February 21, 2020

Koolulam Gives ‘One Love, One Heart’ New Meaning

Photo by Ricky Rachman

Last week, sitting under the majestic neo-Renaissance ceiling of Cipriani’s downtown Manhattan restaurant, I listened to speeches about unity, richness in diversity, heroism and humility. It was somewhat otherworldly, and not just because the soaring marble columns and magnificent murals made me feel like I was part of a Raphael painting. It was surreal because what was being discussed was so far removed from the current political and cultural landscape.

I was at the Asia Society’s fifth annual Game Changer Awards dinner, where the Game Changer of the Year Award went to PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. Nooyi won because of her vision of “performance with a purpose” — companies do well by being responsive to the needs of the world around us.

“You are the single candle that lights 1,000 candles,” Nooyi told the well-heeled crowd, paraphrasing Buddha. 

Other 2018 awardees included a team of Afghan girls who have made waves at international robotics competitions; Mira Rai, a record-shattering runner from a small village in Nepal; and the Thai rescuers who saved a dozen teenage soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave.

As each Asian country showed its heroism and ingenuity, I began thinking: Asia, bravery, innovation, hope — why isn’t Israel part of this glorious evening? 

“Bridges could indeed be built through the international language — the transcendent power — of music.”

And then, right after the filet of Dover sole, there was Israel, represented by the group Koolulam, whose mob-singing performances have gone meta-viral in the past 18 months. One of their more impassioned events was at the Tower of David in Jerusalem this past June. In honor of the historic visit of Indonesia’s religious leader Sheikh Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf, Koolulam invited 1,000 people to sing one song — Bob Marley’s “One Love” — in three languages and in three-part harmony. 

The gorgeous video of the event has been viewed more than 300,000 times. Bridges could indeed be built through the international language — the transcendent power — of music.

Koolulam, which calls itself a “social-musical initiative,” has now organized more than a dozen performances across Israel, including events with Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, and with doctors and cancer patients at a children’s hospital.

That evening, Koolulam’s three founders took to the stage, beaming. co-founder Michal Shahaf Shneiderman stated Koolulam’s message: “Musical harmony can inspire harmony in humanity.” I had watched several of their videos and had been transfixed by conductor Ben Yefet, whose body and dreadlocks seem to fly through the air composing notes and radiating a magical light.

All of a sudden, Yefet and Or Taicher, the other two co-founders, were standing right in front of me. Taicher told me that he had been looking for a way to combat online hate when he saw a video of worshippers packed into the plaza in front of the Western Wall, singing in unison on Yom Kippur. The idea of using music to unite was born.

Taicher also told me that they were headed to Johannesburg for their first international gig. The idea of Koolulam bringing Israel’s light around the world through music — a traveling torch of hope — what more could “light unto the nations” possibly mean?

I turned to Yefet. “Can I give you a hug?” I asked shyly. “Of course,” he answered shyly. It was a hug of light, hope, magic and miracles. I wanted to take in all of his amazing spirit and bring it home to my son. 

I began to see Israel’s underlying connection to Asia. It’s not just a shared emphasis on family and a shared pursuit of excellence. It is a connection of the heart, which leads to unfathomable bravery. 

The glorious evening ended with a performance by Koolulam. Yefet bounded back onto the stage and told the crowd of high achievers: “We can’t control life but we can control our perception of it.” He then led them in a three-part harmony of singing, clapping and swaying.

We are young
So let’s set the world on fire
We can burn brighter
Than the sun. 

 Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.