‘The Language of the Soul’

Even as his special brand of Mediterranean songs was repeatedly rejected from Israel’s leading music festivals earlier in his career, veteran singer-songwriter-producer Avihu Medina says he knew he would win over audiences. And win them over he did.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Avihu Medina spoke softly but firmly. “No son, no way,” he told Shimi Tavori, who sat across from him in the improvised greenroom of the Amphi Park in Ra’anana. “Listen to me, Shimi, only you will sing. There is a program and we stick to it. People came to hear Shimi Tavori, and they are going to hear Shimi Tavori, not ‘Shimi Tavori and Sons.’ That’s not all: You will sing exactly the songs upon which we agreed.”

It takes really strong arguments to convince Medina to change his mind, and Tavori did not have one. Tavori simply wanted his son Daniel to perform in front of the 5,000 people who had come to the Amphi Park for a show marking the 30th anniversary of Aaleh Batamar, a nonprofit organization that promotes the heritage of Yemenite Jewry.

When sitting face-to-face with Medina, Tavori was compelled to agree with the singer-songwriter’s demand. But toward the end of his set, when it came time for “Al Tashlicheni” (“Don’t Abandon Me”), Tavori didn’t perform the perennial song, composed by Medina. Instead, he sang some mundane song of his own and invited his son to the microphone.

“Did you have to do that?” Medina asked a perspiring Tavori when the show was over. “Don’t you understand that you would have blown the crowd away if you’d sung ‘Al Tashlicheni?’”

On this particular night, Medina is wearing the manager and organizer’s hat. The only time he goes on stage is when the director of Aaleh Batamar thanks him for all the work he put in. Nevertheless, over and over again during the course of the evening, it becomes clear what a powerful hold his songs have on the audience’s soul. This is also clear when one sees two of his songs featured in the publicity film for Aaleh Batamar that was screened at the beginning of the event. And when singer Emil Zrihan speaks in the greenroom about the disdainful way that Mizrahi music (originating in the Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa) was treated in the 1960s and ‘70, and then points at Medina and says, “until he stood up and started shouting.”

A couple of hours later, on stage, Medina’s supreme status is once again demonstrated during a performance by The Revivo Project. The band performs cover versions of old Mediterranean-style songs hits from the 1970s and ‘80s that are utterly different from the current hits in that genre, first and foremost in the quality of their texts. Most of the songs performed were written by Medina.

During The Revivo Project’s portion of the show, which got the crowd going more than any other performance of the night, Medina stood to the side of the stage and observed the proceedings. His face and body language did not give away what he was thinking and feeling. A few days after the show, he hums one of the songs and then says, “Listen, I am not a person who is easily moved. I also have a cynical point of view about this world. I know successes, and I know failures, and I know there is truth, and I know there is bluffing, and I know there is public relations.”

So this moment, when the thousands at the Amphi Park were singing your songs, was not a moment of truth?

“It was a moment of truth, and when I wrote those songs I was being truthful. I wasn’t just putting on a pose. These songs are good, civilized. They contain a message, brains, a real story. But then, when they were released, the media ignored them. So for me, it’s nothing new that the audience gets excited. You know what, maybe I was also a little disappointed when I saw the crowd’s enthusiasm. As if that wound from the media’s disregard was reopened.

"Bastards, I say. Why did we have to wait 30, 40 years? Why?”

Are you aware that you are the predominant songwriter on Revivo’s disc?

“It was obvious that if anybody were to do a medley of songs from the Israeli Mediterranean genre’s past, I would be heavily represented. Back in the day I was among the few courageous writers who weren’t scared off by the media. I thought that freedom of expression had been granted to me and knew that I wasn’t about to give it up, that I was going to express how I felt and that no one was going to direct me toward certain styles that were to the media’s liking. Unfortunately, many Mizrahim who came from the same background were scared off by the media. The terror of the media was upon them and so they did not touch their natural musical materials.”

“Terror” is a strong word.

“But that is what it was. The moment that the media ignores something because it is not to its taste, it’s a death sentence. Obviously that is scary. An artist wants exposure. If he doesn’t get exposure he doesn’t exist. Or else he exists in his province, his neighborhood, his ethnic group. Therefore many did not go there, and I don’t blame them. If I had to make a living from music, I might not have gone there either. But I made a living from the diamond industry, and I had no fear that my livelihood would suffer."

Not by music alone

Behind the scenes at the show in Ra’anana, and also in conversations with him at his home in Petah Tikva, Medina always seems completely self-assured.

“There hasn’t been a moment in my life when I wasn’t self-confident. In any situation, at any age,” he says. “I think it stems from the upbringing I received. It was an upbringing of discipline, which I felt very uncomfortable about at the time. But it turns out that it produces good results.”

When he was 22 and just starting out, Medina realized that he could not rely solely on music for his livelihood. He opened a renovation business. He had laborers and an office on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv, and he made a very nice living, he says. “But it was hard for me to leave the projects in the middle of the day and go to the studio if necessary, and that bothered me. And then, in 1975, [singer] Uri Shevach said to me, ‘Listen, there is an industry in which you can make a lot of money and it’s contract work. You can work at whatever time you want.’

“That is how I came to be in diamonds. I studied, began working; a year and a half later I became independent. After another year I already had my own polishing workshop. The industry was on fire, we made a lot of money.”

When did you write songs? At night?

“Yes. I had a daily routine. Get up at 6:30 A.M., get to work at 7:30 A.M., work until 6 P.M., come home, go to sleep, get up at 10 P.M., work until 2 A.M., go to bed, get up at 6:30. For years. Until I established myself financially and retired from diamonds. I was 39.”

He submitted the first song that he wrote, “Yaakov Hatamim” (better known as “Fear not, Israel”), to the 1971 Oriental Song Festival with a clear objective: to be not only the writer of the song, but also to perform it. The festival’s rules stipulated that a writer whose song is accepted is allowed to nominate himself as the performer. Medina did so and was invited to an audition, the results of which, he says, were never communicated to him.

“My initial ambition was to be a performer, naturally. My father was a singer and cantor. He had a band that performed at Yemenite weddings. Music was an integral part of life. There was no question as to whether or not I could sing, that was obvious. But when ‘Fear not, Israel’ won third place, it changed my course of thinking. Television a live broadcast and there I am, an anonymous guy from Hess Street in Holon who recently got out of the army, suddenly appearing on stage as the songwriter. And the next day the song is played everywhere, it takes off like wildfire, and people begin approaching me about writing for them.”

Over the course of a decade, Medina submitted 11 songs to the Oriental Song Festival. All of them were accepted, and all of them won one of the top three places. By contrast, not one song of his was accepted to the general Israel Song Festival. He tried his luck six times, but to no avail. “By the third time I knew that the problem was not the quality of the songs, because the songs got into the Mizrahi festival [for Middle Eastern songs]. I also knew that I didn’t have a chance of being accepted, but I kept on trying, just to see how far the chutzpah would go. After the sixth time I stopped.”

Did you try to adapt the songs to the spirit that governed the Israel Song Festival?

“I did that when I wrote for the Hasidic Song Festival, because that was a festival that was highly characterized. But for the general festival, why should I? I considered myself Israeli like everyone. Israeli music was just starting to take shape, and you are entitled, as a citizen and as an artist, to contribute your color to the future product. That is how I felt and thought, and I was very proud of what I did, even when it did not appeal to someone whose tastes were different from mine. I insisted on my right to express myself freely, to give expression to myself.”

You weren’t angry about the very existence of a separate Mizrahi festival?

“Obviously you are angry. You are a citizen of the country, you were born in this country, and suddenly someone decides that you don’t belong culturally. It would piss anyone off.”

Then why did you enter the festival? You could have boycotted it.

“I’ll tell you why. They gave us a separate stage, but it’s still a stage. You don’t want to be roommates? Then I will build myself a house with anyone who wants me. But I won’t remain on the street, in the field. And it just so happens that this house was the first spring from which we drank, the first stage that publicized the stuff that we did. It was a very important stage. If we had passed it up, we might not have existed at all.

“I realized even then, in the early '70s, that we were dealing with a long process that would end in our victory. Because the truth always wins out and a bluff has no legs to stand on. As early as 1973 I told the director of the Reshet Gimmel radio channel, who was very hostile toward Israeli Mediterranean music, ‘Your discrimination will not kill our style. You will merely delay us, but we will win in the end. Because this is really how we feel and this is really how we express ourselves. You can’t change a person’s soul.’”

Kibbutz influences

Medina’s persistent campaign to gain acceptance for Mediterranean music led to his being perceived at times as a cultural-political activist no less, and maybe more, than as a songwriter. His new collection, and the new lease on life that his old songs are being given through the voices of The Revivo Project, are a reminder that he is first and foremost a songwriting giant.

What makes him one? We can point to several things. First, his wonderful Hebrew, which draws on the language of the Bible and manages to convert it into the framework of a popular song. Second, his fascinating dynamic between heavy and even tragic content and subtle and soft language. Third, his love of organization and order: Medina’s songs are always arranged within a careful, complete musical structure.

When Medina himself is asked about his qualities as a songwriter, he says that the most important thing is understanding. “If you have understood, your melody is known. If you are a talented composer, and you have understanding, and you know the language of the soul, you translate the words precisely into the musical language.”

Part of what sets him apart as a songwriter, says Medina, is his biography as a child who grew up in a traditional Yemenite household, but spent his teenage years living on a kibbutz. He talks about the rock ‘n’ roll he heard on the kibbutz and emphasizes the extent to which rock became assimilated in him and is present in his songs.

I must say that I don’t hear that in your songs.

“Then you are mistaken. If you were familiar with both styles you would understand that my music has in it less of the East, and more Western rock.” He sings a song called “Kinor David” and asks, “Is there anything Mizrahi here? Nothing. Or ‘Al Tashlicheni.’ It’s Ashkenazi cantorship ... Take an ancient song like ‘Fear not, Israel,’ it’s a march rhythm ... In short, you’re wrong.

“My father thought I was a rock musician. When he would hear my songs, he would say, ‘They mingled themselves with the nations, and learned their works.’ ‘Where is your awe of the Lord?’ he would ask. It depends for whom you play your songs: ‘Play them for a Westerner,’ says a Mizrahi. ‘Play them for a Mizrahi,’ says a Western man. And I am stuck between the two of them.”

Were you influenced in your composing by Arabic music?

“I’ll tell you a secret: I never heard Arabic in my life. In our house Arabic was off-limits. If the radio paused for a moment on an Arabic station while we were looking for Israel Radio, my father would shout ‘Ahhhhh!’ In our home there was liturgical singing, texts by Shabazi, melodies of the Diwan, the ancient Jewish Yemenite tradition. That is all that was allowed. And what we learned at school with the music teacher. All the rest was forbidden. I started listening to rock only when I moved to the kibbutz.”

Medina left home at 14 and moved to Kibbutz Kissufim. His mother died when he was 12 and he did not feel comfortable at home after his father remarried. He went to the Jewish Agency’s Youth Aliyah department, requested a place in a kibbutz and was sent to Kissufim, where he lived until he was drafted into the army.

“That accelerated my path to understanding Israeli society. Whatever I did not get at Yeshurun School in Holon, I got on the kibbutz. I loved the collectivism in the kibbutz, the open door, the equality among people. And most of all I loved the freedom. Freedom is a very precious thing, which did not exist in my father’s house.”

Many of your songs are shot through with a thread of sadness. Do you think it originates in your mother’s death?

“I don’t know, but there is no doubt that my mother’s death changed me. Until the age of 12 I was religious. I believed in everything that is written. Do good, you will do well. Do bad, you will do poorly. The mitzvah and its reward. So how can it be that a righteous woman like my mother died at 36? How is it possible that God took her? I was disappointed in everything I had believed in until then. I reached the conclusion that I had been taught a lot of things that aren’t true, that our life here is nothing, really nothing, a corridor that you pass through and it’s over in a moment.”

You speak from a very critical position, which also characterized you in the years of your cultural-political campaign. But in your songs there is no critical dimension, neither with regard to God nor with regard to the state.

“Regarding God you are wrong. But regarding the state, you are right. I did not write protest songs. Because the state is only a babe. We’re in around the seventh month of pregnancy. Our state has not been born yet, there is no need to burden it with more criticism and more disagreement. We have enough of those. All we have to do now, because we have yet to guarantee even our physical existence, is to do all we can do for the good of the country. Complain? It is not time yet.”

Medina celebrated his 64th birthday recently. He continues to work, write, perform and produce, but at a very relaxed pace.

“In 1997 I grew satiated,” he says. “I said, ‘That’s it, enough, you’ll be 50 soon and it’s all the same. Another production, another program, another album, another project. Enough. Until when? After all I am set financially, I don’t have to work. Yalla, start traveling the world.”

Are you all set financially from music or the diamonds?

“From the diamonds, praise the Lord, and from music, praise the Lord. I’ve calculated that I won’t manage to spend all of the money by the time I am 120, so if not now, when? I switched off one engine and switched on another engine, an engine with which I do as I see fit: hang out abroad, travel, climb, see and feel things.”

Is that what you do all the time, travel?

“I just got back from Italy. We took a car, a friend and I. We covered 3,000 kilometers in six days. We saw ‘Aida’ in Verona.”

Are you an opera fan?

“No, but it was tantalizing to see the original. And it was something! You enter an arena. A big structure, lavish, powerful. Twenty thousand people standing, holding candles. Do you know how powerful that is? I wasn’t that familiar with the story, and I don’t know Italian so I didn’t understand a word, but I was impressed.

“My next trip is to Cambodia. All in all, the world is beautiful. We are absorbed in ourselves, in our little country. But if you ask me, if I had lived 100 years ago and they had offered Uganda and the decision were up to me, I wouldn’t have thought twice.”

Avihu Medina. 'I never heard Arabic in my life. In our home there was liturgical singing.'Credit: Micha Kirshner
The Revivo Project performs cover versions of old Mediterranean-style songs.Credit: Yuval Shai

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