Inconvenient Truths

The view from the van that brought the Israeli rock group Habiluim to the industrial zone of Binyamina for a performance three weeks ago wasn't promising.

The view from the van that brought the Israeli rock group Habiluim to the industrial zone of Binyamina for a performance three weeks ago wasn't promising. Apart from a few parents and children riding bicycles between the factories and workshops, the streets were deserted. Long after the group's six members (minus the keyboard player, who was on maternity leave) unloaded their equipment, dealt with the sound balance and indulged in a bottle of arak and a few beers, it didn't look like anyone in the area was going to show up for their show at the Indika Club. Binyamina nights, you know. Less than 20 hours earlier, Habiluim had packed them in at Tel Aviv's Barbie club.

The band's name evokes that of Bilu (acronym for "House of Jacob, come, let us go," Isaiah 11:5), a group of Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the late 19th century and bilui, meaning a good time. It was critically acclaimed this summer following the release of its second album, and described as the most acerbic rock group in Israel, sending thrills through the Barbie crowd and drawing wild cheers. As they left the stage, the group's members looked happy. A day later they were glum.

During the sound check, the six of them pressed up against one another on the Binyamina stage, which is less than half the size of the one in Barbie. Afterward they sprawled on cushions on the club's upper level, still feeling wiped out from the Tel Aviv gig. "Who the hell comes to shows in this hole? It'll be interesting to see if even one person shows up," said the vocalist and bassist, Noam Inbar. "We have never performed in this neck of the woods. Why in the world would anyone come to see us here?"

To ease their anxieties and stay awake, they set off in search of a cafe. When they got back an hour later, the club was jammed with fans. A quarter of an hour later, a red light out of hell illuminated the group, Inbar's bass plucked a dark beat, and the guitar of his writing partner and co-leader of the band, Yammi Wisler, overlaid the heavy rhythm with lethal electric scratches. As they launched into their song "Bab el Wad 38 Aleph," the crowd nodded their heads in gratitude and despair, like the band's followers do everywhere, as though to say, Hey, things are awful here, but what great songs.

Habiluim cannot be described as "the next big thing." True, they easily fill Barbie and are welcomed as heroes in the boondocks, too, but they are not on the way to the Caesarea amphitheater. Their new album, "Bereavement and Failure," drew critical raves and even generated a mini-hit on the radio, but has so far sold few copies and will not transform the group into the next Mashina. The band's music - a fusion of blues, cabaret, klezmer and Gypsy melodies - does not appeal to a wide base, and the politically sophisticated texts narrow the already limited appeal even further. Habiluim is not a group for the cognoscenti, but for outsiders.

The band does not shy away from singing about the Holocaust, a Thai couple who poison the aged Israelis for whom they are caring, a suicidal single mother or a hapless left-winger whose wife is either raped or yields to the attractions of a crass right-wing reservist. Their songs contain not one iota of delight or consolation. Existential absurdity, fear and disappointment at life in Israel echo from every lyric. "They're not out to please anyone, they're brash and they don't try to refine it," says the linguist Dr. Idan Landau from Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva. "What they are doing is very different and very refreshing. When artists approached these areas it was always with a cute posture or a wink. Chava Alberstein may do protest songs, but that is not an integral element of her identity as an artist. Habiluim are very committed to an outside stance - naughty and critical - and make no effort to prettify reality. There is no song of theirs that does not mock someone."

Landau is particularly fond of "Bab el Wad 38 Aleph" - with its echoes of the canonical Shoshana Damari song from the War of Independence - whose first stanza goes: "From the right you can see Istanbul receding / From the left you can see the wing detaching/ There are many ways to describe and no one who hasn't tried / But as Papa Smurf says / If it's blue and quiet it's like cot death / I'm not here to talk to you and this is no ancient Circassian dance / I'm moving my hands toward the emergency exits / And anyone afraid to look can put a sack on his head in a rainbow of colors / And there are earphones with golden oldies that always make you glad / Bab el Wad / Bab el Wad / They won't start without us / Bab el Wad ..."

It's serious and funny at the same time, and in performance it's catchy, too, because the young crowd that comes to see the six - Wisler, the main lyricist; Inbar, the composer; accordionist Assaf Talmudi, saxophonists Eyal Talmudi and Yoni Silver and percussionist Shiko Sinay - knows every word.

From there they went on to perform "I throw up" and "Shaul Mofaz," two songs from their first album, which was released four years ago. The message grew more acute. Wisler's blues guitar wailed and the group settled into a slow, deep groove as Inbar sang with saccharine virulence about a chief of staff who lugs a sled from house to house carrying the amputated limbs of fallen soldiers, which he presents to the bereaved mothers.

Immediately afterward, from behind a skittish saxophone curtain, emerged the image of Hilik Portsalina, the median Israeli, who takes pleasure in a military parade whose high point is "a balloon-festooned van that transports the bodies" and is indifferent to a Dimona girl with "two heads and six hands" and an infant from Ramallah "who died before he was born." The crowd danced ecstatically, the band stepped up the beat.

Two outsiders

Benjamin (Yammi) Wisler and Noam Inbar, both 29, created the group as a duo that uses different musicians for recordings and live appearances. Although they did not achieve public recognition until 2003, when their debut album was released, they have been part of the underground music scene of Tel Aviv for the past decade.

The two met 13 years ago, in the cinema track of 10th grade in Tel Aviv's Ironi Dalet high school, and connected with each other as the two "outsiders" of the class. "I heard Noam talking about Dante and understood that there was another pseudo-intellectual here whom I could hook up with," says Wisler, who is the son of Yisrael Wisler ("Pucho"), a well-known author of children's books. "What we wanted most was to make movies, but in the meantime we made music."

While still in high school, together with a classical violinist "who could play whatever we gave him," Wisler and Inbar created Habiluim as an acoustic band that played cabaret music to lyrics evoking a grotesque world saturated with suffering and self-hate.

"Stupid and very immature stuff," Wisler recalls. After Wisler was found unsuitable for army service and Inbar was discharged for the same reason a month after his induction, they appeared alone for years and with other musicians in tiny venues. They were then discovered by Haim Shemesh, who was with the music company NMC, which signed them to a contract. However, the radio stations refused to play their songs. They gained recognition after Beri Saharof, the rock guitarist, produced their first album. But it was only this past summer, with a meatier, more pungent album - which takes its name from the landmark 1920 novel by Yosef Haim Brenner, "Breakdown and Bereavement" - that they gained acceptance as a "protest group" that has to be taken seriously - a status they of course reject out of hand.

"I think that this thing of Habiluim as a political band is mostly convenient for journalists or critics, because it's really easy to latch on to these songs and write about them," Wisler says. "From our point of view, the important thing is our readiness to address these issues and not sweep them under the carpet. In that sense, it could be that people connect with the sincerity and with the willingness not to be liked as a value in itself. My feeling is that many bodies in our culture are insincere in their attitude toward the audience. I think that the aim of the group's quirkiness and oddness, which often looks like some desperate wise-guy effort, is actually an attempt to shake things up and achieve authentic feelings."

Not that the group disavows its political dimension. They do not try to evade the image. They appeared at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the occupation of the territories, played "Shaul Mofaz" for soldiers on the northern border, and recently again spit in the establishment's face when, during a live broadcast on Army Radio, they sang "Tinshav Haruah" (Let the Wind Blow), about an incident in the War of Independence in which Israeli soldiers raped and murdered a Bedouin girl they encountered: "Yes, son, it's true, I held her from behind / It was for security reasons, if you don't mind / And we took her each in turn / Yes, son, it's true, we had her on the sand that burned / She was given a shovel to dig / At the time it looked like the right thing / Cling to this, we / Really tried / We covered up all the old ruins / Changed the names of the streets / We really tried hard, silenced rumors / When what we actually tried / Was to sing with our forefathers / As the finjan went round and around / Cling to this ..."

As they left the station after the program, the guard at the entrance blasted them as "traitors," but other than wild attacks on Internet talkbacks they have yet to encounter genuine rage. "I had hoped that after our first album someone would booby-trap my car or write threatening graffiti on the window - but nothing," Inbar says. "I imagine there are people who are truly too disgusted to talk to us. For them we are probably like seeing a minister from a party you can't stand give a speech."

"It's not 'The Queen of the Bathtub,'" Wisler concedes, referring to the savage 1970 play by Hanoch Levin, "but occasionally there is a little anger, and that's something, too."

Good citizenship

Wisler finds it difficult to come to grips with a cultural reality in which ambivalent songs like "Everyone talks about peace, no one talks about justice" are considered a biting comment. "If we are actually talking about what is going on here - about the occupation and the wars and all that - I really think it is far more natural to write about them than not to write about them. If we were living in Switzerland, I suppose we would be writing about cheese and skiing and bank accounts. But we live here. When I look at artists around me, I can think of a number of explanations. Either they don't know what's going on, which I find unlikely; or it doesn't bother them as people, which I also find weird; or they think it is not the role of the artist or entertainer to mess with that, but to give people comfort. Maybe it's also the desire to survive in the market, but that is a very cynical option. It's as though you have a good friend who loves you a lot, but only talks to you about the weather."

There is another possibility - that it's very hard to write good political songs.

"I don't think I am better than others, or more moral, but in our band we are trying to cope with a certain truth, though not from a self-righteous or bleeding-heart perspective. In my view it is good citizenship, something like picking up a soft-drink can that someone threw away and putting it in the garbage. The band was not created to be like this; reality is like this. It seems to be unnatural not to sing about these subjects. You have to try really hard if you want to deny reality.

"Many of the songs in this country can be taken any way you like," he continues. "I think we are more willing to dirty our hands and do things that will prevent the song from being played on Memorial Day or become an Israeli classic, but will leave the listener more alive and aware and thoughtful and critical. The idea is not for people to identify with the texts, because sometimes the texts say terrible things that do not represent our opinion, such as in 'Shaul Mofaz' or 'Hilik Portsalina.' It's not that the song tells you what to think or what to feel, but that it makes you confront all kinds of objects and sights that are all around you, but to which you have become totally accustomed. We try to avoid sentimentality."

Musically, though, Habiluim do not flinch from sentimentality. Their melodies, which are mainly Inbar's handiwork and feature the clarinet and the accordion, derive from an old Israeli musical tradition. "We were repelled by the hegemony of American influences on Israeli music," Inbar explains. "Meagerness is always, I think, due to a lack of roots, hence the linkup with the traditions of cabaret and Russian and Jewish music. Disgust and revulsion are only possible from an almost fundamentalist perspective of finding places to draw on in Israeli culture, to the point of adoration. 'Bereavement and Failure' is adoration of Israeli culture."

Wisler: "Our desire is to connect with some kind of Israeli canon. There is an aspect of love of the country in the album, an embrace of [veteran Israeli singers] Chava Alberstein and Yaffa Yarkoni and Arik Einstein and Yehudit Ravitz. That is important for us, because just as you try to find meaning for your existence in general, you try also to find meaning for your existence as an Israeli. The attempt to hook up to Brenner or Hanoch Levin or [the 1970s group] Kaveret is an effort to create a continuity of morals and tradition. The moment you have no religion to tie you to this place, you need something to cling to."

No lifetime project

It's not easy to say what place Habiluim will occupy when the group completes, as it soon will, its series of concerts in conjunction with the new album. True, they have a loyal audience that seems to enjoy being part of a small club that shares a secret, but they are reluctant to devote all their energy to the project or commit themselves to the band, come what may. Wisler and Inbar speak confidently about the need to put out a third album at some point, but until that happens, they are likely to disappear from sight for a long while. "It's not actually a band that is built for ongoing existence, because we get tired and bored," Wisler says.

It is not only their musicians who are involved in other projects (the keyboard artist, Maya Dunitz, is currently mostly involved in feeding her 2-month-old baby). Inbar is also painting, does animation, scores films and works regularly as a singer and instrumentalist in Oy Division, a klezmer band in which he sings in Russian and Yiddish. To make ends meet he also does occasional work as an assistant director for television commercials, and for two years taught film theory at Tel Aviv University. Wisler continues to teach film at university and is about to start writing his doctoral thesis on a cinema-related theme. He is also wrapping up work on a series of tragic skits he directed and wrote with two friends. The series, as yet untitled, is scheduled to be broadcast by Channel 10 soon. Like Inbar, he plays in another band as well.

"I am actually a kind of tourist, a kind of spy posing as a musician," Wisler says. "I can play music but I am not really a musician. When I lecture I imagine myself as a guitar player, and when I play the guitar I want to make films."

Inbar: "The essence of the band, as far as I am concerned, is our partnership as a creative duo. There are periods when you can work intensively with someone else, and periods when you cannot. Now we are reaping the fruits of our very hard work on this album, but we can't go on continually. We are both very intense people."

"Habiluim is a hobby," Wisler agrees. "Not in the sense that we don't take the band seriously, but in two other senses. First of all, there is really no financial profit in it. You can't live from it unless you make compromises and try to create hits and appear on every talk show. The second thing is that if everyone were to give his 100 percent in the band it would blow up, simply because it has so many talented people. I imagine that if we were to consider it our lifetime enterprise, that would not be productive, but emasculating."

Not elusive enough

The occupation, the repression, the self-righteousness, the sadness inherent in Israeli existence - the band's creative materials have no expiry date. Indeed, they seem to improve with time. "Bereavement and Failure," which was written at the height of the second Intifada "from feelings of rage" and recorded last year in New York with Tamir Muskat producing, could, they say, just as easily be written today. "Nothing has changed since we wrote it. I find it depressing that people are incapable of applying at the political level lessons that they are able to apply at the personal or family level," Inbar says.

Wisler maintains that this stagnation exacts a price from the band itself. "The whole way of thinking of Habiluim, at least on the first album, was that of a Trojan horse. The moment you get into the niche of 'I am different, 'I am a leftist,' 'I am an alternative,' it dwarfs your effectiveness," he says, referring to what he perceives as the weakness of the new album. "People come prepared. They know how to take it. The Trojan horse not only helps you enter, it also creates the element of surprise, and I think that in the second album we betrayed that Trojanness. The album was more overt, less camouflaged. If I have any criticism of the group, it is that we are no longer elusive enough."

Wisler: "I think that at some point, Israeli secularity stopped being an active revolt of people who want to take responsibility for their fate, and simply deteriorated into empty hedonism. It's terribly sad about this country, the whole Zionist project, which is based on good intentions and on a few mistakes along the way. It will be sad if Israel goes down. It seems to me that between the prospect that we will reach agreement and understanding with our neighbors, and the prospect that someone will get hold of a suitcase with a button and press the button irresponsibly, the suitcase option is more likely. And then, I suppose, people who can allow themselves to leave will do so, and those who will remain are the settlers and the people whose attachment to the country is based primarily on religion, not culture. I don't think anyone will stay around here to die because of Nurit Galron." W