but] this is my proof that I’m not this hallucinating guy. I can really prove that music can do this, and this is the most amazing thing.

I was going to ask you what gives you hope, but clearly it’s music itself. Are your Arab fans mostly based in Israel and the territories?

Yeah, but they mostly come from the Arab countries themselves, which is very bizarre, because these regimes are the complete opposite of democracy. Imagine that you and me, we can go with our T-shirts with any bands that we want – we can express ourselves, we can make our hair long, we can have tattoos, we can really express ourselves individually the way we want, and those people are redefining the word “underground” in a way that you and me aren’t even familiar with.

I know about a fan of ours that was thrown in jail for six months because authorities in Egypt found in his house a song of us where we use part of the holy Koran. We did it in the most respected way, but they never bothered to check it, so they just did it. He was accused of blasphemy [and put] in jail. This is some of the stories.

Of course, we also have Arab communities in Europe and some in the USA – because there is an Arab population everywhere – and sometimes it’s easier for them to communicate and to live their lives freely. But yeah, we have fans from all over – we also have, of course, American fans and European fans. People really like us in Europe: France, Italy and Spain. And in the USA, we have some kind of hardcore fans.

So I would say that music is a global language, and we do have fans from all over.

How do fans even find your music in some Arabic countries?

You know what, sometimes it’s really funny, because what I learned from these things in terms of sending records, let’s say, I learned that you always get your opinion when you look at the world from a different place. We all have opinions, but we all shape these opinions when we look at the world from our own perspective.

I’m saying this because in one interview, the guy was asking me if I’m against or pro all the download and sharing programs that exist in the music market. And my answer was not that clear, because, of course, where my album is available and you can buy it, I want people to buy it. But on the other hand, our album is forbidden and it’s not possible to get our album in all these Arab countries. And the only way we have these thousands of Arabs having our music is because of sharing programs and download systems.

So it depends on the region.

It seems like your band is entering realms that other bands couldn’t even conceive of entering – which seems to be a theme of what you’ve been talking about this whole time. Can you talk about “Disciples of the Sacred Oath II” and the message behind that song?

This is one of the most upfront approaches to songs that we ever wrote. We wrote over the years more than 50 songs, and we always deal with what’s going on in our region, in the Middle East. We always deal with the tragedy of the region – but we never really speak about it in a very fragile way. It’s always with allegory, or we take mythologies and stories and create these things and then speak about unification. We never get too fragile with approaching and speaking to people.

And this is one of the only songs that we ever did it. It’s like we, as Orphaned Land and as Israelis, we approach Muslims and Arab people. We just speak to them directly, we speak to their hearts, calling them Sons of Ishmael and stuff like that. Quoting the Koran. And I think that this is one of the most important songs that we ever did.

I also sung in Arabic, and it took me, like, a month just how to learn all the diction and how to make it right. And I had a lot of help from my Arab friends who are in Syria and all these “enemy” countries. They were just helping me with Skype, with these microphones open. They were listening to what I recorded and fixing my mistakes. So it was quite an adventure, but at the end of the day, I’m really proud that we made this song with the help of these people. And I’m proud of the lyrics of this song and believe it could really help with unification.

The reason that we chose to be so upfront in this song is that we seemed to sing about the same subject for 18 years. This is not a new band. And, thinking back to the times of my youth – when we were teenagers, releasing our first album, Sahara, in 1994 – we were singing about the same subject. And leaders and politicians were coming and going, changing all the time, but the situation stayed as it is. And we’re kind of sick of it, you know? And we think that people here are trapped in this spell or a coma.

I don’t feel supreme or above people. I don’t want to sound like I am the awakened one and they’re the ones in a slumber, but I really feel like they’re trapped in this spell of newspapers and the [cycle] that a Jew should hate a Muslim and a Muslim should hate a Jew. Or that the Jews killed Jesus and that Christians should hate the Jews.

This is really bollocks, you know, and we really feel that sometimes we need to have this more upfront approach in our songs, even though we tried to prevent it.

On the one hand, we are not a political band. Because I think that being political is taking a side, and we’re not taking any side. On the other hand, we are the most political band, because we are all about the macro picture of what’s going on in our region. It’s never songs about my ex-girlfriend or one of our love stories or stuff like that. Sometimes I really want to sing about my ex-girlfriend, but this is probably not the job for that.

I would say that this is who we are, and we have to sing about the subject, and we will succeed to create more movement, and this is our [duty] in helping this region.

Do you know of any other bands – Israeli or otherwise – that are doing what you’re doing?

Not really. I think that we’re pretty much unique in this kind of things. I know bands that are doing very positive messages, but they’re not metal bands. I know Israeli metal bands, but they don’t speak this message, so I would say that in terms of this “tango between God and Satan,” we’re the only ones so far.

You seem like a pacifist. Was it difficult to perform your obligatory military service in Israel?

I would say that no, because as I said, we’re living in a free country. So, if you go to the Army, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a Marine, for example. There are a lot of things that you can do in the Army. I was just a very simply classification: I was fixing tanks all day long, and I really didn’t have to deal with the conflict in a very fragile way.

The only problem that I had is that, when you go to the Army, it’s a three-year service. And I couldn’t go out of the Army to record our first album. When I went to my commander and asked him to unite my next two vacations, he was laughing at my face. And I had to run away from the Army to record our first album, and then I had to spend a month in the Army jail.

You did?

That was kind of my story with the Army. And, after that, I was completely disappointed with the system. It was after a year of service … before that, I was the greatest soldier, doing everything I was told. And after that, I became the worst on earth.

I went to a psychiatrist. I told him, “Listen, I have my gun with me, and I don’t want to stay in the Army, and it’s your responsibility. I will put a bullet in my head if I’m staying one day more in this Army.”

So they let me go. And, according to the Israeli Army, I’m a lunatic.

You, sir, are true metal.

I’m not really proud of it, to be honest, because I really think that, if Israel would not have an Army, our Arab enemies – the extreme ones – would wipe us out of the earth, you know? And I really think it’s important to be in the Army or to serve your country, to love your country. But I can proudly say that I found my own way to do it. I think that I contribute much more to helping my country with Orphaned Land.

European metalheads take note: Orphaned Land will be touring with Amorphis throughout November. They’ve also lined up gigs in Istanbul, Turkey, for December 15 and 17. Those should help compensate for the set they were supposed to play at that country’s summer festival Sonisphere. It was canceled due to political tensions between Israel and Turkey.

Related interviews:

• Steve Earle: ‘It’s Very Dangerous To Be Ignorant Of Islam’
• 3 Inches Of Blood’s Cam Pipes Geeks Out On Tolkien, ‘Dungeons & Dragons’
• Isis’ Aaron Turner In ’02: Oceanic Is ‘The Best Material We’ve Ever Written’
In Flames Album Discography: Drummer Touches ‘Em All
An Extremely Long Conversation About Extreme Metal With Albert Mudrain

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