When Alberto Ros received a phone call a few years ago from a songwriter who wanted to set his poetry to music, he tossed it off as another "coffee house guitar sort of thing." Sure, Ros said, why not? The nationally acclaimed poet, who teaches at Arizona State University, is used to such attention. Ros had never heard of David Broza. Not surprising. A chart topper in his homeland of Israel, Broza was virtually unknown in the United States.
A month later, a tape arrived in the mail. On his way home from school, the poet recalls, "I just popped the cassette in because I was driving, and suddenly there was this opening, kind of Spanish guitar opening riff. I said, 'Oh, that sounds great!'"
That was all the convincing Ros needed. He gave Broza permission to record his poetry, and the two have collaborated closely ever since.
Broza describes his music as urban folk-rock, and the New York Times recently gushed "remarkable . . . dramatic . . . impassioned folk pop." Grasping at comparisons, reviewers call him a postmodern Leonard Cohen, an Israeli Bruce Springsteen, the Mel Gibson of rock n' roll (actually, he looks more like actor Daniel Day-Lewis). He's sold more than a quarter-million albums worldwide, and has opened for the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
Yet it's hard to pigeonhole Broza, because what he does is so unusual, if not unique, as far as the U.S. pop scene is concerned. His lyrics are all adapted from poetry. In addition to Ros, he's worked with other American poets, including Tessa Marquis, Theodore Roethke and Matthew Graham. For Broza, singing poetry was natural. "Singer-songwriters [in Israel and Spain] all turn at some point . . . to some poem, and set it to music," he says. But while he collaborates on adaptations, "I don't write my own lyrics at all," Broza says, chuckling. "I attempted to write my own a couple times. I'm really bad at it."
Broza recalls his introduction to the work of Alberto Ros. He was at a favorite haunt, Gotham Book Mart on 47th Street in New York City, perusing the poetry aisles. "I was frantically looking for, reading American poetry. This was the only way I could get access to the . . . spectrum of American poetry. I was reading, basically from A to Z, going through the shelves," he says. "I came across one of his [Ros'] books, and there it was. 'Chileo Boys' was the first poem that I came across. And because of my upbringing in Spain, it struck a bell, you know, it hit me."
Broza was raised in Israel and Spain, and educated in England. His recordings of Hebrew poetry were wildly popular in Israel, which he left years ago for the States, where he's been trying to break into the American music scene. And while he has yet to enter the charts in this country, Broza has a substantial following that has expanded with the release of last year's Time of Trains. Ros was raised in Nogales by an English mother and Mexican father, so the singer and poet share a "sense of borders and movement," Ros says, "and a search for what home meant and who defined it." At one point in his career, Broza returned to Israel after time in Spain. He had forgotten his Hebrew and felt lost. "I was a foreigner in my own homeland and I had to readjust to that," Broza says. "And I never quite understood the psychology of it until I heard him [Ros] talk about it and I read his stuff."
He adds, "It made me aware of the difficulty of adjusting to living in a culture different than your own, or the one you're born in. . . . And that's something that a lot of the immigrants, or, even in Arizona, a lot of the Latino population has to live with and adjust to is the fact that they grow up in a different language with a different philosophy and mentality."
The Broza-Ros collaborations are often about cultural barriers. They are also often love songs, which works well with Broza's heartthrob image. Some of his collaborations with Broza have been more successful than others, Ros says, though he hastily adds that he's not unhappy with any of them. Where "Chileo Boys" stayed true to the original text of the poem, "Away From Home" (the title track of Broza's first English album) changed dramatically.
The poem was originally called "The Way He Comes After Me." Broza started playing around with one line he liked, but had difficulty setting the words to music. It took years, Broza recalls, and hours on the phone.
"We started talking about what other words would I sing," Broza says, "and I started telling him my life story and where I am now. And we ended up writing this whole other poem."
Ros admits he prefers his original poem. No regrets, though. "I'm not saying that I would do it again that way. But I am saying that it was worth trying and seeing what you think," he says. "That's part of the nature of exploration and not being afraid to try things before you would reject them."
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Another poem, "Like This It Is We Think to Dance," was streamlined to accommodate the music and renamed "Hips to Hips." The poem "had a lot of extended imagery and [was] much too lush, much too crowded for what a song could possibly do," Ros says. "So really, the process there was more like taking it and cutting it up and down and in place of the extended imagery . . . he gave the piece music."
Since his first collaborations with Broza, Ros has also hooked up with James DeMars, a classical composer and ASU colleague. The cantata they created was performed last year at Carnegie Hall in New York.
His poetry has been published in its original form, Ros says, thus he doesn't worry that he's compromising his work by altering it to fit with music. "The poem is mine. That I don't give up," he says. "But what we do with it later, that becomes a different beast. And part of that beast is the music and part of that beast is the words."
Broza will perform the latest Broza-Ros beast, "Driving With the Car Top Down," this Sunday at Gammage Auditorium. The poem-song is "kind of an Arizona thing," Broza says. The song will appear on his forthcoming album, along with a remake of "Chileo Boys." The collaborations will continue, both say. Ros never dreamed he'd be called a songwriter, but upon reflection, he says it's not such a dramatic departure. For years he's told his students, "There's got to be music in your work.