Lead singer Gal Tamir who sings ladino music Lead singer Gal Tamir who sings ladino music Lead singer Gal Tamir grew up in a small town in Israel but now lives in Portugal's capital. (Photo: Karoline Kronsteiner)

A musician caught between two worlds

Israeli singer Gal Tamir's journeys took him through the Brazilian jungle before landing him in Lisbon.

Gal Tamir was successful, and he was miserable. After leaving his hometown village in eastern Israel, he'd moved to Jerusalem to study singing and worked his way up from cashier to producer at a city cultural center.

“I had an amazing life,” Tamir told me as we sipped espressos in his meticulously decorated apartment in Portugal, overlooking Lisbon. He was a bubbly, talkative man with sensitive eyes that always seemed to hone in on details, like the raindrops dripping down his window. “But something was missing.”

That something was his ability to feel. He worked in an office all day, a stable, four-walled kind of life. A life that was making him numb.

“I did not touch anything but the keyboard. I was not scratched by anything anymore,” Tamir told me. "I did not bleed anymore.”

I was talking to Tamir because he would go on to start Al’Fado, a band blending Israeli and Portuguese music. It's a mixture with roots that go deep; this particular branch of Israeli music started in Spain, and Tamir's creation would link the medieval Ladino music of the past to the present, bringing at least three genres full circle. But forget that, for now. This story’s ending, like the music Tamir helped to revive, doesn’t mean much unless you know where it began.

The singer ignored his ennui for a while. Then one day, his coworkers got into a conversation about the benefits of changing their lives every few years. And yet, Tamir could imagine them all in the same office, or one like it, for the rest of their lives. All of a sudden, Tamir had a realization: if he wanted to make a change, he had to cut out everything that made him comfortable, like his language, culture and home. And, most importantly, his job. So he quit.

“This is not a threat,” he told his boss, handing him a letter of resignation. “I didn’t come to negotiate.”

Then he gave away his belongings and booked a flight to the Brazilian jungle.

Tamir was terrified on the plane, not sure if he was headed for destruction or redemption. He hadn't based his decision on much data; he’d chosen Brazil because he liked the sound of Portuguese, and he’d chosen the jungle because it was unlike anywhere he'd lived before.

In the jungle, Tamir worked on a coffee farm with no electricity or running water. He learned to row a canoe made out of a hollowed log; he had to keep a bucket on hand because the boat leaked so easily.

Tamir adapted to his new surroundings, but after a few months, he grew desperate for music. So he journeyed to a club in Rio de Janeiro, where a band was playing “choro” music, a genre he describes as the “sad sister of samba.” Choro began in 19th-century Rio and, despite often being upbeat, does seem to have a wistful feeling. "Choro" means "cry" in Portuguese.

“Lovers sent overseas. Broken hearts,” Tamir explained. “You don’t study choro from notes. You listen, you imitate. There are things you cannot pick up from paper. You cannot write down the energy. You can’t record it even. Musicians come to life this way.”

The singer was fine, but the mandolin player really got his attention – he played so beautifully. After the concert, Tamir talked to the player, who invited him to another concert.

This concert was different. It was in the afternoon, and almost everyone else in the audience was in their 70s and 80s. The band played a few fast songs, then switched to a quiet one, called “Carinhoso,” about longing for a lover. All of a sudden, people in the audience started joining in. Soon, everyone was singing this melancholy song together. For Tamir, it was a moment of pure magic.

“My jaw was on the floor,” he said. The song had scratched him.

Tamir didn’t know then that his romance with this song would change his life, but he knew one thing: he had to translate it into Hebrew. He contacted a bunch of experts around the world and managed to create a Hebrew version. The mandolin player even agreed to play it with him in public.

Rain was pouring the day Tamir headed to the tiny outdoor bar in Rio where he'd planned on debuting the song. No one will come to an outdoor bar in this weather, he thought. But people were there, warming themselves with music and beer. Tamir sang the song in both Portuguese and Hebrew as the mandolin player played.

“People actually listened,” he told me, still surprised.

Tamir left Brazil – he adored it, but didn’t think he belonged there. He returned to Israel, and his friends and family surrounded him. Tamir could feel himself slipping back into his old groups, his old ways. So instead of staying with friends or renting an apartment, he booked a bed in a Jerusalem hostel.

“I did not want to be soaked back into my previous life,” he told me. “Movement keeps me alive.”

Israel was too familiar, Brazil too foreign. So he picked somewhere in between, both literally and figuratively: Portugal. He journeyed to Lisbon, where he fell in love with the local music scene and started going to concerts three or four times a week. One day, an Israeli musician living in Lisbon named Avishay Back contacted him on Facebook.

“Gal, listen, I have this idea,” Back told him. “Let’s do Ladino.”

Back wanted to start a band that sang Ladino, an old language that combined Spanish and Hebrew. Like Tamir, Ladino is nomadic. It started in medieval Spain and moved around the world, between places like Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and (especially) Israel. It has faded from most countries but is still fairly important in Israel, a country far from the language's origins.

“I’ve never sung Ladino in my life,” Tamir said. And yet, when he, Back and some other musicians got together for a practice session, Tamir instantly felt at home with the language. Ladino has traveled so much that everyone sings it differently. Tamir’s Ladino is influenced strongly by fado, a genre of Portuguese music that, like Ladino music, often centers on sadness.

“They both focus on how tough it is to go through life,” he told me. “Those little black moments that make life what they are.”

“Why are you so moved by sad music?” I asked him as the sun sank behind the crimson Portuguese roofs in the distance, washing the room in a golden glow. He thought about it.

“If I handed you a playlist of happy, cheerful songs, how many of them would you remember?” he asked me. “Truth comes out, in sadness.” Sad songs have that peculiar ability to pull on your heartstrings.

A fado song came on his laptop. It was about a woman whose lover was sailing away.

“Story of my life,” he mused. “My roots are on both sides of the sea.” Though Tamir has an apartment in Lisbon, he’s not a Portuguese citizen, so he has to travel every few months, often back to Israel. That’s not so unusual, he told me, explaining that more people are traveling and getting caught between their homelands and new homes. I couldn’t argue. As I write this, I am a Chicagoan living in New York, traveling through Portugal. My traveling buddies include an Irish woman living in New York and an American man heading to Lithuania for the foreseeable future.

“I’m a lonely person. It kind of goes hand in hand with being a person that travels alone,” Tamir told me. “But I’m a very happy person too.”

Israeli-Portuguese band Al'Fado, featuring Gal Tamir, Avishay Back, João Roque and Diogo Melo. Israeli-Portuguese band Al'Fado, featuring Gal Tamir, Avishay Back, João Roque and Diogo Melo. (Photo: Paulo Martinho)

Tamir and Back put together their Ladino band, Al'Fado. They also brought on two Portuguese musicians, João Roque and Diogo Melo de Carvalho.

Al'Fado is still in its beginnings. But the reception has been warm, Tamir told me. Some of the most important living fado writers said they loved the music. One of these, an old Ladino musician from Yugoslavia named Flory Jagoda, invited Tamir to visit her at her home in D.C.

“Oh my love, I heard you were coming,” she told him when he showed up on her doorstep.

Jagoda sat next to Tamir on the couch, and he remembered one of her songs, “Rikordus di mi nona," about a woman remembering her grandmother. The song was dark and sweet, like Portuguese port wine. It was the kind of lullaby a mother might sing to her child as the world was ending.

Tamir played one chord on the guitar, and Jagoda instantly recognized the song and joined in. The two musicians, seas away from their hometowns, sang the lonely lullaby together.

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A musician caught between two worlds
Israeli singer Gal Tamir's journeys took him through the Brazilian jungle before landing him in Lisbon.