Voice of an ‘Angel’

Hallelujah singing contest winner Evan Malach knows how to improvise.

By RACHEL MARDER
August 29, 2012 00:58
Evan Malach

Evan Malach370. (photo credit: Elliot Freeman)

 
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The pressure was on during the finals show of the nationally televised Hallelujah Hebrew singing contest on August 16.

Canadian singer-songwriter Evan Malach, whose Hebrew last name means “angel,” had made it through the song competition, narrowed down from 100 contestants from around the world to 30, then 12, then to three by a group of judges made up of music industry heavyweights like producer Eitan Gafni; singer Ilanit, who represented Israel twice at Eurovision; and singer-composer Tzahi Halevi.

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The Toronto native took the stage, sharing the night with his Russian and American competitors, for another performance of Ehud Banai’s classic “Canaanite Blues,” the song he performed in his second audition tape and worked on intensively for a month with coaches in Israel.

Guitar in hand and harmonica attached, 27-year-old Malach was not expecting the technical difficulties that would ensue. Perhaps it was a cameraman who stepped on a wire or a switch on stage, he assumes.

In any case, Malach’s guitar stopped working, he says in a phone interview from Kfar Hayarok in Ramat Hasharon, where the contestants resided during their month of rehearsals in Israel.

“It’s like every performer’s worst nightmare,” says Malach, likening it to the dream of standing on stage before a huge audience but finding yourself in the buff. Looking back on that moment, the rocker credits his training in improvisational theater for knowing how to use the pressure to clinch his first-place win.

“If anything, it ended up working in my favor because I was able to show my character, grace under pressure, and it gave me more time on stage to really shine,” says Malach, who studied acting, voice and music at the Neighborhood Playhouse School and Theater in New York for two years. “Rather than freaking out, I was riding whatever came about.”

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The snafu didn’t last too long, and Malach impressed the judges as he chatted with the audience while the problem was resolved.

With the win under his belt, the multi-talented actor, writer of musicals and social entrepreneur is feeling thankful and excited to move forward.

Malach received $8,000 prize money and spent last week recording a song with Din Din Aviv – who has performed with the Idan Raichel Project – called “Hallel Hallelujah.” The song will be distributed to Jewish radio stations the world over. Gafni wrote the words and Tomer Adadi the music to the “beautiful” song, which Malach says was written for the winner but that he’d add his own rocker style to. “It’s somewhat mind-blowing but it’s also incredibly humbling. I think it’s such an amazing opportunity, and I’m really grateful for it,” he says.

Malach hopes the Hallelujah win will bolster him on the Jewish entertainment circuit as a singer and performer.

He’s already booked a synagogue fundraiser in Toronto, where he returned on August 24. And, thanks to Hallelujah and its creator, Meitar, an organization that works to bring Diaspora Jews closer to Israel through Hebrew song, will tour Jewish venues across the globe.

“When you’re a performer, actor, singer, songwriter, it’s hard to find material that speaks to you,” says Malach. “So sometimes you have to create your own.”

During his final year at McGill University in Montreal, where he graduated in 2007 with a degree in humanistics and history, he wrote, produced and starred in a musical he titled In Adequacy, playing a struggling rock star trying to find his number one hit in the town of Adequacy. Now he’s working on a musical called sInagogue, which he also plans to star in, about a rabbi who tries to save his struggling synagogue by enlisting the services of a washed-up rock star as his cantor (Malach).

The “I” is capitalized to look like a Roman numeral 1 because “we’re all different, but one people, one heart, one nation,” explains Malach, who views his mission as a Jewish entertainer to break down the barriers that exist between Jewish movements. “I think music is a good way of spreading that message,” he says.

When Malach read about the Hallelujah contest in a Taglit birthright alumni listserve e-mail, he was performing in bars and clubs around Toronto (where he sometimes goes by the name Stone/Angel, the full English translation of his name) and working as a counselor on Taglit and other tour trips to Israel. He submitted an audition tape of himself singing and playing his acoustic guitar on an original folk-rock song called “Celebrate.”

By the time he was asked to submit a second audition tape, he was already in Israel on a six-week fellowship with Presentense in Jerusalem developing his start-up, Second Chance Travel, which will offer tracks of trips to Israel for cancer survivors and for people who have undergone a trauma. Participants will be encouraged to write, make music and take pictures during the trip.

The day after his project launch with Presentense, Malach joined Hallelujah 2012. Fast as it was, he says he happily shifted his focus to music.

“I think music is a universal language, and I think Hebrew is a holy language,” he says. Whether listeners understand the words or not, they can still feel the emotion behind the song, he insists. “You can still cultivate a love and a passion for Israel by listening to songs written in Hebrew. I really think music is the one hope we have for unity in the world as Jews and all people. It gets you out of yourself. It gets you into what’s real.”

Malach says he chose to perform “Canaanite Blues” (“a song I could live and breathe,” he says) because it’s a quintessential Israeli song, and it’s close to his heart. Contestants can submit their first audition tape of a song in any language, but for the second audition he had to choose a Hebrew song.

Malach says that Ehud Banai related to Meir Ariel, the singer-songwriter subject of the song, as a father figure and friend.

When Ariel passed away, Banai felt tremendous loss.

Malach lost his own father in May 2011 to cancer and says that more than it being a singing contest, he feels he won because the judges saw the way he connected to the song.

“For me it was like a really simple way of grasping the story. I think most people can relate to having lost someone and wanting to tell them how much things have changed and how much they wish the person was still there to shine their light,” he says. “For me, it was really easy to tap into the essence of the song and share that feeling. I think that went a long way for me.”

In his powerhouse voice, Malach sings the emotional rock song “Canaanite Blues” with near perfect enunciation and a strong Hebrew accent. Though Malach learned Hebrew during his years at Jewish day school, he says the accent comes from his desire to be convincing in his performance.

“It’s like telling a story and acting the song. To do that in the most convincing way that people will believe you and want to listen to you, you’re have to use the accent,” he says.

Adam Kleinberg, last year’s Hallelujah winner and a native of Mexico, performed Meir Banai’s “Geshem” during the final show. He spent some valuable time with Malach, who is several years older than he is, in the days after the show, giving him some important advice. “He said, ‘Be patient and enjoy it.’ I feel like we have a lot to teach each other,” says Malach.

Having picked up the guitar at age nine, Malach says he did not actually learn to play guitar. Rather, he learned to play the songs that he loved by artists like the Steve Miller Band, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young.

“Our family is very musical,” he adds, citing his great-grandfather Gershon, who was a cantor, and his father who loved klezmer music and played the harmonica.

Asked whether he intends to move to Israel, Malach says that living in Jerusalem would be a dream, but he has no immediate plans to do so.

“Sometimes when you’re an entertainer, the road is where you make your living,” he says. “Ideally, I would like to be able to get things going all over the world. I’m excited to see where it leads.”

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