Interviews

 star

[excerpts from a translation]

One voice in thirty languages
by Haggai Hitron,
[Ha’aretz, September 13, 2004]

Singer Jill Rogoff… was raised to appreciate national and cultural differences. For her, the magic of human culture lies in its diversity. Perhaps it has to do with her background: her father was born in the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw, her mother is a native New Zealander [whose] parents [were born in] England. Jill herself was born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand, and has lived in Jerusalem since 1979, whence she ventures forth — spiritually and in reality — to foreign worlds.

Her vast and varied repertoire, which spans 1,000 years, includes songs in over thirty languages, among them the various exotic Celtic tongues — Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx (from the Isle of Man), Welsh, Cornish and Breton (from Brittany, in France), mostly familiar to their preservers — and more ‘common’ languages like German, Spanish, French, a touch of Czech, Arabic and Yiddish, a bit of Persian and Kurdish, and of course her own native language, English. Her Hebrew is fluent, but she tends to sing Hebrew songs more when she performs abroad (“I don’t want to bring coals to Newcastle”).

Jill accompanies herself on lap-harp, guitar and some percussion. Her interests embrace… [traditional music of the British Isles, Jewish music], the Middle Ages [and] the Renaissance…. She is a singer-researcher. It is not only the urge to perform that drives her, but [also] the desire to uncover neglected treasures and share them with others.

In the last few years, she has become immersed in Ladino language and culture. This Sephardic heritage has come to occupy an important place in her programs. At the same time she is also delving into an entirely different world: the songs of John Dowland [and his contemporaries], with lute accompaniment.

With soul, heart and spirit

Jill left her homeland with a sense that she had to be somewhere else in order to really grow: “I left one of the most beautiful places in the world — this is the country in which they filmed The Lord of the Rings – but I had to travel in order to become myself.”

Folk music and multiculturalism were a family tradition. She inherited her musical talent from her parents: her father earned his living as a tailor, but played accordion for his pleasure. She remembers that her parents always enjoyed befriending foreigners. “My father and mother really collected friends,” she relates. “They loved meeting people from different cultures, and this had an influence on my sisters and me. You could say that we learned to appreciate differences — not to be afraid of otherness, but to marvel at it. Until I was eighteen, I thought everyone in the world was like my parents, loving the stranger and ‘the other’!”

Although Jill comes from a traditional Jewish family, her love for folk music began [partly] with the Jacobite legacy — songs recalling rebellions and defeats, which were composed by Scots who experienced enormous trauma in the 18th century. [Some of these] later came to New Zealand with Scottish immigrants. In fact, The Skye Boat Song was the first of [these songs that] Jill ever heard.

Curiosity and an attentive ear to the sounds of old languages, some of them almost extinct, are an ideological issue for Jill. In 2001, she relates, she attended an Early Music workshop in the French region of Languedoc. Among the participants were two singers from Brittany who wanted to explain their song in the final concert in Breton as well as in French. “… the American workshop director …strictly forbade them to speak Breton, on the curious grounds of its not being an official language in France. I was very angry when I heard this, and really encouraged the women to go through with it. So they spoke a little Breton… the audience was really excited. I have heard from other people, too, how they were beaten as children if they dared to speak their own old Celtic language. Ever since then, I have been passionate about people’s right to preserve their own culture.”

Even veteran singers continue to take lessons sometimes, to listen to advice from a respected teacher. Rogoff studied voice with Judy Axelrod, and has had master classes with tenor Neil Jenkins and early music expert Anthony Rooley. Currently, her singing coach is Poppy Holden, who teaches in London and at an annual early music workshop in the Czech Republic.

Jill’s style is not suited to large concert halls: her gentle soprano is natural, not operatic. It is a voice that is wonderfully expressive in smaller spaces, like the Crusader church in Abu Ghosh [near Jerusalem]. She resists the use of amplification, fearing any distortion that would compromise the intimacy of her art.

She performs abroad every year; …in Israel the field for folk songs in foreign languages is limited, and many of her appearances here are in private homes. Her programs always present a panorama: “It is important for me to show the audience that, while the human experience is expressed in very different ways in different places around the globe, it is essentially the same…”

star

Music adds new dose of healing at Shaare Zedek
[Shaare Zedek Newsletter, December, 2006]

19/12/2006: Walking through the halls of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center you’re bound to hear many of the sounds typically associated with a major hospital. Doctors and nurses on the phone, patients quietly interacting with visitors. Yet, as a result of a groundbreaking new therapy program taking place in the hospital, those sounds are now being joined by the melodious chords of the harp — an instrument with an ancient history connecting it to Israel’s capital which is today working to soothe the often –frayed nerves of patients, medical staff and visitors alike.

Part of an initiative by the local organization called Nevel: The Jerusalem Harp Network, several harp players can be regularly found in various departments around the hospital. Patients who serve to benefit from the music include those suffering from terminal illnesses, and the Hematology and Oncology wards are always included in the harp tours around the hospital.

According to Jill Rogoff, a professional singer and recording artist who co-founded Nevel and now uses her talents to the benefit of Shaare Zedek patients, harp music has a powerful therapeutic effect — particularly for patients coping with difficult prognoses. “In our work, the music itself is the therapy. While other quiet instruments are also effective in calming the spirit, the harp has proven itself particularly suitable for this work. Time and again, patients, visitors and staff have expressed their appreciation of the special comfort and serenity that this gentle instrument brings into their day.”

Therapeutic music has been endorsed by many medical practitioners as an important means of assisting patients to relax and get their minds away from pain. The harp program has received the enthusiastic support of Dr. Nathan Cherny, the Director of the Cancer Pain and Palliative Care Service at Shaare Zedek and one of the world’s leaders in the area of palliative care.

Beyond just the wards where one would most expect to see music being played, the harp also makes regular appearances in the neo-natology ward, where the musicians say that the soothing sounds of their instruments have been found to help premature infants in these critical stages of development.

Ms. Rogoff says harp music played in the proper manner and setting can be greatly appreciated by patients and infuse a real love of life. “While we can only play for a short while in each place, the effect of the music can linger for many hours afterwards, helping patients and staff alike to deal with the stressful situations in which they find themselves. Just as the medical teams try their utmost to ease their patients’ way, so do therapeutic musicians aim to ease the minds and spirits of those we encounter in our work.”

star

Jacobite’s ladder
[Ha’aretz, August 2, 2002]

When a high school teacher asked Jill Rogoff to record the Jacobite songs she knew to help with a history lesson, it seemed like a simple enough task.

Some 302 songs and six years later, Rogoff realizes her initial assessment was more than a little off. Today, her Jacobite songbook — as yet unpublished — is the most comprehensive ever compiled. Why would a New Zealand-born Jerusalemite put so much time and energy into preserving an esoteric Scottish tradition?

Rogoff, a professional soprano, has been singing traditional music from around the globe from as far back as she can remember. The first Jacobite song she recalls learning at the age of five was The Skye Boat Song – perhaps the most well-known of all Jacobite tunes – and Rogoff reports that her repertoire has been littered with them ever since.

But it was the request from a history teacher, who had wished to demonstrate to her students that history can be kept alive through art forms, which sparked Rogoff’s four-year search. Having initially imagined that she would come up with a dozen Jacobite songs, Rogoff recalls, “I easily got to 45 and had barely scratched the surface of my own archive.”

A Scottish friend estimated that Rogoff would reach 100 songs. She called him when she got to 120. “It just snowballed,” she says. Six months into her research, Rogoff realized that if she was going to find the songs referenced in the literature she was reading, she would have to go to Scotland.

Back in 1997, Rogoff spent a few days in the National Library in Edinburgh, followed by an intensive two weeks at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, sorting through collections of Jacobite songs from the 18th and 19th centuries; she learned that the last serious anthology of Jacobite songs was compiled in 1860. Rogoff says she requested books people had never asked for and “nearly cried” each time she found an obscure tune-book or yellowing piece of paper with a song she had not yet recorded.

Her own collection, which she has entitled The White Rose after the Jacobite emblem, spans some 300 years, and includes a few songs which predate the first Jacobite king, James VII of Scotland and II of England, who came to power in 1685. According to Rogoff, however, these songs were sung by early Jacobites and later “dusted off for every uprising.”

Underpinning her research, she says, is her “love and passion” for Jacobite songs and melodies. Although she described the Catholic branch of the Stuart dynasty as “totally inept” when it came to winning back the throne, their supporters’ song-writing abilities were “simply amazing”. Rogoff finds the songs from the 19th century “especially moving”, when the Jacobites “knew what they had lost.” But then, she adds, “the losers always have the best songs.”

As supporting the Jacobites was forbidden throughout the British Isles for many years under Protestant rule, references were often coded in songs. My Heart is Sair [Sore] for Somebody sounds like a love song, she explains, but it is actually a veiled lament for Jacobite heir Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In a bid to make the collection as usable as possible, Rogoff has put the songs into keys “which people can actually sing” and standardized the format of each song, connecting notes for those used to reading modern music. As the songs themselves are in five different languages, Rogoff has included new translations into English — not for singing, but rather to give the full meaning to the lyrics.

A Secret Agenda

Rogoff has been collecting the words of songs since she was 10 years old, following in the footsteps of her parents, who are great lovers of both word games and music. She was eight years old, Rogoff claims, before she heard anyone sing off-key and “thought they were doing it on purpose”. Her youthful dream was to make a profession from “collecting songs”. Only much later, she says, after moving to Israel in 1979, did it occur to her to become a singer.

Having graduated from Jerusalem coffee bars, via Jacob’s Ladder Folk Festival, to a solo performance at the Abu Ghosh Vocal Festival in May – where she received a rare rave review from Ha’aretz critic Haggai Hitron — Rogoff is continually developing new programs to sing. One of her current shows, Roses and Briars, which she will perform at the next Abu Ghosh Vocal Festival in September, includes music from the British Isles and Sephardi and Medieval traditions, which Rogoff admits is an “uncommonly wide repertoire.”

Rogoff plans to take her Winter Song program on a house- and small concerts tour of the United States in October, and hopes to record an album of Celtic Christmas carols to follow her three earlier solo releases.

Rogoff says whether she believes in the lyrics or not has never bothered her as a singer, although she does confess to having a “secret agenda”. She wishes to “convert people” to beautiful music and to help preserve it, “so the music doesn’t die. You can learn so much from the lyrics. It allows you to experience the world from someone else’s point of view.” – Charlotte Hallé

star

Folkus: Jill Rogoff
[Folk Notes (Israel) June 1997]

Twinkling (she has a tendency to do that) in the golden afternoon sun of Ein Kerem’s Inn, Jill reminisces that one of her first Jerusalem gigs was at this very location about 15 years ago. She draws in a deep breath and admits that music is oxygen for her.

What elements in Jill’s history spawned music as a driving force in her life? [She was] born in New Zealand; [her Polish-born] tailor father provided a musical backdrop on accordion, playing everything from folk to classical. [He entertained the American troops in his younger days.] The entire family sang at every opportunity, be it washing dishes or driving in the countryside. Jill tried her hand at musical composition at the age of 3 and her dad harbors the tape reel to prove it. This creative writing side of Jill has resurfaced only recently and one of these compositions can be heard on her CD release Across the Narrow Seas. Harmony was taken for granted and she assumed singing on key was a genetic given for all humans. What a shock she was in for!

The awakening realization of the gift she inherited was directed towards an obsession with collecting and redoing versions of music, already at age 10. A lifelong passion for both traditional music (especially Celtic) and classical music was nurtured and other music traditions explored. She performed in choirs and dramas, and her connection to a Jewish youth movement gave her the first opportunity to speak spontaneously and perform solo on stage and zoop, out came her clown!

It’s hard not to laugh with Jill… or cry as the emotional highs and lows of lyrics find expression in her performances. Indeed, it is mutual, for she really misses the interactive audience dynamic during recording sessions. Still, there is a different kind of ‘rush’ and creative spirit associated with cutting a disc: there are the weeks of planning and imaging and trial runs accompanying herself on guitar, harp, recorder or piano. Always, voice is her primary musical instrument. And then, suddenly, there you are in England for 10 days, working 14-hour stretches with energy not even damped by insomnia. Accompanists appear. Musical rapport is established. It clicks and a great high wells up. To sing is to live.

Peggy Seeger, Judy Collins, Mary O’Hara and troubadour songs of the Middle Ages all influenced the shaping of Jill’s musical self. When I asked her how she saw her future, she mentioned possibly touring, and another CD, and maybe a book on all the Jacobite songs with musical notation and significance included.

But most of all, she would like to cause as many people as possible to fall in love with folk-type music that it may be safe for another generation, which is in the fine tradition of others like Lisa Null, Cyrelle Forman-Sofer, Susan and Don Jennings and Saul Broudy, to mention a few. Her own daughters Lisa and Tal are in a good position to realise this dream, and I’m sure she’ll have all of us singing Jacobite songs before you know it. — Judi Ganchrow

star

Personal interview with Jill

[published in a private newsletter, August 1991]

Mike Rogoff: August is the time for Jacob’s Ladder, the annual open-air folk-music festival in the beautiful Hurshat Tal National park, under ancient Tabor oaks at the sources of the River Jordan. Idyllic. The music ranges from very traditional to contemporary, a week-end of guitars, banjos, mandolins, bodhrans, basses, bagpipes, spoons… and voices. My wife, Jill, born in New Zealand, in Israel since 1979, is a permanent featured performer there. She specialises in the traditional  folk-songs of the British Isles, with a special love for a cappella (unaccompanied), though she plays guitar and is sometimes backed by other musicians as well. I thought the time ripe for a tête-a-tête on these pages. How did your interest in folk music start?, I asked.

Jill: At the age of 3. My father brought home Mary O’Hara’s first record and I fell in love with the Irish songs and the harp. Almost without realising it, several of the songs on that album have remained in my repertoire. By the age of 10, I was writing down lyrics, and ransacking the library and other people’s record collections for source material.

Mike: When did you start performing?

Jill: I sang other kinds of music, in groups, in my teens. Solo, only after I came to Israel at age 24. The ulpan (Hebrew study course) I attended had students from all over the world, and we’d sit on the steps trading songs. People liked what I did and I began to receive invitations to sing in cafés. I made my first appearance at Jacob’s Ladder in 1981. Two songs were all I got to present, but they were different enough to be remembered. I went on to other appearances in clubs and so on, but my first full solo concert was in 1987.

Mike: What drew you to this kind of music?

Jill: I think I intuitively knew it suited my voice and my temperament, though I did toy at one stage with the idea of doing classical music. Here I found I could immerse myself in the old words and melodies and get great satisfaction from interpreting them musically, from making a song ‘mine’.

Mike: Over the last few years you’ve gone deeper and deeper into the Celtic tradition.

Jill: Yes, I’ve always loved languages – the rarer the better! – and I feel close to the cultural world of the British Isles. So, along with songs in English, I sing some in Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scot Gaelic and even a few in the lesser known Manx Gaelic and Breton.

Mike: So, let’s get on to Israel. Do people respond to your music because it’s a bit exotic – like Balkan or African music, say – or is it something in the music itself that excites them?

Jill: Both, I think. For some, it’s part of a genre that’s become known as World Music. This is especially true of the songs in the original Celtic languages. But for most, it’s the music itself. Many people come up to me after a concert and tell me how lovely the melodies are. They seem to find something beautiful and refined and very quiet to take away inside themselves at the end of the evening. I feel I’m just the vehicle for the song, and I sing partly to make people fall in love with the music as I have.

Mike: What’s the most memorable performance you’ve ever given?

Jill: For audience reaction there was a concert I gave with harpist Sunita Staneslow in Ashdod 18 months ago. It was a completely non-English-speaking audience; they’d never heard this kind of music before, and they thought they were coming to a classical concert; and yet they were the warmest audience I’ve ever sung for. They were with us right from the beginning, singing along on songs they were hearing for the first time – they were wonderful. It proved to me how well good music bridges cultural barriers.

Another times I was singing at Neve Ilan, a rural village in the mountains west of Jerusalem. There was a boy in the audience, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, who was on the edge of his seat from the first song. I remembered myself at his age, going to great concerts in the early ‘60s, and being mesmerised, and walking around in a daze for ages afterwards. I ended up singing just for that little boy. There was a look of wonder on his face…

And last November, I sang for the President of Israel, Mr Chaim Herzog, at the Scottish Hospice in Jerusalem. I was nervous and excited at the same time. The adjoining Church of St. Andrews is a favourite venue for me. I’ve sung there several times, once right in the middle of the [1st] Gulf War. We all had our gas-masks right at hand, and a roll of plastic sheeting to seal the door! We confounded the pessimists by filling the place for evenings of Celtic music alone, and in Israel!

Mike: What’s more important in this kind of music: the melody or the lyrics?

Jill: In the fast, humorous songs, the melody is often a throwaway… You’ve got to listen carefully to understand the point of the ditty. In the more serious songs, the melody has greater importance – and there are some beauties, some glorious pieces. But the words are so important – often so subtle. Sometimes, though, I’ll sing a song where the words are less successful, just because the melody is irresistible, but that’s the exception.

Mike: The Jacob’s Ladder Festival is coming up. How do you feel singing there?

Jill: On the one hand, it’s a bit frustrating, because each act is given so little time. It doesn’t really let me spread my wings. On the other hand, I enjoy it because it’s the biggest audience in the country for this kind of music, and when it’s a good audience it can be really satisfying. But best of all is singing under the night sky. It’s always a beautiful evening at this time of year, and singing a cappella under the stars is a very special experience, a magical feeling. You fell that time stops, and you could be singing anywhere, in any century.

star

Local folk: Lavender’s blue…

[Folk Notes (Israel) October 1990]

Avoiding comparison with internationally famous singers such as Judy Collins or Joan Baez is difficult when writing about Jill Rogoff. Sometimes it’s hard to shake off the thought that, had she been around during the sixties folk boom, she would have performed at venues somewhat more auspicious than Horshat Tal. “I’ve often been asked why I choose to sing traditional folk songs rather than, say, classical music,” she says. “Maybe I was a Celt in a former lifetime — there’s just something about this particular genre of music that speaks to me.”

Jill is a rare type of singer — a perfectionist who has no delusions of grandeur. “I would love to have the opportunity to attend festivals overseas and perform more. But I live in Israel, and my first responsibility now lies with my children…

“The fact that I was born in New Zealand was a bit of an accident,” says Jill, whose family hails from Eastern Europe. “The country has changed since then, but when I was growing up, New Zealand was more English than England in many ways. Cultural links with Western Europe and the British Isles were strong from childhood. Especially the music.”

Jill’s father, whom she describes as “a natural musician”, played a number of instruments. “From early childhood, I always had music around me,” she recalls. Her father’s record collection — much of which he ordered directly from Britain — represented a veritable potpourri of classical and folk styles. “I first heard Celtic music at the age of three, when he brought home Mary O’Hara’s first album — I still perform some songs off that record. As children, we were encouraged to sing and harmonise — I soon began to write down and memorise songs.” By the age of 17, she had “fallen in love” with a cappella singing. “I began to develop it as my style” although stage appearances were limited to youth movement activities.

“In one sense, New Zealand is similar to Israel — a land of immigrants, a melting pot of cultures. We grew up in almost a rarified atmosphere — my parents were interested in other cultures… Later on, when I began to come across… racial prejudice, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend it. We were always taught to treasure the differences between people.”

Jill’s arrival in Israel 11 years ago coincided with her beginning to take performing seriously. “It was only once I had plucked up the confidence to get up and sing in front of people that I realised that this was what I had wanted to do all my life…”

She admits though that the local folk music scene is rather limited. “…but I find that more and more Israelis are coming to my concerts. If there are children in the audience, I find myself playing exclusively for them,” explains the proud mother of Tali and Lisa (“enough for a three-part harmony”). “I remember the childhood thrill of seeing those wonderful, inspirational folk songs being performed live. I feel as though I’m opening the doors for them, just as those doors were opened for me.”

Jill’s first album, entitled Through an Open Door, is now available. “It’s been a dream of mine for 25 years. Half the songs are sung a cappella — I would have loved to have done the whole thing unaccompanied, but I would never have got away with it. I compromised, and in the process got to play with a lovely set of guys: Shay, Paul, Mark and Ray. Recording was exceedingly hard work, but very exciting. I’ve learned that there’s a very big gap between what I demand from myself and what the audience expects. Every time I render a song it comes out slightly differently — there is no definitive version.”

Jill has possibly the most extensive collection of folk songs in the country — myriad cassettes, records and lyrics in her impressive filing system. “There are many types of music that I like — songs from the British Isles, a little bit of Old French, and in recent years Celtic music, have taken over. I try to make the songs my own. It’s not enough just to play along with the record. That’s not being a musician — you have to put your own soul into it. For instance the song Let no man steal your thyme, which I particularly love, took me three days to learn and years to make my own. Now when I hear the recorded version, it sounds like a different song.” Her performing repertoire is now a ‘mere’ 200-odd songs. “I’ve built up… distinct programs under different titles, so that when people come to see me they know not to expect the same songs as they heard the previous time.

“I have to thank my husband Mike for his support throughout — he says he loves me most when I’m on the stage.” — Danny Ben-Tal

star

A taste of thyme
[The Jerusalem Post Magazine, February 15, 1990]

… By her own description, Jill’s a harried Jerusalem housewife who tends to get Gaelic instead of garlic into the salad. Snippets of lyrics get posted in odd places in her flat. They have to be ever-so-patiently learned by Jill… for this is a singer with two peculiar passions.
One is languages that are largely dead. Jill does lyrics in the Gaelic of Ireland the Highland Scots, and even Manx, spoken on the Isle of Man. Her repertoire of over 200 songs includes songs belonging to the Celtic language family spoken by the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons.

Jill’s other penchant is for singing a cappella — an authentic choice for much of her material from the British Isles, but also a daunting proposition: just you alone with your… soprano voice. The first time she sang in public was with a choir before a largely Jewish audience in Wellington during an evening organized by a volunteer women’s group. The light refreshment, besides the customary coffee and tea, included Jill as emcee, a very raw 17-year-old who remembers her knees knocking and her hands shaking. After the performance, a man materialized at her side and commented on her ability to establish rapport with an audience. Nice words, especially from one of New Zealand’s most famous playwrights, Bruce Mason.

Early on, Jill learned a lovely ballad that has become her signature tune: Let no man steal your thyme. It was one of two songs Jill chose for her debut in Israel a decade ago at the Jacob’s Ladder Folk Festival. Her knees were still knocking, she says, but her derring-do impressed a press photographer covering the event. After she was roundly applauded by 2,000 people, he gave her some publicity stills…

Since then, Jill has become a fixture on the Israeli folk scene. This Thursday, the 21st, she will appear… at St. Andrew’s Church, next to Jerusalem’s Khan Theatre. With her on the program is …harpist Sunita Staneslow. The hall’s acoustics are brilliant, says Jill, who in past years has filled the church to overflowing. She’s also been a hit in less predictable places. Her favorite audience was one last year, in Ashdod.

Then there was the gentleman who approached her in a restaurant in Ein Kerem. He was French and one of Jill’s songs in Breton had touched his heart. He complimented her both on her voice and on the correctness of her pronunciation. Later Jill complained to the restaurant owner. Had she known a Frenchman was present, she said, rolling her eyes in mock anger, she would have sung in Italian. — Nan James

star