Israeli Trio Breathes New Life Into Old Songs

An album of medleys of songs that were never too successful to begin with has proved to be a surprise runaway hit.

"It began as a childhood dream, to take songs from when, but not with which, I grew up," relates musician Raviv Ben Menachem, founder of The Revivo Project. The Project's debut album, "Ma Notar Mi'eleh" ("What Remains of These" ) is made up entirely of medleys of old songs they have revived.

"I had a very strong connection to old-fashioned songs, songs that are no longer heard today," adds Ben Menachem, who is known to his friends as Revivo. "So I started developing this idea, and over the course of a year and a half I worked on it with my friend [singer] Eliran Zur."

The third side of the group's triangle is Revivo's brother, singer Nir Ben Menachem. Raviv says that Nir became involved only by chance, when he asked him to help with a sketch: "When I played the recording for people, they asked who the singer was."

Raviv Ben Menachem - keyboardist, composer and arranger - is sufficiently respected in the local world of music that he could have chosen well-known singers to be his collaborators, rather than his brother and a friend, both of whom basically dropped into the studio.

"True," says Menachem, "but that's what's nice about it, that it wasn't planned. We did this for our own amusement. No one expected that 'retro-Mizrahi music' would catch on so strongly now."

Nir Ben Menachem: "We are getting a lot of reactions from people who say this is music they didn't hear at home as children, but that they were exposed to at their neighbors' homes, at friends' homes. But when they hear the songs as adults, it gives them a completely different dimension."

Since three clips from the CD were uploaded to YouTube in July, each has been viewed more than a quarter-of-a-million times. They depict the three musicians performing medleys with friends, in an atmosphere that has infectious quality. Some of the friends are smoking water pipes, others are chewing khat, some are drinking something - but all are participating in the party.

The Project's first official performance was held at the Cafe Tel Aviv club about four months ago, on April 2, 2012. It was the same day as the finale of the latest season of "Big Brother" on television, recalls Zur, 28. "And if that wasn't enough, there was also a storm raging outside. People were afraid to stick a hand out the window."

Says Raviv Ben Menachem: "We told ourselves we'd show our faces and go back home. But two hours before the performance was supposed to begin, the place was already buzzing with people."

He goes on to explain that the trio decided to build their medleys around songs that other people don't know very well, songs that in their day received insufficient attention. "But these are songs we have been connected to since childhood and know by heart, not songs we had to learn specially," adds Raviv.

The first three medleys on "What Remains of These" are songs with which Ben Menachem felt he had to close a circle. "Moshe Giat's song ("Dreams" ) had indeed been a hysterical hit, but it got stuck in the past and didn't continue on with us," he says, "and there are a lot more like it." He also noted Giat's song "What Remains." "I had to release it," he says, "for my soul."

Zur adds that both for him and for Nir, there are songs that are "hidden in the soul" and declares that they will perform at least some of them on their next album.

Breaking the rules

Raviv Ben Menachem has been working with singer Lior Farhi for more than 17 years as a keyboardist and arranger. Farhi was also the first to have broadcast the Revivo Project songs on his radio program "Electricity in the Air" on the Lev Hamedina station. The medleys are about eight minutes long on average - that is, five minutes longer than what is customarily broadcast on the radio.

Eliran: "Nowadays an artist is afraid to go longer than the three minutes for a song, but we didn't think about radio play when we were in the studio - after all, from the start we were doing this for ourselves."

Then other regional stations started discovering the Revivo Project. "It took Reshet Gimmel a little while but they are playing us too," says Raviv Ben Menachem about Israel Radio's Hebrew pop-music station. "Thank God, the rules dictating the format of the short song are null and void when it comes to something good."

If the medleys are made up of a combination of songs, how do you choose their titles?

Zur: "We named the medleys according to the common denominator of the songs that comprise them."

Ben Menachem points to the medley called "Let Time Go On," for example, which "expresses our desire to continue to live our lives and also to give these songs a new life. The medley 'What Remains' is based on the same idea, and we called the album 'What Remains of Them' as a play on that song and also as a question relating to the rest of the songs."

Even though the album is classified as "Mediterranean" music, there is a respectable representation on it of songwriters and performers who aren't part of the genre. For example, the medley that opens the disc ends with the song "It's Not Terrible" written by poet David Avidan and performed by, among others, Joe Amar (to a melody by Algerian singer Enrico Macias ). Even "Take Me Under Your Wing" - based on a poem by Haim Nahman Bialik - is on the album, as part of the bonus medley "Wonder Lily," named after a poem by Shaul Tchernikovsky that was put to music and performed by Zvika Pik. The classic poem by the national poet is performed by the three as a homage to Yehoram Gaon, who recorded the song.

"So what if I am a child of 28? I'm crazy about Yehoram Gaon," says Eliran.

If the medleys and the tremendous cultural richness in them are examined closely, it should not be a surprise that the Revivo Project is popular among different audiences and different ethnic groups.

About a week ago, at the start of another performance at Cafe Tel Aviv, a man who appeared to be of Russian descent, in his late 20s, came in. "Hey! Greet Yevgeny, the most Yemenite Russian there is," Nir Ben Menachem called out from the stage.

Who is Yevgeny?

"He is a real groupie of the Project. He's always saying nice things about us, especially on Facebook, he comes to performances and he tries to bring us to the attention of everyone he knows. He really does public relations for us out of love."

Zur talks about video clips they are sent by parents of very small children, who are seen, earphones on, listening and singing along with the music: "So, we respond and share by being nice back to them, which pleases the parents."

"Who would have believed that something would happen like what happened yesterday at the performance," says Nir Ben Menachem excitedly. "Children sang 'Returning to My Land' [by Tslilei Ha'oud] by heart and with all their might. This is a song that's 35 years old, maybe more!"

How did you end up performing before children? At Cafe Tel Aviv and the other venues where you appear, entry is usually restricted to age 18 and over.

"That's right. "Therefore this has added value because it was at the bar mitzvah of a boy who doesn't even live in Israel. His family came here specially to celebrate and he asked for us at the party. There in America he listened to the disc all day long."

Nir tells of an excited letter written by a boy, in his name and in the names of his four brothers. "After a performance the boys' parents came up and gave Raviv the letter, which said, in short: 'Greetings to you Raviv, king of the Project. We want to tell you it is not fair that only Mom and Dad can [see you live]. We promise to make a real party for you.'"

Ben Menachem contacted the family and invited them with the children to be guests of honor at a poolside performance in Sdot Micha. The boy and his brothers kept their promise, they stood on chairs next to the stage and sang along from beginning to end.

The trio is now planning a new initiative called Children of the Project, though the name might change. Raviv explains: "We thought that because of the age limit at the clubs, we could do a series of performances intended for families with children."

How are you planning to keep success from ruining you?

Zur: "[The three of us] do a lot of conference calls. Every day. After all, we're a family. As far as I am concerned, my name is Eliran Zur-Ben Menachem. When we manage to find a few free minutes, we try to set the music aside and drink coffee together. In these conversations we bring one another down to earth, get back to the reality. To get crazy adoration like this is not a simple thing. My mother phoned yesterday crying. Why haven't you come for two weeks now, she asks. She misses me."

On September 13, the Revivo Project will appear at Tel Aviv's Hangar 11 club, before what should be its largest live audience to date. All the tickets have already been sold. There will be guest artists, too, whose names they refuse to reveal. One thing they do guarantee: "It will be the biggest party in the country!"

The Revivo Project. From left, Nir Ben Menachem, Eliran Zur and Raviv Ben Menachem.
Noa Yafe