From Groove to Grove

"My friend Yossi Elephant said to me a long time ago: 'Being a rocker is bad luck. Being an Israeli rocker is very, very bad luck,'" says Yuval Banai, allowing himself a small smile. Nevertheless, as he puts at the age of 48 - two weeks before the release of the new disk by his pop rock band Mashina, "Diamonds in the Sky - "I'm not a kid any more."

Banai has found another place to expand his energies to: his olive grove at Moshava Ilaniya - aka, Sejera - in the Lower Galilee. About seven years ago he purchased 10 dunams (2.5 acres) of agricultural land there, and planted 300 olive trees of several varieties. After a lot of hard work, good years and bad years, he has harvested about 400 liters of olive oil under the brand name Sejera. The oil is sold at the Olia olive oil boutique in Tel Aviv in tins, whose design actually bear a resemblance to the cover of a rock album. When one talks to Banai about his olives, one discovers very quickly that there is a connection between agriculture and music.

"When I met (guitarist) Shlomi Bracha and we started writing together, we weren't thinking about what would happen," relates Banai. "We wrote songs, and then we started Mashina. People were interested and the thing just sort of built itself. Clearly, we wanted people to listen to the songs. It's the same with the olives today: Obviously, if I have some olive oil and in all the official tests they've said it's not bad, I want people to taste it. I have a need to 'show my stuff' to people."

Banai adds that he had always been attracted to agriculture and worked in farming as a child.

"My mother's father grew dates and olives. When I was a boy I'd work for him two months a year. This is a dream I've always had. I love physical work outdoors and also to sleep in nature. It's the greatest fun - just like playing music," he says. "True, life's led me to the city, to music, to rehearsal rooms and halls, but nature is also a big part of me. Seven years ago there was a moment in my life when I could look at myself, take some time and fulfill this desire."

Banai's partner in Sejera is Ziv Riklin. "He came, he looked at me, and he said: 'I'm your neighbor in the adjacent plot. I am from here and I'll help you. You should plant what I plant," Banai remembers. "Afterward I found out his family was among the founders of Sejera, 130 years ago. He didn't lecture me and he wasn't arrogant; he simply came and helped me. We became partners and good friends. He didn't see me as the 'guy from Tel Aviv who came to play around in nature a bit,' rather as a serious fellow. That was important to me."

According to Banai, the beginning was difficult: "I learned about growing methods. I didn't want to plant a tight grove with all the trees crowded close together. I gave each tree its space. Between the trees I planted cypresses. To plant 150 trees you need to dig 150 holes. I recruited friends: Rani [Hadari, about whom Banai wrote a song], Shlomi [Bracha]. Anyone who could came to work with me for a day or two."

What did they think?

Banai: "They weren't surprised. Anyone who knows me knows I'd been talking about this for years. It was supposed to happen some time, and the moment came along. The work is hard, but still they came and helped. It's tremendous fun to work in the field."

After the planting, it was necessary to tend the trees carefully and protect them from cold and disease.

"We sprayed only according to the proper organic standard," he explains. "We didn't always choose the easy way out, but sometimes the longer way. We needed [to wait a few] more years before the grove produced fruit, but it's wasn't so bad: In the end the product is better. We planted, we watered and we waited. The beautiful thing about trees is that you don't have to stand next to them for them to grow. They simply do it. In agriculture there's a key element of the unknown - like in music or in writing. You can't really know what will turn out. These apparently are the areas to which I'm attracted."

As with his music, Banai says he has experienced a "lucky incarnation" in agriculture: His new livelihood has led him to Riklin, to friends who wanted to help him and to olive growers who were knowledgeable and could steer him straight. As for his other livelihood, he says he generally feels more confident now. "When you think about it, I've been making music for nearly 30 years," he muses aloud.

Banai has been living in Sejera for three years, ever since his separation from actress Orly Zilberschatz. (The couple have three children: Elisha, who founded the rock band Got No Shame, Amalia and Sophie).

One cannot help but notice that life outside of Tel Aviv has changed Banai's outlook on the intense times he spends in the spotlight. He now sees it as an inevitable "tax" he has had to pay. And in recent months, during the feverish preparations for Mashina's new album, he has been spending a lot of time in Tel Aviv. Life with the farmers in the Galilee provides a good counterbalance to his current routine of appearances with the band.

Banai: "After waiting a few long years, our trees began to bear fruit. After the harvest I take sacks of olives to a nearby press in order to have the oil made.

About a year and a half ago, Banai entered a business relationship with Hilla Wenkert, the manager of the Olia shop, and with an investment from his neighbor Riklin, they began to produce their Sejera olive oil.

"I walked down the street a few times past Olia. One day, when I felt confident enough, I decided to go in," relates Banai.

To date, over a few years, his grove has yielded a total about 400 kilos of olives, which have produced about 400 liters of oil. "This is a really small amount in farmers' terms. There are families in villages near me who produce that much in a year," he laughs.

Banai's grove in Sejera is very well tended, according to Wenkert, who is an expert and has visited innumerable groves Israel and Italy. She says Banai's evinces great concern and conscientiousness when it comes to agriculture.

His satisfaction is visible when he gazes at the tins of oil piled up on the wooden table in the Tel Aviv shop. Now that he has reached his goal of growing olives, he is also playing with the idea of planting a vineyard.

"But I have truly serious connection to this tree, the olive tree," he explains. "After seven years, I know it, I know things about it. It repays me. I have more confidence."

A moment before he ends the conversation, he peers at the small tins again, packaged as though they were new CDs. One can see that he longs to get back to the farm and the open air. But then he says apologetically: "Well, music is what I know how to do best, still" - and hurries off to yet another rehearsal.