Kobi Farhi became known in the world of music as the lead singer and founding member of the Israeli band ORPHANED LAND, which was formed back in 1991. The band had to wait for their turn at international success for over 10 years. Even during those years, they already managed to influence the lives of many people in the Middle East without being deeply aware of the impact they were slowly starting to have. From the initial enthusiasm for metal music which they started to combine with the oriental influences of their region, they naturally turned into a band step-by-step with a sense of mission and purpose. The breakthrough moment for the band arrived in the form of an email from a Palestinian fan who sent them a photo of him getting an ORPHANED LAND tattoo, together with a message about the importance of their music in his life. This was the moment that completely changed the views of these musicians, who immediately began to understand the power of music and their future journey.
There is a beautiful message in the concept of ORPHANED LAND that grows bigger and bigger as new topics are introduced with each album, but the main ideas serving as the pillars of their entire creative process remain: bringing light and hope to the lives of those who suffer under the pressure of the uncompromising rules of society, opening the eyes and changing the minds of blood enemies by showing different views and ways of thinking and spreading peace, humanity and friendship through the music and philosophy they are all devoted to.
The band went through several lineup changes throughout the years. The most significant one happened in 2011 with the departure of one of the founding members and lead guitarist Yossi Sassi. He was replaced by the generation-younger, creative and talented Chen Balbus, who helped to bring the band to another level thanks to his interest and use of modern technologies.
You come from Jaffa, which is one of the oldest cities in the world and also a crossroads for several ethnic groups, implying some form of cultural and religious diversity. What were your feelings about the city, especially while you were growing up? Was it natural for you or were you also confused by it?
I think it was both because like you said, Jaffa is a very, very old city, having a lot of archeology and history. Jaffa is even mentioned in the Bible when Jonah was trapped in the belly of the beast. Growing up in Jaffa was an amazing experience. As a kid, it was a very personality-shaping experience for me. The population of the city consisted of people from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The music from your neighbors was always different. I could hear the Synagogue, I could hear Arabic music from our neighbors, I could hear the church. Three places with such a huge distance between them, this is only happening in Israel, in Jaffa. Of course, also in Jerusalem, but there it is more something that is very related to the holy land. I remember when I was a kid, people used to tell me that I was living in the city that celebrates the most holidays in the world. This city celebrates Jewish holidays, Muslim holidays and Christian holidays. I always used to see it in the windows. The crosses if it was Christmas, the crescent if it was Ramadan or the hanukkiah if it was the Jewish Hanukkah. I have always found it to be very multicultural. My grandparents, they had a textile factory and they used to have employees from all the people of Jaffa. These were Christians, Muslims… I remember walking around them and seeing that there was a very good vibe between them all. Great harmony, great friendship, they were working and laughing all the time, eating together, drinking together… This is definitely my biggest inspiration for the creation of the lyrics for ORPHANED LAND, for the concept and things that I stand for. I take my home city and my childhood as a very big influence.
So, when did the biggest source of confusion start inside you?
The biggest confusion for me started when I became a teenager. I started to get fed up with the newspapers and other people’s opinions, whether if it was about Muslims or about Christians or the opinions of Muslims about Jews. For a short period, I was very confused and thought that maybe an Arab wanted to kill me or something like that. There were always some stories about bloodshed in Jaffa. It was not 100 percent stories of coexistence and friendship. There were stories of both kinds. I am trying to be a positive being. I strongly remember the positive stories. I embrace them and take them with me. I was confused because they always taught us even in school that Isaac and Ishmael, they were brothers. Isaac is the father of Judaism and Ishmael is the father of Arabs and both of them are the sons of Abraham. I was always confused why we are fighting with the Arabs because we are brothers historically. We believe in the same stories, we have the same names. It’s like Sweden and Norway, it’s like the Slavic people. We are the same people and I never understood it. Of course, there is the fact that Jesus was a Jew. I couldn’t understand the feelings of Christianity even though they blame the Jewish people for Jesus being crucified. I was always confused and didn’t understand it, but I grew to understand we are strongly brainwashed by the media, by our priest, by our rabbi, by our religious leaders, by the newspaper… They feed us, and we take it as the absolute truth. So, our parents are brainwashed. We get it from everywhere. We get it from TV, we get it from religious leaders from any kind and we get it from our parents and friends. They paint this reality. I think the best-selling toy in the world is a toy gun. As a small kid, you grow up with a toy gun in your hands, then you grow up and the guns become real. It makes sense to you because you were trained to hold a gun ever since you were a kid. You were fighting with your friends with guns, you were fighting with your videogame with guns and now when you have that brainwashed stuff all around you, you are ready to hold the gun, to go and defend your country from the enemy. I have grown up to understand that this is a big falsehood and the only thing I can do about it is to write music. I am devoted to music and songwriting. That’s my weapon. I take Jaffa and all this experience with religion, that’s one of the reasons why we use a lot of motifs from religion. I am not a religious human being and I have a lot of criticism towards religion. I think that they are failing to provide the things that they were trusted to provide. If it’s hope, if it’s humanity, if it’s morality, if it’s just about the value of life, if it’s just that everyone is a child of God. Religion is like a political party that takes care of their own needs, that’s all.
The oriental influences in your music are understandable thanks to your origins. How did you get into metal music? How was it with the support for metal music in Israel back then, especially in the 80s – 90s and in the times when there was still no Internet?
First of all, I will go back to Jaffa. Other than the fact that Jaffa was a very multicultural city, Jaffa was always a very hard-core city. It was the city with the biggest amount of junkies in Israel. When I was a kid, every second person statistically here was a junky. I have a junky in my family. A lot of spirituality or religion and a lot of hard-core people on the other hand, all these hard-core people all together, this is ORPHANED LAND in a way. I would go forward to my youth. You have to understand that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. We are surrounded by countries that now have regimes that are holding steady, but those countries used to be dictatorships, sometimes slaughtering their own people, and Israel was always a free country. We were free to expose ourselves to music from the west and to heavy metal. METALLICA was already in Israel in 1993. That was highlight of my youth. I was 17 years old when I first went to a METALLICA concert. We were always free to express our thoughts, to do whatever we wanted. I could declare in the middle of the streets that I believe in Satan and wanted to piss on the head of the prime minister and no one would put me in jail or kill me because of it. Heavy metal came here before it came to the Arab world. Everything seemed to me to be very old, very plastic when I was 15 years old until I discovered IRON MAIDEN. From the first moment when I heard their music, I felt that I had discovered a secret world or something very sincere, something that didn’t wish to be radio-friendly or popish or anything that. I discovered myself like I was resurrected or reborn into the way of living I knew that I wanted for myself. I felt it when I was 15 years old and I still feel it today. Heavy metal music can do wonders, music in general can do wonders, and heavy metal especially can do wonders that are magnificent. ORPHANED LAND is the proof of it. The band members of ORPHANED LAND are the most popular Israelis in the Arab world and it’s because of heavy metal music. In the rainbow of the people of Israel, you can find many people who can also potentially be popular in the Arab world. It could be poets, left wing politicians or pro-Palestinian politicians, documentary directors… How can it be that heavy metal dudes are the most popular guys in the Arab world? It’s because of our lyrics of course, the specialty of our music, but also being a heavy metal band. That’s just a fact. It just proving the things I felt when I was very young. It proves that heavy metal has a lot of power. It even changes your mind that we are talking here about historical brothers, but currently blood enemies that have killed each other for over a hundred years now. It seems like Arabs and Israelis completely forgot that they are brothers and they just see each other as animals. When heavy metal music seems to break it or seems to change it, that is something with nothing like it in the Middle East. It’s always bloody stories, always stories of fires and weapons. It’s never stories of friendship and brotherhood.
You experienced the Gulf War when you were only 16. We don’t have to talk in detail about how terrifying an experience it had to be. But can we say it was one of the more motivational times for you when you decided to speak to the people through your music and showing people different ways of thinking?
Yes, it was right at the time when I was really strongly into heavy metal. I was going to sleep with METALLICA in my headphones back then and I felt that METALLICA was protecting me from all the evil of the world. I really see heavy metal as a religion and the people of heavy metal, I see them as rabbis or something like that. It was back in the Gulf War where I wrote the lyrics with my friend to the song The Sahara Storm from the album “Sahara.” You can see the lyrics, they’re very strong and very much attached with the Israeli – Arab conflict. In the song I even mentioned the words Desert Storm – it was the name of the operation that the United States ran during the whole war in the Gulf. It was named by the United States. That was the song that came out of the Gulf War and it’s a great song. It’s the opener on our debut album and it’s one of my favorites up till now.
You have been very controversial since the beginning of your career. What have been the reactions from the closest people to you, like your family, aren’t they worried about your life, especially when you are on tour?
Yes, they are always afraid. You know, being a Jewish human being, that means that you are always afraid. I believe that you know history. The Jews were persecuted ever since the time of Jesus or when they were the slaves of Egypt in the Bible. They were persecuted in Russia, all over Europe, all over the world. No one really loves the Jews for some reason which I don’t know understand, but that’s a fact. Even not being in a band, just being a Jew, going outside of the country. Your parents are always telling you if you have a necklace with the star of David, try to hide it. Don’t let people know that you are Jewish. Be careful, don’t speak Hebrew very loudly. This is the natural Jewish fear of being persecuted coming from the Holocaust. Of course, being in a band, standing on stage, being so exposed, singing songs dealing with a fragile subject. My family is always afraid, but that’s my mission in this world and that’s what I want to do. I can’t let my fears, or my family’s fears, paralyze me. I believe that I’m doing the right thing and that I’m doing a good thing. And this is the only thing I know how to do. I can’t be a mechanic or a bus driver or a businessman or banker. I can only be Kobi from ORPHANED LAND. That’s what I know.
You are the youngest member of ORPHANED LAND. You were approximately born around the time the band was formed. You joined the guys in 2011, how did it all start for you?
I was born when I was born. It’s not my fault (laughs). Kobi and my brother are friends. They went to school together and Kobi used to hang out in our house. There were very few metalheads in Israel at that time. You could count them with the fingers on your hands. They were the only guys in black t-shirts in Israel. I remember Kobi a bit from my childhood memories. Seeing this tall guy in our house, I was a shy boy, of course. Eventually, as I was growing up, I picked up the guitar at some point and I started making videos. It was at the time when YouTube was just starting to get big on the Internet. I saw people doing covers and I was the guy who was doing ORPHANED LAND covers. I had a direct approach to ORPHANED LAND, so I always sent my videos to Kobi and he liked them. At some point, they asked me if I would be interested in becoming a replacement guitar player. I went for that offer of course without even thinking about it twice. So I joined the band in 2011. Yossi was there and then wasn’t there because he was on his solo project tour. Kobi and Uri, they sat with me and we started to work on material for the “All Is One” album. That was the fastest album in the history of ORPHANED LAND, by the way. We did it all within 2 months. Then the other guitar player left, the rest is history and I stayed there.
I really appreciate when people of different ages are able to connect. It can be really beneficial from the creative and experience side of things. We can say you are coming from the generation born with computers in your heads. How much have you influenced the band by using new technologies and arrangements or different, modern sounds?
Yes, this is a good thing they really like about having me in the band. I’m coming from the generation which I’m calling the sandwich generation. At the time I was born without a computer, but it wasn’t long till I got one. I already had a computer at 10. I’ve always been into technologies, I was always digging deeper into that stuff. I know a lot of stuff that they don’t. The good part of technology is that it allows us to do things very fast and in a way they wouldn’t be able to do before, like recording ideas. Or preproduction, it’s something that wasn’t here in their time. They just practiced in the rehearsal room and went to the studio. Now you can memorize the song and have all the sounds that you can work on at your home. That changed a lot in the band.
What was the biggest thing you had to deal with after joining ORPHANED LAND?
The biggest point for me was when Yossi officially left. People figured he was the one writing the music and they had no idea how the band would sound without him. Now you can say that the role passed on to me. ORPHANED LAND never had an official songwriter. People took notice of this album because it was purely something new. I was very afraid of whether people would accept it because my name was out there as the new guitar player. I think it was a big step for me to become a leading guitar player.
You released your last album “Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs” which is a concept album in January of 2018. It’s a very sophisticated album in every sense of the word. Who are the unsung prophets and who are the dead messiahs in your story?
That are many people, not just one person. We have many references to the people who are the unsung prophets and they are also the dead messiahs. These are the people like Martin Luther King, Che Guevara or Victor Jara, the Chillan singer, and many more who just try to revolutionize the world with what they have, either with music or whatever against politics or stuff like that. They were trying to do something good to change it. And they were crushed by the guys with big machines, big guys in the big chairs with the money. They wanted to bring a few good words and they were assassinated for that. So, they are unsung prophets that we want to sing about and today we can say they are the dead messiahs.
What are your goals in life?
I would say my main goal in life is to leave a better world for my children to live in one day. I went to the army and the other guys also went to the army. I would be happy if by the time that I will be a father, I doubt this will happen, but I would be glad if my children don’t have to serve in an army because there won’t be any army. That we wouldn’t need one.
Photo: Koby Dovraz, Zoharon Photography
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