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Orphaned Land

The Israeli band, whose music fuses death metal growls, Jewish liturgical poems, and Middle Eastern folk, has legions of Arab fans—many of whom have petitioned for the band to receive a Nobel Prize for its cross-cultural message

Dana Kessler
July 06, 2021
Zohar Ron
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If the heavy metal band Orphaned Land’s message to the world is one of peace and unity, it came through loud and clear at their 30th-anniversary show. The concert took place in June at Heichal HaTarbut (the Culture Palace), also known as the Charles Bronfman Auditorium—the largest concert hall in Tel Aviv, and the home of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. This wasn’t an ordinary heavy metal show—but no Orphaned Land concert is ever an ordinary heavy metal show. Backed by the 45-piece Israel Chamber Opera Orchestra, as well as by the metal a cappella band Hellscore (“If hell had a choir, it would sound like Hellscore,” their website tagline puts it), the veteran Israeli metal band celebrated their anniversary in highbrow style, with an audience of nearly 2,400 witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

This certainly isn’t the first time a famed metal band has collaborated with classical musicians: There was Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony and Cradle of Filth and the Budapest Film Orchestra, for instance. But Orphaned Land’s show was not just a mix of metal guitars, growl-style vocals, and classical musicians. Their lead singer, Kobi Farhi, is a dead ringer for Jesus, he frequently sings in a chantlike voice, and the music is rife with Jewish and Arabic influences and biblical overtones. All of this makes for a surreal experience: One minute felt like a bunch of headbanging metal dudes playing klezmer music took over a classical concert, and the next minute felt like the soundtrack to a sweeping biblical Hollywood epic played from the loudspeakers at Ozzfest.

A few days after the concert, I met Farhi and Uri Zelha, the bass player who is the only other founding member still in the band. I’d actually interviewed them before—30 years ago, over the phone, when we were all still in high school. I wrote a column about new upcoming bands for an Israeli teen magazine; they were a high school metal band with lofty aspirations. They were also the only band I interviewed for my column that eventually made it—on a global scale, no less.

During their impressive career, Orphaned Land mixed their progressive metal style with a variety of styles: a few death metal growls, piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems), and Middle Eastern folk music, becoming pioneers of the subgenre known as Oriental Metal.

“I remember writing the headline ‘The First Oriental Death Metal’ above our name in Letraset on our posters in the ’90s,” Zelha laughs. “We understood early on where we are from and where we are in comparison to the rest of the metal world,” Farhi explained. “We wanted to brand a new subgenre from the beginning. We took it upon ourselves to represent the Middle Eastern metal scene to the outside world while acknowledging the complexity of the place we come from. I think this is a cause for pride for many local metalheads, because it showed the world that metal connects between people, that it promotes dialogue, coexistence, and brotherhood.”

Orphaned Land have toured the world and played live in the United States (in about 30 different states), as well as Europe, China, and Japan. But they are extremely proud of their recent local accomplishment—the anniversary concert. “We succeeded in bringing metal to the most prestigious cultural venue in the country,” Farhi concluded. “Metal was always considered peripheral and anti-establishment, and what we did was prove that metal is worthy of entering the Culture Palace. After 30 years, it really feels like a mission accomplished. The entire event was very special. Some fans took their parents on a date to the show. They showed their parents another side of the noise they were told to turn down as kids. Others came with their own kids.”

Orphaned Land has always stood for inclusion. While their themes, aesthetics, and music aim to unite the three main Abrahamic religions, their anniversary show also united young and old. Veteran fans attended with their young sons; I saw a dad proudly buying his kid his first oversize Orphaned Land T-shirt at the makeshift merchandise stall which popped up in the foyer of the distinguished concert hall (people don’t usually buy Zubin Mehta T-shirts).

Though it may initially seem counterintuitive, Orphaned Land fit the elegant venue quite well. Their albums have always boasted ambitious and pompous concepts, while their music has the pathos of the opera. Their conceptual albums usually reference a dichotomy between broad ideas: East and West, past and present, light and darkness, God and Satan. Take for example their third album, Mabool: The Story of the Three Sons of Seven, released in 2004. The album tells the story of three sons (one for each Abrahamic religion) who try to warn humanity of a flood coming as punishment for their sins. Orphaned Land tells this story through a hybrid of metal music with oriental instruments, traditional Yemenite chants, and biblical quotes.

Interestingly, these elements not only seem intriguingly exotic to audiences in the Western world, but also appeal to Middle Eastern audiences themselves. The fact that they have a fan base in their home country shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the amazing thing is that Orphaned Land actually have a dedicated following in the Muslim world: They have tens of thousands of fans throughout all the Arab countries.

The band’s love affair with the Arab world really took off in 2001, after a six-year hiatus:

“Our comeback started with an email I received from a Jordanian fan who sent me a video showing his arm, with an Orphaned Land tattoo,” said Farhi. “I forwarded it to the band, and this is what prompted us getting back together again. We started playing again and performed live in Tel Aviv and in Turkey. This was the first time we performed outside of Israel. The Jordanian fan came to the show in Turkey and brought a book in Arabic written by a famous Egyptian sheikh. It was a book about satanism and how to beware of satanic groups in Egypt. In the book was a scan of one of our songs, which includes verses from the Quran. I asked him what this is all about and he told me that the police raided an Egyptian metalhead’s house and they found our CD with this song in it. This was enough to accuse him of blasphemy and send him to jail for six months.”

In the Arab world, metal is part of the underground scene. Farhi and Zelha told me that there has never been an international metal show in Egypt or Jordan. “In Jordan, even local metal bands aren’t allowed to play,” Farhi said. “It’s considered satanism. We once toured with a Jordanian band in Europe, and they weren’t allowed to play in their own country.” According to them, so far international metal bands have only played in Dubai and Lebanon. But even though it is difficult, there are still many devoted metal fans in the Arab world.

“I think that nowadays metalheads in the Arab world are less prone to trouble with the police, as they once were,” Farhi continued. “But even today, I still don’t think they would go out in broad daylight with a metal T-shirt with a skull or a pentagram.”

I asked why they thought youngsters in the Muslim world are attracted to heavy metal music. “The complicated reality in the Middle East fits with this music and its aesthetics very well,” Farhi answered. “The brutality of the music and the aggressiveness of the growls attract them. This is just my 2 cents, but I think that the more extreme the music is, the more it attracts them. Orphaned Land specifically have many fans in the Arab world because we incorporate Arab music. And some are also attracted by the fact that we’re from Israel and it’s the forbidden fruit.”

Even though they’re popular in Muslim countries, the only Muslim country in which Orphaned Land have played live is Turkey (they were also invited to play in Dubai, but it got canceled due to the pandemic). In fact, they have played in Turkey dozens of times over the years, and as various news items on Israeli TV showed, fans from all over the Arab world flocked to the band’s shows in Istanbul. Fans from Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, and other places all traveled from their countries to Turkey to see their favorite band live. “Salaam-alaikum, brothers and sisters,” Farhi will greet his fans from the stage like a messianic figure, looking like Jesus in a white kaftan. He reminds his Arab fans that Orphaned Land is an Israeli band, and never makes this a secret—on the contrary, bringing Jews and Arabs together is what he’s all about.

Considering this, it’s almost unsurprising that in 2012, an online petition was submitted to the Norwegian Nobel committee to consider Orphaned Land for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. Their record label, Century Media Records, stated at the time that Orphaned Land is “a band that dedicates their existence to the world language of metal music and cross-cultural understanding. While not overtly political, Orphaned Land are nevertheless proud of creating a reality of coexistence that has escaped politicians and peacemakers alike. They often speak of the power of music to turn purported enemies into friends, frequently pay homage and encourage collaborations with Arab and Muslim artists, and have made their latest album free to download for anyone in a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries. Over the past years, these warriors of light achieved great things for the freedom of art, cultural and religious understanding.”

Despite their unifying powers, Orphaned Land are indeed not overtly political. Farhi tells me that the members of the band have different political views (“we don’t vote the same”), and when I ask if they have an actual political solution to the situation in the Middle East, the answer is “education.” “Education is the only answer,” Farhi insisted. “Without a change in education, we will be in an eternal limbo.”

As a band, they certainly aim to educate. As is customary in the world of metal, Orphaned Land doesn’t believe in understatement. Their video for the song “Like Orpheus,” for instance, depicts their message loud and clear: First you see a Muslim girl in a hijab and a Hasidic Jewish boy—each one of them in their traditional observant family environment. At some point they retreat to their respective rooms, privately headbanging with their headphones on. Then they secretly put on their metal garb, sneak out of the house, and go to a metal concert, headlined by German thrash metal band Kreator, at a venue in Tel Aviv. The way they both zip up their metal sweatshirts and fasten their studded bracelets feels no less ceremonious than the religious rituals they perform at home. At the end, the two youngsters sit at the same bus stop—now back in their very different daily clothes—and don’t exchange as much as a glance.

The video, which was Farhi’s idea (that Zelha hated at first; he prefers things that look more traditionally metal), went on to win video of the year at the Progressive Music Awards 2018 in London. The video looks like a documentary short, and even though the stars are actors, the plot is based on a true story.

“There was this Muslim girl from Jaffa who used to go to metal shows”, Farhi told me. “When the Polish metal band Behemoth played in Tel Aviv, she had her picture taken with the lead singer. He was in Corpse paint, really looking like the Angel of Death, and she was in her hijab. The photo went viral, and after that, she didn’t go to metal shows anymore. When we started working on the video for “Like Orpheus,” I told her that we’re basing it on her story and asked her to play herself. I explained that the video will show her respecting her religion, her society, and her culture, but also attending a metal concert. She said that she’d love to participate, but she couldn’t. After her family saw the photo, she couldn’t associate with the metal world anymore. So, we found a Jewish Israeli actress to portray her instead.”

A similar incident happened in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring. While revolts and uprisings were spreading across the Muslim world, a Lebanese belly dancer appeared with the band at the French annual metal festival, Hellfest. “She told me beforehand that she wanted us to raise the Israeli and Lebanese flags side-by-side at the end of the performance,” Farhi attested. “I told her that I would gladly do it, that for us it’s easy and great for publicity, but for her it’s dangerous. She said she doesn’t care and was hellbent on doing it, so we agreed. As expected, she got lots of trouble for this. She got a really horrible bashing in Arabic in comments on YouTube, and her family also was very angry with her. We are in touch with her to this day and I tried bringing her to perform with us in Israel, but she refused and said that her family begged her not to do anything like this again.”

As the “Like Orpheus” video depicts, Orphaned Land not only have Muslim fans, but also observant Jewish and even Haredi fans. Zelha works in a record shop in Tel Aviv and tells me of a Haredi Jew that frequents the shop, buys black metal (a very extreme subgenre), and even has a YouTube channel in which he reviews those records.

“I think we have many different kinds of fans because we incorporate many different kinds of music,” Farhi comments. “The religious Jews are attracted to our piyyutim and Jewish elements, and they also love guitars.”

I wondered how Haredi Jews could attend their shows, considering that there are women in the audience and sometimes on stage too. In the Heichal HaTarbut concert, for instance, Farhi dueted with Hellscore’s conductor, Noa Grubman, who is also the lead singer of the progressive metal band Scardust. Grubman, sporting a black evening gown and golden Rapunzel hair, added dramatic vocals and some gothic elegance to the concert. “Some of them deviate from the rules a little,” Farhi admitted.

Orphaned Land are known for their ambivalence toward organized religion and their criticism of the hatred and bloodshed that it brings. But one could argue that metal is also a religion. About 10 years ago the British press even stated that heavy metal has officially been recognized as a religion in the United Kingdom.

“You could say it’s a religion, but it’s very different to any kind of other religion,” Farhi stressed, “because it doesn’t force anything on anybody and it doesn’t claim to absolute truth. That’s exactly the problem with religions, that each one thinks it knows what’s best for everyone else. Metal doesn’t do that. Metal might be mine and Uri’s religion, but I’m not saying it’s right for everybody. It’s there for the taking and anyone who wants to can join.”

When I asked the band members what they thought was their biggest political achievement, Farhi said that he was proud of what they proved about Jewish-Muslim coexistence. In 2013, the band even toured Europe with a Palestinian band named Khalas. “We lived with them in a tour bus, while people think that Jews and Palestinians can’t live together in the same country,” said Farhi. And this coexistence is a point they prove again and again throughout their career.

“I think that Orphaned Land have more fans in the Arab world than any other Israeli cultural figure, in any field,” he continued. “But still, the dent we created in the Middle Eastern reality is a small one. The Middle East is too big for us to become Martin Luther King-like figures and to have an actual impact. But at least we give people hope, and show them that unity is possible.”

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.