Avi Balali is in the middle of rehearsals for the heralded comeback of his band Nikmat Hatractor (Tractor’s Revenge), one of Israel’s venerable musical establishments.
“We really need this gathering, we’re getting all the rust out,” the 47-year-old founder and bassist of the band joked during a break in preparing the band’s first show in three years in celebration of 22 years of activity and the release of their first album in (the unheard of in the pop world gap of) eight years – Nishar Rak Larutz (The Only Thing Left to Do is Run).
Balali, along with longtime band mates guitarist Ofir Leibovitz and drummer Aviv Barak, and newer members viola player Galia Hai and keyboardist Idan Zalanik, will be debuting the newly released album on October 11 at the Theater Club in Tel Aviv in a gala performance featuring special guests like Dudu Tessa, Knisiat Hasechel and Moshe Levy.
Balali, the driving force behind the band, explained that a number of factors contributed to the self-imposed exile of Nikmat Hatractor, not the least of which has been his prolific work in recent years scoring films like Nir Bergman’s Broken Wings, TV shows like B’Tipul, plays and dance presentations. But another factor was the question mark of where a band which 20 years ago wowed audiences with its Middle Eastern-tinged rock would fit in to today’s music scene.
“We didn’t really understand what we were supposed to sound like amid
all the musical developments of the last few years like hip hop and
techno and mizrahi (eastern) music,” said Balali.
“We didn’t have a concept that sparked us and we didn’t want to sound like a tired Nikmat Hatraktor, so we took a break.”
“We wanted that sense of optimism and positive attitude, and suddenly it arrived.
About a year ago, we met and played a few songs I had been writing. We
all felt that we were doing something that was recognizable as Nikmat
but more developed and interesting.”
Not that Nikmat Hatractor hasn’t always been interesting. Ever since
Balali and Leibovitz established the band in the late 1980s, they’ve
been one of the most loved and successful bands in the country,
releasing five albums between 1990 and 2003 with hits like “Afifon”
(Kite) and “Mishak Shel Dmaot” (Game of Tears).
FURTHER CEMENTING their status as musical innovators was their
collaboration with Ohad Naharin in the dance production Kyr by the
Batsheva Dance Company resulting in their landmark 1992 album of the
same name. Those aren’t bad credentials for the Ramat Gan native who
picked up his first guitar at age 11.
“I got that first guitar amid the trauma of the aftermath of the Yom
Kippur War, and since then, I’ve never been separated from it,” said
Balali, adding that the first band that lit his fire was the British
1970s rockers Mott the Hoople.
“I was returning with my mother from the beach in Tel Aviv, and I saw
their record cover in a crate outside a store near the Opera House, and I
realized that there was this ‘other’ music out there. I got totally
into British rock and moved on to Led Zeppelin and Genesis. The only
thing Israeli that spoke to me was Tamooz,” he said, referring to the
legendary band featuring Zilber and Shalom Hanoch.
Balali focused on his guitar playing and performed in several teen bands until at the age of 15, he abruptly switched to bass.
“There was a really good guitarist in the band I was in and I was afraid
that I was going to get kicked out. So I decided to switch to bass, of
which there was a general shortage anyway,” he said.
“I must have gotten good quickly because by the time I was 16, I was
playing with Ariel Zilber. It was around that time – 1980-81 – that I
understood that the only thing I wanted to do in my life was to be a
musician. And once my parents saw me playing and realized I was where I
wanted to be, they were very supportive.”
Following his army service, Balali spent time in Berlin where he
attempted to launch a career in English. However, on a visit back to
Israel in the mid-1980s, a conversation with Yehuda Poliker’s
then-songwriting partner Yaakov Gilad changed his life.
“He told me that it was too bad I wasn’t singing and writing in Hebrew
because it’s a really interesting language. That got me thinking, and I
concluded that maybe it was time to stop the Tel Aviv-Berlin romance,
give up my dreams of being an international artist and start making
music from the source I understand.”
And after recruiting Leibovitz, keyboardist Green and drummer Barak,
Nikmat Hahatractor was born, named after a song by Rami Fortis and Barry
Sakharov, who produced their 1990 debut album.
With over two decades of music and accomplishments behind him, Balali
still sounds humble when asked about the important role the band played
in the story of Israeli rock.
“I don’t really know, you would have to ask other people. I see on the
Internet or TV shows that people talk about us and call what we did with
Kyr or with ‘Echad Mi Yodaya’ [a traditional Passover song]
So I guess we made our mark there,” he said.
“And we were ahead of our time using piyutim [Jewish liturgical poetry]
as source material, all the way back in 1989. It always interested us,
and now a lot of people are doing it. But we’re recognized for being one
of the first, so I imagine we’ll be remembered for that. I’d like for
the band to be remembered as caring about the art and the authenticity
more than anything else.”
But, as their new album attests, before sitting back and basking in the
accolades of the old days, Nikmat Hatractor are still creating new