Either Utter Darkness - or a Sunrise

Now that he has embarked on a new concert tour and is putting the finishing touches on his next album, Ehud Banai talks to Ha'aretz about music, politics and religion.

In the building in South Tel Aviv where his small recording studio is located, Ehud Banai has four neighbors who, like him, are hard at work at their music: his cousin Yuval Banai, singer Ariel Horowitz, guitarist/songwriter Ovad Efrat, and singer Etti Ankri. Ankri, explains Ehud Banai, "is on vacation now, but most of the time you can find her here." To a certain extent, the presence of these neighbors affects the nature of his work on his new album and on his current concert tour, which began yesterday in Tel Aviv.

"Here you just can't hide away in some remote recording studio," says Banai. "People are constantly coming and going, listening to what you're doing and exchanging ideas. I believe that this affects my output."

Ehud Banai - "an opinionated but easy-going individual" as he likes to define himself - is an outstanding and highly original songwriter on the Israeli rock scene. He always manages to draw immense attention to the lyrics of his songs, yet he has not succeeded in encouraging many people to write songs the way he does. For his debut album, "Ehud Banai and the Refugees," he wrote songs that have left a deep, painful impression on our memory; they include "Mix the Plaster, Ahmed," "City of Refuge," and "Dirty Work." Since the appearance of that first album, he has written profoundly nostalgic songs of all sorts, some of which, like "Please hurry" ("This child is 30 years old"), have become the anthems of an entire generation.

Banai, who is usually identified with songs about journeys and self-discovery, says today that his own process of self-discovery was initially an internal one. In recent years, he has drawn closer to Orthodox Judaism, and today he wears a black kippa (skullcap) and the fringes of a tallith katan (a small prayer shawl worn throughout the day by religious Jewish males) emerge from the lower part of his T-shirt. According to Banai, he has been engaged in his adventure of self-discovery for the past two decades and the journey is not something that began at any specific moment.

"I did not `see the light,'" he remarks, with a smile, "nor do I believe in divine revelation. Religion has been a part of my life for years and has gradually had a greater and greater influence - something like raindrops eventually turning into a sizable quantity of water.

"I have the reputation," he observes, "of being constantly on the move. In fact, I have called my present concert tour `Still on the Road.' However, I have not really traveled all that much. People have the impression that I have traveled a great deal because I write about my journeys. However, my need for traveling is vastly different from that of Sefi Ben-Yosef or Doron Harel. I'm not interested in conquering the highest mountain in the Himalayas. I can travel to nearby places and still find what I am looking for - namely, change.

"Each month I receive three magazines, each of which has the word aher (different or other) in the title: Eretz Aheret (A Different Country), Masa Aher (A Different Journey) and Haim Aherim (Another Life). Since I have in the past written for all three magazines, they are sent to me regularly. The titles of these periodicals reflect something: Our desire to wake up one morning and to feel as if we were in another place altogether. However, nothing can be done about the situation. We are here and that is a fact of life."

To what extent were you affected by the events of the past year?

"I do not live in a glass bubble. I sometimes try to live in one, but it always ends up exploding. The Land of Israel makes heavy demands on its residents, constantly asking questions and constantly demanding answers. You want to tell yourself: `Look, I have a few more decades to live and I want to live those years quietly.' However, you also feel the need to react to what is going on. I feel that it is more appropriate for me to react in interviews or articles rather than to force a song to become a response. A song is an artistic creation that should exist beyond the perimeter of news items. Nonetheless, reality does seep into my songs."

As his links with Judaism have intensified, Banai's political ideas have come into sharper focus. He deplores the merging of strident nationalism with religious faith and is disgusted by the expropriation of religion in the name of causes he objects to. "I believe that, if the Prophet Jeremiah were alive today, he would call for a total evacuation of the territories and would support the idea of giving the Palestinians the opportunity to establish their own state. My knowledge of traditional Jewish sources has taught me that there is no link between religion and the occupation of another people's land. Judaism in its original form is a sanctification of life, not territory. This is the Torah that Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to talk about and I agree with every word he said - even with those statements that were not so popular.

"Over the past year, things have gone to extremes and that extremism has expressed itself openly; however, the feeling that we are on the brink of an explosion has been weighing on my mind for years: Either there will be utter darkness or the sun will rise. After all, we have been trying to push the Palestinian-Arab conflict to the sidelines of our awareness for 30 years.

"There is also an internal split: I look at the way religious faith is presented and I do not like what I see. These representations of Judaism are distorted - mind you, these distortions have been around for quite some time. These distortions are being used to justify the argument that Judaism is not a context within which you pursue justice or peace. That segment of the people which is drawn toward a militant orientation clings strongly to Judaism because religion has, so to speak, been left in this group's hands. According to Leibowitz, Judaism can never be chauvinistic, and that is a very important principle in my opinion.

"Similarly, I am against the use of religion as a tool for inter-ethnic friction. I am a religiously observant Sephardi Jew and I feel no connection whatsoever with Shas. In fact, Shas constitutes a missed opportunity on a grand scale. Among Sephardi Jews, there was always a peaceful coexistence between religious faith and daily life. There was an openness and a tranquillity in the approach of Sephardi Jewry to religion, and that approach did not express the kind of fastidious and isolationist extremism that is so apparent today. Suddenly, Sephardi Jews - instead of establishing a movement that would restore sanity, would be a Third Way, and would be a genuine social action force - created a movement that is dominated by the fanaticism of Lithuanian Jews and whose outward appearance consists of black hats and black suits. This is a phenomenon that I simply cannot understand."

Do you think that people who express their ideas openly can change the situation, can have some sort of impact?

"I'm not sure about that. One thing, however, is clear: I am disgusted when I see statements made by singers, artists in other fields and politicians generating hysteria and exaggerated verbal attacks from every direction. Artists should, of course, express their thoughts, if they feel a genuine urge to do so. The question is how - how should they express their opinions? I am not afraid to say what I think; however, perhaps my ideas arouse less fury. Even when I speak out against the settlements, I always assume that the settlers are, when all is said and done, an integral part of my people.

"I gave a performance in [the West Bank settlement of] Ofra and I told the audience my position on the evacuation of the settlements. I related a story with which they were all familiar: The story of Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai, who thought it made more sense to leave the besieged city of Jerusalem and to establish a spiritual center in Yavneh than to commit suicide in the name of an ideal. I said to the members of the audience that the situation today was similar to the one Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai faced and that, unlike the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, the settlers were part and parcel of all aspects of Israeli life. I told the audience: `The dream of the Land of Israel has blinded you; it would be a much more sensible idea to create a spiritual center like the one in Yavneh because we need such a center much more than we need the territories.' There was no applause, but, at the same time, nobody booed me. I am not willing to build my career on the basis of scandals. Everyone has lost all proportion, and I am not interested in joining the strident screamers on either side."

Banai laughs: "I say these things during my performances, but I cannot see myself writing songs that would be more thoughtful than the ones I have already written. It is music's good fortune that you can make some very harsh statements as long as the beat is strong and one that people can dance to. When I give a performance, I want people to leave with a smile on their faces, but, at the same time, I am not prepared to be subservient to my audience."

Today, do you want to write songs with a political message, like the ones that were in "Ehud Banai and the Refugees"?

"The question is what my motive would be for doing so. Would my motive be that I am trying to say that I am still not afraid to say what I think and that I am still an angry young rebel, or would my motive be that I really want to say these things? I still like to sing "Dirty Work" on stage. I sing "Mix the Plaster, Ahmed" less frequently, partly because, in the meantime, the persons mixing the plaster have changed. However, our sense of being the big bosses toward the Other has not changed. Our outlook essentially is: `We don't care if the Gentiles drop dead, if the world goes up in flames. We are the best of the best. We don't give a damn about the others.' In my opinion, this is a ghastly interpretation of the concept of the `Chosen People.' If Judaism were really conceived in accordance with its original meaning, we would today be sitting on the world's most important committees - dealing with subjects ranging from environmental issues and the advancement of science to the rights of the individual. However, we have turned everything upside down.

"For example, the interpretation of [the new leader of the National Religious Party] Effi Eitam - according to which the Jews, as the `Chosen People,' have the right to rule another nation and to expand in every possible direction - is a mistaken notion, and he strikes me as a dangerous person. I hope I am wrong. He is a modern-day version of Simon Bar Koziva, and I find it sad that not one word of protest is being sounded against his approach by the Jewish establishment in Israel."

Even after making the above statements, Banai notes that he loves to surprise his audiences as a musician, not as a politician: "In my performances, I feel really at home. Being on stage brings out the best in me, because I am, by nature, a musician who loves to improvise. Very often, during my performances, despite the immense respect I have for my songs, I wait for those moments when the words have ended. Suddenly the audience understands that I also love to play the guitar."

For his present concert tour, Banai worked with sound expert Meni Bejarano, with whom he has collaborated ever since his first hit, "City of Refuge," began to be heard over the radio. During this tour, he is accompanied on stage by Gil Smetana, Nitzan Chen Razel, Noam Halevi, and Eran Porat. "We tried to give a new interpretation to all my songs," Banai explains, "and this show is really very different from all my previous performances." Even while touring, he is wrapping up his latest album.

With whom do you consult when you write your songs?

"My wife Odelia is involved in everything I do - from the first drafts to the finished album."

Banai lives with his family in Ramat Gan. The Banais have three daughters: Miriam, 18; Ayala, 14; and Zohar, 10. "My daughters," says Ehud Banai, "take less of an interest in me nowadays. The little ones prefer Britney Spears and `Chiquititas.' Our eldest, fortunately, has already discovered that this world has seen some great musicians. I am happy that my children love music and I comfort myself with the thought that, one day, they will discover Bob Dylan."