If anyone has the right to cringe when the dreaded “apartheid” term pops up in reference to Israel, it’s Trevor Rabin.
Growing up in a liberal Jewish household in Johannesburg in the 1950s and ’60s, the 63-year-old South African-born musician, singer-songwriter, producer and film composer was involved first-hand in the struggle against apartheid, with family members playing vital roles in the resistance efforts.
“I grew up pretty differently to most white South Africans, who were oblivious to the issue and thought that life there was kind of normal. I knew from an early age that it was a pretty foreign existence,” Rabin told The Jerusalem Post
last week from his home in Los Angeles.
“I was in an anti-apartheid band called Freedom’s Children – and my family was very active in anti-apartheid efforts,” he added, listing a lawyer cousin, Sydney Kentrdige, who in 1978, pro bono, represented the family of anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko at the inquest following his death, and an uncle, Donald Woods, whose books on the subject forced him into exile and were eventually turned into the 1987 British epic drama film Cry Freedom directed by Richard Attenborough.
With that collective knowledge and experience deep inside him, Rabin’s reaction to “apartheid” being thrown at Israel is telling, and helps explain his appearance Tuesday in Tel Aviv at the Mivtach Menora Arena with fellow members of British Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Yes – Jon Anderson and Rick Wakemen – as part of an evening of Yes music under the banner ARW.
“I’ve been reading and hearing about the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement and the apartheid claims for a long time and I’ve read a lot on the subject. And when the idea of this tour came up, my one criteria was: We have to play in Israel,” said Rabin.
“Roger Waters isn’t our promoter. I know that 98% of artists don’t listen to that idiot and I want to be part of that 98%. And Rick and Jon feel as strongly about this as I do,” he added, referring to Anderson and Wakeman, the latter of whom appeared in a solo show in Tel Aviv in 2015.
Rabin’s connection to Israel doesn’t derive from ties with the family of Yitzhak Rabin – his family name is Rabinowitz.
“My father changed along with his brother, I don’t even know exactly when. We never talked about it, it was just Rabin and that was it,” said Rabin, adding that he grew up in a Reform, not particularly observant, household.
“But we loved Israel growing up and used to support it however we could. I can’t believe that my first visit was only eight years ago for a big family reunion with cousins living near Haifa that family members came to from America and South Africa.”
Alongside an affinity for Israel and disdain for apartheid, a unifier in the Rabin family was always music.
“My father was a lawyer but he was also lead violinist in the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra, and my mother was a piano teacher,” said Rabin. “So it was kind of a natural thing that around age five, my brother, sister and I all had to start piano lessons. It was almost more important than schoolwork to my mom and dad.”
Young Trevor proved to be more than proficient and by the age of 14, had won awards for his classical piano playing. When his father offered to reward him, Rabin asked for an acoustic guitar. Soon he was playing along with the hits of his favorite artist, Cliff Richards and the Shadows.
“Before The Beatles, there was Cliff Richards. That’s what caught my eye originally,” he said. “But once I heard The Beatles, it had a profound effect on me. From then on, I had no intention of ever doing anything else besides being a musician. I’ve never really had a job, I love music so it’s not really work.”
Rabin spent much of the 1970s as a member of one of South Africa’s most popular bands, Rabbit. But that popularity ultimately is what led him to leave the country for good.
“Rabbit was pretty successful, lots of touring and platinum albums,” he said. “But at the time there were a lot of restrictions regarding work permits and visas for South Africans, so when an American record company wanted us to go to the US, we weren’t able to get the necessary permits and the whole thing crumbled. That’s when I decide to leave South Africa.”
Moving to London in 1978, Rabin signed with Chrysalis Records and released a series of albums, in addition to producing albums for artists like Manfred Mann, whose leader was also a South African Jew originally named Lubowitz.
“Before we met, we didn’t know each other was either Jewish or South African,” said Rabin with a laugh. “But we subsequently became close friends to this day.”
While working with Mann, Rabin met music mogul David Geffen, who was impressed with Rabin’s musical versatility, signed him to a development deal and brought him to Los Angeles.
Rabin and Geffen ended up not seeing eye to eye on how to advance his career, and by the early 1980s, the musician was a free agent, sending out tapes of tunes he had recorded in his own studio to record companies, including a song called “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
The song made its way to Chris Squire and Alan White, the bassist and drummer of Yes, the 1970s FM rock staples who were in transition with the departure of guitarist Steve Howe.
“There were a lot of things going on at the same time. I almost signed to RCA Records, there was talk of forming a band with Keith Emerson and Jack Bruce, and then Chris and Alan asked me to join Yes. That’s what I chose and the rest is history,” said Rabin.
Building their name on long intricate songs loaded with virtuoso solos, tight vocal harmonies, hippie sci-fi lyrics and albums featuring the iconic psychedelic art of Roger Dean, Yes found themselves with the biggest hit of their career with that song Rabin brought with him for their comeback 90125 album – “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
“I was surprised by the size of its success but I knew all along it was a hit,” he said.
I remember getting a letter from [legendary label head] Clive Davis at Arista saying that my voice had great appeal but my songs were too “far out and outrageous.”
After the song hit number one, I sent him a letter with a photograph of the Billboard chart and wrote, ‘I guess you were wrong.’” Rabin’s reign in Yes continued into the 1990s, even as band members splintered into various configurations and it was never clear which was the real Yes. But by mid-decade, he left the band to begin a new career composing film scores. Over the past 20 years, Rabin has composed over 40 scores, including Armageddon, National Treasure and his favorite, Remember the Titans.
Although he occasionally joined former Yes mates in shows and one-offs, he regularly turned down appeals to tour or commit to any long-term Yes endeavors.
“I remained very friendly with the guys when I left and Chris asked me many times to come back out, but I was really enjoying film scoring,” said Rabin, adding that the absence of vocalist Anderson, who was performing Yes songs with his own configuration, made the offers less interesting.
However, the combination of Anderson and Wakeman, the keyboardist on some of the band’s most popular albums, like Fragile, Close to the Edge and Tales of the Topographic oceans, proved too powerful for Rabin to resist.
Rabin and Wakeman had only worked together briefly, on a Yes Reunion tour in 1991 that included member of both the 1970s core and the 90125 version.
“I just loved working with Rick and knew I always wanted to work with him again,” said Rabin, adding that the death of Squire in 2015 proved to be a catalyst for ARW.
“Once Chris died, I said to myself, ‘well, I’ve done 50 movies some 50 TV shows, am I just going to carry on doing it so in another 10 years I can say I’ve done 80 instead of 50? Or should I start playing again with this great band?’” “And oh my god, I just love it. With Jon and Chris, it’s just been phenomenal. We’re writing new music and we’re really into it.”
The threesome is expected to be joined by other former members of Yes, including Howe and White as well as Tony Kaye and Bill Bruford on April 7 when the band is inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, after two previous nominations.
“When we were up for the third time, we didn’t think much would come of it, so it’s pretty exciting to be recognized,” said Rabin. “I don’t know about the others, but Jon, Rick and I are going to perform. I just wish it could have happened when Chris was still alive.”