The presence of greatness

Banhart sees Israel as a place for palpability.

June 13, 2010 04:12
Devendra Banhart

Devendra Banhart 311. (photo credit: PR)

Devendra Banhart is a man of peace. He chooses to play two shows in Israel instead of one – even as we recover from the Elvis Costello sting, and world-famous indie acts like the Klaxons and the Pixies cancel on us mere days in advance.

But Banhart adds another show – quietly, without stuffy declarations, without politics – with love.

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It’s all too easy to label him a new kind of hippie, but he’s not here to herald some peace-love revolution. “I respect the hippie movement and its ideals, but do I identify with it or have I ever identified with it whatsoever? As contrary to the caricature of me that I’ve helped paint and that’s been painted to me, nope!” he tells The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.

“Like all movements of possibly radical change from the established paradigm, it was infiltrated and systematically destroyed by outside forces that wanted it to fail and by the members themselves, who truckled under the pressure of so much responsibility, freedom and power so fast – much like the Black Panthers or a counterculture movement.”

Devendra Obi (yes, the Jedi master) Banhart was born as in Texas in 1981 and raised in Venezuela before moving to California, where he began to create inspired music. It comes as no surprise that he played his very first gig at a gay wedding in flamboyant San Francisco.

Banhart defies any kind of definition. He is named after a Hindu god (and a Jedi master), sings in English and in Spanish and draws inspiration from influences as far-flung haunting 1960s British singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan, American folk-country music (an influence which has led some to associate him with the “new weird America” genre, which he terms an “already obsolete nomenclature”) and Brazil’s Tropicália movement, which endorsed an experimental style of musical expression combining ethnic rhythms with rock ’n’ roll. He cites many other influences, among them Colombia’s Cumbia folk music, which evolved when African slaves adopted local Latin American instruments for use in their courtship rituals during colonial times.

“I was very fortunate to grow up in a culture rich with its own indigenous music (or at least neighboringly indigenous music), and parents that listened to a wide variety of music from around the world and throughout history,” he says.

“I would be headed home on the school bus and hear Salsa, Merengue, Batucada, Samba, a little American rock like Nirvana and the Rolling Stones here and there, and a little reggae too – from cars outside and the radio on the bus – and then come home to find my dad listening to Neil Young or Ali Farka Toure and my mother listening to Flamenco or fado or something like that.”

The wealth of sounds and cultures, he says, gives him “a reference point and a teeny tiny bit of perspective.”

Banhart doesn’t identify his music with North America or Latin America, “even though it’s the cultural milieu in which I grew up.” He doesn’t think he makes roots music at all and says a closer definition would be “uprooted” or “peradventure” music – lyrics and melodies left to chance.

“I only take inspiration and information from what I’ve been exposed to – it’s the same for the musical modes of Africa Europe, Asia and the Middle East.”

JEWISH CULTURE figures into his music, too. One song, “Shabop Shalom,” tells the story of a Jamaican boy who falls in love with a rabbi’s daughter one hibiscus-scented summer afternoon. The tale is told in scattered vernacular reminiscent of inscrutable hassidic-kabbalistic texts – only with a sense of humor that isn’t distinctly Jewish. “Won’t you shabop shalom with me/Under the old banana tree?” Banhart sings, then promises his Jewish love “ahava raba.”

Banhart is no stranger to the Jewish state, either; next week’s shows will mark his third visit to the country. In summer 2006, just days before the Second Lebanon War, he played two unforgettable gigs in Tel Aviv and even paid a tribute to popular Mizrahi singer Moshik Afia by covering his hit song “Ani Lo Zamin.” Since then, he has released two acclaimed albums, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (2007) and What Will Be Will Be (2009), and dated Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman.

Big-time record label Warner, recognizing Banhart’s inimitable talent and unique vision, snapped him up in 2009, ensuring that his voice will be heard for years to come – perhaps, someday, by the multitudes.

Banhart is heavily involved in the indie music industry, and has worked with Phoenix, Jana Hunter, Joanna Newsom and Beck. Asked about his current favorites, Banhart supplies a long list of bands and artists, some contemporary, some from decades past. Indie band Vetiver, with whom Banhart has collaborated, finds its place alongside jazz legend Chet Baker and Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth. British pop powerhouse Bat For Lashes (Natasha Khan), R&B star R.Kelly, satirical South African rap outfit Die Antwoord and French multi-instrumentalist (and past Eurovision participant) Sebastian Tellier are grouped together among other, more obscure names.

Though he says he doesn’t presume to know where “the scene” is headed, Banhart is clearly serious about music. Asked about the things he tries to say through his songs, he tries to answer, then says he couldn’t do it without taking months. “Unfortunately,” he apologizes, “I don’t think China, animals, or anything remotely ‘hippie’ is one of them... Is this answer super vague?”

“I’ve always made music with no demographic in mind,” is all he says, further accenting the staggering diversity of his work. After seven studio albums and numerous compilations, it’s clear that no matter which direction Banhart chooses to take, the end result is bound to be interesting. He sings words of warmth, wisdom and love, of human encounters ranging from humorous to amorous. Most songs have folk melodies inspired by both ends of the American continent. Some are bluesy, others a dreamy, meditative bossa nova, yet others a mixture of both. Many of his songs sound faraway, serene, as though recorded in some make-believe happier era. His voice is smooth, crisp and sometimes plaintive, like that of a wandering troubadour. Other times, it’s just pure fun.

‘IT’S FUNNY, isn’t it? For someone with such a polluted, decrepit, senescent, and dastardly heart, I make rather soft music,” Banhart says. Even as he sings such lines as “I heard somebody say that the war ended today, but everybody knows it’s goin’ still” (in ‘Heard Somebody Say’) he does so tenderly, piano in the background.

I ask him what makes his music so gentle. “I don’t know how that works,” he replies. “As I get older – and to my utter amazement, happier – I think the music might get, let’s say, the opposite of what you just described it as.”

What’s for certain is that Banhart has a sense of humor, sometimes of the self-deprecating kind. Throughout his creative process, he explains, he tries “to keep things very, very, very dumb and direct with some songs – and as symbolic as I can possibly get with others.”

“Either way, I have yet to write a good one,” he adds.

How do you do it? I ask him. He reveals, “By trying to not hide.”

His answer to my final question – what are his impressions of Israel? – is enough to warm anyone’s heart, especially these days. “I love Israel, I do, that’s why we’re coming – we love Israel,” he says. “It’s the only place I’ve ever been to with such a palpable and unwavering ability to be present.”

Those who want to see Banhart in action are in luck. Tickets are still available for his shows in Tel Aviv on June 16 and 17 – NIS 200 at the Barby Web site,

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