It is a bit of a stretch to imagine the average modern-day Israeli getting out there on the range, herding cattle and strumming a guitar by a campfire. Then again, we do have our kumzitz tradition, and campfire musical get-togethers are an integral part of our national culture.
Shai Lavi certainly feeds off that heritage as he proffers his musical wares to audiences up and down the country. His upcoming gig, scheduled for 9 p.m. on January 17 at Beit Hayotzer in the Tel Aviv Port, will showcase a spread of his works written and recorded in recent years.
“The show is based on a compilation album I released last week, which has 18 songs on it,” Lavi explains.
The album, like Lavi’s oeuvre in general, offers a street-level view of the way things are.
“Over the years I have accumulated around 80 of my songs, which talk about life, simple everyday life,” says the multi-instrumentalist vocalist. “The songs touch you and me and other people. I have friends who go to places like Katmandu. I don’t know exactly where they go. I don’t subscribe to that approach. I prefer to go to more regular places, cities where I can see people.”
Lavi’s lyrics tend to depict the world he sees around him, on a user-friendly, human level.
“I sing about basic things, like the gas prices going up. And I have a song called ‘Ma’avir Et Hazman’ [Passing the Time], which is about how someone spends his time in the big city, in cafés. He lives in the urban landscape along with other people, just living their lives. I have another song based on a number by [1950s-60s crooner] Bobby Darin. It’s about love. Who doesn’t like to hear a love song? We all do,” he says.
Lavi, now a youthful 70, grew up with 1950s rock and roll vibes of the likes of Elvis Presley.
“In my shows I feature that stuff and music from the 1960s, like by The Shadows, and a song by Leonard Cohen, ‘Dance Me,’” he adds.
The latter is an optimistic case in point and reflects Lavi’s unapologetically positive take on life.
“I know the whole story behind the Leonard Cohen song,” he notes.
When Cohen’s song came out, many thought that the ballad – the full name of which is “Dance Me to the End of Love” – was just a delightfully romantic song. It transpired, however, that the song was inspired by the horrific Nazi practice at some concentration camps of having a string quartet accompany the doomed Jews as they made their way to the gas chambers.
“I took it at its face value, as a genuine love song,” states Lavi.
There is plenty of variety in the above, but none of the country-style endeavor for which Lavi has become best known. Over the years he has engaged in all kinds of musical projects, including overseeing productions on a grand scale all over the country, such as musical extravaganzas that celebrated the centenaries of Rishon Lezion, Petah Tikva and Hadera. He latched onto US rural-style sounds when he was on a prolonged foray in the US.
“During the 1980s I was sent to the United States as a director by the Jewish Agency,” he recalls. “At the time, country music was very popular. There were singers like Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Tammy Wynette. Their songs are simple, and I write simple songs that have a simple storyline.”
Lavi feels that we have enough to deal with on an existential day-to-day basis without adding complex lyrics to our plate.
“I say that if you’re driving in your car and you hear one of my songs, it doesn’t tax your brain too much. They’re songs for the road. Back then I had a band called Magafayim [Boots]. I released two albums with them with my own songs. They were all country-style numbers. You can’t beat that,” he says.
But Lavi doesn’t exactly hail from Nashville, so surely he isn’t going to compete with the likes of Willie Nelson or Miranda Lambert. True to his nature, the boyish septuagenarian says he can only put out what he knows and feels.
“I do country music, but Israeli-style country. I am an Israeli. I was born here, and I have spent many years performing and producing shows in moshavim and kibbutzim and all over the country. I am rooted here, and so is my music,” he asserts.
Lavi is also an achiever. He began making pleasing sounds on the accordion at the age of eight. By the time he hit his 20s, he decided to add the piano to his instrumental arsenal. As any musician – including those still at the budding stage – will tell you, it’s very tough to pick up an instrument once you’re past your first flush of youth. But Lavi is clearly made of sterner stuff. Not satisfied with adding ivory tickling to his musical weaponry, he ramped up his onstage energy level by starting to play the electric guitar when he was in his 50s. It was also an incremental emotional leap for the performer.
“When I did all those [gala] productions, I wrote the songs and performed on accordion and piano, too. But when you pick up an electric guitar, something happens to you that you don’t get from any other instrument. There’s this psychological thing about holding the guitar against your chest, next to your heart. That’s special,” he explains.
Lavi says that throughout his career, he had always strived to give it his all.
“I am a bit of a perfectionist,” he declares. “I like that about the British and the Americans. When they put on a show or a musical, they make sure everything is polished and in place. They go all the way. In my own way, I also try to go all the way with my music. I learned one important thing from the Americans: Practice makes perfect. I am always practicing. I always want to get better. There’s no end to it.”
Shai Lavil will perform on January 17 at 9 p.m. at Beit Hayotzer in the Tel Aviv Port. For tickets and more information: 054-490-8320.
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