When May Lavie heard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech about Moses and Pharaoh in 2015, she immediately understood that it was a song waiting to be written.
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“By chance, I heard him speaking before the U.S. Congress,” she said. “He was speaking about Moses, and you say to yourself, there’s something absurd here: In the eyes of many Israelis, he’s playing Pharaoh’s role! Just let us go; you’ve done your part. Don’t tell me what God said to Moses! You 'let my people go'! It’s as if he were asking me to do this.”
Thirty-four year-old singer-songwriter Lavie, who was born in Hadera but has lived in Tel Aviv for a decade, came across the premier's speech at a time when she was looking for what she calls “cool recordings” for a musical project.
In her (non-coronavirus era) performances, she usually presides over a setup that integrates analog, acoustic and digital – including a looper pedal, a synthesizer, a mandolin, a harmonica and vocals. For her day job, she works as a bartender at the Levontin 7 bar/concert venue; during the coronavirus lockdown, she spent most of her time working on her new project.
The song “Binyamin (Go Down Moses),” featured on Lavie's third and latest album, “Lumen Being,” is one of its most powerful moments. She entwines Netanyahu’s speech in layers of electronic music. Her voice resounds over and over with the dramatic injunction “let my people go,” alongside less dramatic lyrics referencing the speech. Her use of doubling in this track creates the feeling that behind her voice are masses of other voices – all demanding that Netanyahu let them go.
The original “Go Down Moses” was a spiritual, a Christian folk song created and sung by Black slaves working in the cotton fields of the southern United States. Spirituals constituted the melodic and lyric basis of American folk music, as well as of genres like blues and gospel.
These songs were a means for slaves to form a connection with each other despite the harsh restrictions they lived under, and to disseminate a message of hope and resistance. Spirituals also served as ways to pass on secret messages related to attempts to escape northward.
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As such, spirituals always contained a clear, unequivocal message and the metaphors were very easy to interpret: Egypt was the cotton fields, the Hebrews represented the Black slaves kidnapped from Africa, and Pharaoh was the slave masters, slave traders and plantation owners. “Go Down Moses” dates back to 1872, and to this day, is a well-known musical symbol and embodiment of resistance to oppression.
For her part, alternative-indie musician Lavie drew from the song’s history to send the same message that demonstrators outside the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem are sending. Nevertheless, she doesn’t describe herself as a political artist per se.
“It was a bit hypocritical,” she tells Haaretz. “I’m not a leader who urges people to follow me. I go to the demonstrations, but I don’t even shout. It’s important to go and to encourage friends to go, to raise the profile of this story so that other people will want to join.”
Even though Lavie doesn’t describe herself as an artist who deals with protest, her song sends an unequivocal message. “Netanyahu is living in a dream world, a Netflix series,” she said. “It has already gone on for too many seasons and he is always the main character. This is a kind of prayer – let my people go! Free us already, as much as possible.”
Each track on "Lumen Being" is dedicated to and focuses on a specific person. “Malala” is about Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. “Mark,” about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, was written after he appeared at a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.
“A few dozen adults from the era of the telegraph were speaking with a young man who has an insane amount of power,” Lavie said. “They were trying to fix the virtual reality he created. They talked about displays of hatred. I only wish there were a Mark on the street, in reality, and that someone would tell him: make sure there’s no hatred in the line for a falafel, in the classroom, at the beach.”
May Lavie will appear at the Hive, 33 Rothschild Blvd, Tel Aviv, at 11 P.M. on September 2. Entry is free.