Shuki would swap all success to be centre stage

Simon Yaffe speaks to Israel's most powerful music promoter

HIS enthusiasm is palpable - even over the telephone.

Shuki Weiss, Israel's premier concert promoter, has been obsessed with music from a young age.

He is the man who has brought the big hitters to the Jewish state - including such luminaries as Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, Madonna, Guns 'N' Roses and Bon Jovi.

Shuki may have been born in Israel, but he caught the music bug thanks to his regular visits to America.

"I would exchange everything I have done in my life if I could get up on stage and play the bass or guitar," Shuki told me from his office in Tel Aviv.

"I tried to learn the accordion, the guitar, bass, flute and drums as a child, but it was all a waste of money.

"I have two left hands, but I really, really love music.

"I don't care about films or television unless there is a musical connection.

"I adore that moment at concerts when the lights go out, the artists walk on stage and that first note is played.

"It still gives me shivers down the back of my neck after all these years."

Born in Netanya to Holocaust survivor parents, Sara and Israel, from Czechoslovakia, his father moved to New York as he felt there would be better opportunities for him in the Big Apple.

Shuki, 59, recalled: "I grew up hearing the screams from my mother's nightmares.

"Being a child of Holocaust survivors is something that I will always carry with me.

"Once my mother was in Israel, she never wanted to leave, but my father saw bigger things for himself in America, so he left.

"I was heavily effected from what I saw when I when I went to Birkenau - I have since taken my children there to show them where their grandmother was during the Holocaust."

Shuki's thirst for music began when he started to visit his father in America when he was 10.

He learned English through listening to the radio.

"At the time, there was not a single Israeli station which played western music," Shuki recalled.

"Then I discovered Radio Luxembourg and the BBC and The Beach Boys, The Yardbirds and The Beatles.

"Later on, I would visit my father for up to two months a year and I remember being at the Sam Goody music store at 8am, the minute they opened the doors.

"I spent all day there and they used to kick me out when they closed."

At 14 Shuki landed a part-time job in a local record store.

Western music was still not encouraged by the Israeli government - a planned Beatles concert was vetoed in 1965.

Israel only apologised for the cancellation four years ago, revealing several politicians in the Knesset had believed that the world's biggest band's performance might corrupt the minds of the Israeli youth.

Shuki, however, was determined to bring the sounds of Britain and America to his contemporaries.

Having worked part-time in the music store, he started to specialise in imported records.

That led to him opening his own chain of record stores, Masada, across Israel.

"I was the first person in Israel to get hold of a copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon," he said.

Israel began to change in the 1970s - maybe not undergoing a full-blown sexual revolution and free love ideals which happened in Europe, but more liberal ideas were beginning to emerge.

"There were a few Israeli bands who were trying to imitate western music," Shuki explained.

"I supported these local musicians and ended up putting acts on at Club Dan, next to the Dan Hotel, in Tel Aviv.

"That was the first rock 'n' roll venue in Israel."

He recruited acts from abroad too, including Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, Ian Dury, Uriah Heep and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Shuki began to make contacts, becoming friendly with agents and different artists.

As links were established, he sold his club and brought western artists to Israel's creative masses.

He truly hit the big time when he arranged for 1980s mega-band Dire Straits to perform in the country as part of their sell-out Brothers In Arms tour in 1985.

"Dire Straits were massive in Israel," Shuki recalled.

"Their concert attracted the largest number of people for any previous gig or concert I had arranged.

"They performed at the Sultan's Pool in Jerusalem and also at Yarkon Park.

"We showed Dire Straits around Jerusalem and Mark Knopfler (whose father was a Hungarian Jew) was really taken by the spiritual side of it all."

Shuki explained that he has been fortunate in the fact that Israel is home to some excellent historical sites which have doubled up as concert venues.

Eric Clapton, Radiohead and Bjork have all played at the Roman Amphitheatre in Caesarea, while Bob Dylan has performed at the Sultan's Pool, an ancient pool in the valley of Hinnom.

Despite Shuki's numerous successes in bringing artists to Israel, there have been musicians who have cancelled concerts in the country due to pressure from pro-Palestinian groups.

Elvis Costello, The Pixies, Gil Scott-Heron and Carlos Santana are a few who have pulled out of concerts in Israel.

"Musicians are very, very sensitive human beings," Shuki explained.

"They take the little things that they may not agree with much more seriously.

"However, what they have to remember is that Israel is a true democracy - you may not necessarily agree with what the government is doing, but come over here, come on stage and express your message that way. That is democracy.

"I couldn't care less if, in my concerts, the crowd is left-wing, right-wing, Jewish or Arab - they are there to watch an artist perform.

"If an artist refuses to perform here, who is he truly boycotting? His fans?

"What they need to remember is that music is a tool which brings people together."

Pink Floyd founder member Roger Waters has been one of Israel's harshest critics.

But Shuki still managed to persuade him to perform a concert there in 2006.

"Pink Floyd, I would say, are the most popular band in Israel - they have been for a long time," he explained.

"We'd arranged a concert at Yarkon Park, but we then decided to move it to an Arab-Jewish village called Neve Shalom, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

"There are 22 families living there - half Jewish, half Arab - and it is a symbol of true co-existence."

Shuki and his team uprooted a chickpea field at Neve Shalom at a cost of millions of shekels.

He recalled: "By moving it there, Roger felt he was doing something good.

"He told me it was the best concert he did on his entire tour.

"He planted some eucalyptus trees there, as well.

"I was impressed with Roger - we had a long chat after the concert."

Shuki said he understood The Pixies decision to cancel their Israel concert - it was at the time of the storming by Israeli soldiers of the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara, in 2009.

But he was scathing about Costello.

"I didn't understand it," Shuki fumed. "People like him signed a contact with me, then, a week before he was due to arrive, he noticed something in a newspaper about Israel and decided to cancel.

"You don't do that when you sign a contact.

"Ironically, his wife Diana Krell performed a month later in Israel - and it was not the first time she had been here.

"The Red Hot Chili Peppers cancelled 10 years ago, but that was understandable because it was at the time of the Second Intifada.

"And Depeche Mode cancelled during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 - again that was understandable."

The logistics of arranging concerts in Israel is not easy, mainly due to regular heightened security alerts.

"We do have additional expenses on security," Shuki said.

"We have a higher taxation here, so we have to rent the equipment, which is expensive, but the government and relevant city council help us out."

Shuki, who lists Van Morrison's concert at the Caesarea amphitheatre as among his favourites, still talks with gusto about upcoming artists who are heading to Israel.

"I am very proud we have Madonna on her MDNA tour - it is a big honour," he continued.

"We almost got Bruce Springsteen too, but we're still working on him."

For all his success, Shuki still describes himself as "a flower boy from the 1970s".

The father-of-two and grandfather-of-three spends Monday to Thursday in Tel Aviv, and the rest of the week at his home in the Galilee.

He revealed that he is learning how to be a farmer from the locals, as well as becoming involved in a local winery and looking after his olive trees.

"The olive trees are blooming - maybe it's all the music I play to them," Shuki laughed.

Music is Shuki's life - even in the quite valleys of the Galilee.

"There's not a single day I do not wake up and think that what I do is a gift," he enthused.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph