'We Were a Popular Family Band on the Verge of Signing With Disney. Then We Became Homeless'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: This Israeli family came close to having it all. Then everything fell apart

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Kol Havaiia.
Kol Havaiia.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya
Yael Benaya

Kol Havaiia, 52; lives in Rosh Hanikra, flying to Kauai, Hawaii

Hi Kol, where are you flying to?

I’m flying to a huge and exciting family gathering on the island of Kauai. I have 27 hours of flying. My father, who is 80, will be coming, also my mother, my sister who’s celebrating her 50th birthday, two of my sons who live there and whom I haven’t seen for six years, my daughter from California and three more of my daughters, who are leaving tomorrow.

How long has it been since you had a reunion like this?

I have seven kids. My youngest probably won’t be able to come, because he is about to start his army service. We all lived together on Kauai nine years ago.

What brought you there?

I don’t know where to start. We once lived in Gush Etzion [settlement bloc south of Jerusalem], in Bat Ayin. After 20 years there, an island in the middle of the ocean not surrounded by enemies sounded really good. So we flew to Kauai, which is one of the most beautiful of the Hawaiian islands. We thought we’d stay there for a year or something like that, but I couldn’t get the kids to leave. Ten years passed, and we’d become a family band called Havaiia. We played a combination of pop and ethnic, Hebrew and English, original songs and covers, a little reggae, a little country. My wife and all seven of our kids are really great musicians. We performed in all the islands and traveled all over the United States, but naturally, a family band can’t keep going forever.

What was your role in the band?

The Havaiia family.Credit: The Havaiia kids in Hawaii.

Dad, manager, porter, hauling equipment, arranging shows, collecting money, putting out fires, and also writing, singing and producing. We recorded 30 clips and had millions of views. We climbed and we climbed, we could already feel success. The children were at their peak; they were on fire – their playing, the piano and the drums, they were simply on fire, they were so excited. And then we were left with nothing, we broke up and I was left with the debts.

How did that happen?

I was sure that we were on the verge of signing with someone. In the meantime I took one loan and then another loan, to keep the whole thing together. We were thrown plenty of lifelines, but I was stubborn. I said no to a lot of less-good offers, because I was waiting for the big fish. And then we almost signed a huge contract with Disney. They were going to come to Kauai and produce a musical reality show about our family. At the same time, a whole slew of big companies from Hollywood approached us, but in the end we didn’t sign with Disney or with Universal, or with any of the other companies that contacted us. Everything collapsed.

Start from the beginning.

An Israeli from Los Angeles who works with [Israeli-born producer] Haim Saban came to us. He sat with us for a week and wanted to get us to sign with him on the spot, and also offered money. But he also asked a lot in return. He wanted a year of exclusivity in order to sign us with a large company and to get 18 percent of everything we would ever make. He told me, “You need the money, you’re about to go under and you need this lifeline.” At that time, two women from Hollywood who were behind Disney’s biggest television programs were also negotiating with me. They wanted us to sign a contract with Disney that would also include a recording contract, a contract for a film and also for television. In exchange, they wanted 10 percent and also suggested managing us – but they didn’t offer money.

What a dilemma. What did you decide?

I went to see a lawyer in Los Angeles who also represents Tom Cruise, a doozy of a lawyer. I told him about the two offers and I asked him who to sign with. He dithered and dithered, and said he thought that what the women were offering was better. So I signed with them and not with the Israeli, even though he made the effort and came to Kauai and the whole family liked him. He pleaded with me to sign with him, but my wife wanted Disney. Today I regret that very much, I think that God had sent him exactly at the right time.

What happened after you signed?

I waited. In the meantime the money ran out, my wife was stressed, the kids were stressed, my daughter wanted to go back to Israel, my son wanted to begin his studies – I felt that it was now or never. The two managers told me that on no account must I get in touch with Disney myself, because that was their job. But they kept dragging their feet, and in the end I called Disney and it all blew up. The two women said we were so close, and everything fell apart.

Sounds painful.

When things collapsed, we still had two more options. “America’s Got Talent” had been in touch for three years and begged us to come. They said, “You’re going to win it, we need a family like you.” So we went to L.A. and with my last credit card, I rented an apartment there. We got to the program tired and worn out, in the middle of a family argument, and it was a disaster.

Oh, no.

We already had debts of $40,000, but we still had one more opportunity. The United Nations wanted to take us to Africa on a trip and to connect us to well-known musicians there. They arranged everything and bought us tickets. We were going to start in Malawi. Then, at the last minute, two days before the trip, my wife started reading about malaria. There was an outbreak of malaria, and she said there was no way we were going. So that went, too, and we remained with nothing.

What do you mean, “with nothing”?

My wife and I were homeless – living in the car. We sent the younger children to their grandparents in Chicago. The older ones went back to Hawaii. From a united family living together in Kauai and making music, everyone scattered. I blame my wife, she blames me. After a time we couldn’t cope with the accusations and the pressure and the chaos, and we separated. After that we returned to Israel, wounded, without a red carpet, crawling.

What was it like to send away your children in that situation?

The Havaiia kids in Hawaii.Credit: From the Havaiia band's website

I grew up in Chicago, where money is the religion. If you have a lot of money you are very important, and if you have little money you are considered an animal. When we sent the children to Chicago, it was like sending them to the enemy. They were brainwashed every day for two years: “Don’t be crazy like your dad and mom, who think it’s possible to sustain seven children as musicians. You will work and get good grades and finish school; you will not be musicians.” All of the upbringing they had gotten was erased, all the fantasies and beliefs we had. On the other hand, we didn’t have a home to give them, so at least let them be safe.

What was the hardest part?

The little one, Neo, he was our Michael Jackson. The kids were all talented and amazing, but Neo stood out with his blond curls and his little guitar. He got that name after I saw “The Matrix.” I took him to Hebron to have him circumcised and all my religious friends gathered in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and when I said his name would be Neo everyone thought I had lost it. In any event, he was our star, he had fans all over the world. He is also an amazing singer. The most painful part was that when we sent them off to Chicago, he said, “I’ll never touch a guitar again in my life.”

What does it do to you to remember all this now?

I feel longings – we all still love each other a lot. We’ve had a lot of trouble in the family, but on the other hand there is still a great deal of love there. Now I will get to be with all the kids in Kauai, except for Neo. It’s the first reunion since that whole story. My father has had three bouts with cancer, and before I decided to go, he called and said I had to come, so I was already worried. He said, “The children will be coming, and I am in a difficult situation. I love you, come.”

Will the children’s mother also be coming?

She won’t be coming. I understand her pain. In Kauai we had a little money at the beginning, and she fought for us to open a falafel place or a pizzeria, so we would have an income and also sing. And I said, “What, with almost a million views a day, we’re going to open a pizzeria?” It’s not easy to manage a restaurant, it’s a big investment, and if you’re not into it, you won’t succeed. But I understand her, too – she was afraid we would be left with nothing. Which is what finally happened. She is an incredible woman, very deep, a mega-singer. We once had a CD in Hebrew that reached first place on the national sales chart, it was called “One.” We called ourselves Yitzhak and Sigalit Sadehu. We broke into the Israeli mainstream but we were expelled from our settlement, from Bat Ayin. We had a house there and everything, and they told us, “Leave, we don’t want all this pop here.”

Do you think it’s possible to rise again after a fall like that?

Everything is possible. If people google “Havaiia” and see all the riches there, it will ignite again. We just did an audition for the Israeli version of “The Voice.” We got through the first three stages, we were sure we’d been accepted, but they just told us that we weren’t.

Is there something you would have done differently?

I would not change places with anyone, even with all the difficulty and grief and pain over what happened. I am following the dream. I have this problem: that I flee from success. I made a lot of good music but somehow I keep running away from money. When a chance for a breakthrough really comes, I somehow change direction. Even after the success in Hebrew, we didn’t sign with [an Israeli label such as] Helicon, Hed Artzi or NMC, even though they all were after us. I said no, because I needed to express myself in English, even though the whole story could have taken off. I’m dying to have someone come and tell me, “Shut up, I’ll manage you.” Everyone who came to us from Hollywood – I left them confused. They saw one thing and then I showed them that we had so many more things to offer: television, film, English, Hebrew.

How do you continue from here?

I’m based in Rosh Hanikra, with a view of the sea and the waves. I really believe in this music, and this is also my way of worshipping God. I used to be more into the commandments, but then I became a musician. I put all my heart into the music and I threw off the yoke of the mitzvot, because I wanted to connect again with the world. My whole worship of God is through music. I write from the heart, and I love this music.

What is your dream today?

It’s not that I want to be famous, I just very much love the music. I got used to doing high-quality mix, high-quality production, high-quality video clips – but it’s expensive. For that you need to be known, you need a platform, you need a little help. I’ve been investing in this for 25 years already, and I want us to have the chance to continue on this journey. I would like one day to overcome all the difficulties and traumas, to stand on a stage together with the whole family, and to blow everyone away.