A genetic connection

Singer Shlomo Bar believes music is the memory of the past and credits the Hebrew language with keeping the Jewish people alive.

natural choice band 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
natural choice band 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
He may be celebrating the 30th anniversary of his seminal Israeli band Habrera Hativit, but Shlomo Bar isn't wallowing in nostalgia. There's too much to do. He's begun a new life cycle, raising a four-and-a-half-year old child with his second wife, and he's grandfather to three and two-year-olds from the grown offspring of his first marriage. "It's a little tiring, but I'm enjoying it," laughs the 65year-old Bar on the phone. "Anyway, a man only begins to know himself and reach his prime after he reaches 50. Before that, you're too busy concentrating on your career." If that's the case, Bar has done an awful lot of concentrating. Habrera Hativit is one of most identifiable bands in Israel, and one of its most unusual. A true fusion band, Bar and his bandmates combine Moroccan, Yiddish and Indian influences, jazz, folk and world music, and modern Israeli and biblical Hebrew themes into a percolating musical stew that shows no signs of cooling off. The band is performing anniversary shows around the country, including one at the Zappa Club in Herzliya on April 23rd with guest star Ehud Banai. And proving the band is not resting on its laurels, it's just recorded three songs with funk and groove masters The Apples. "I was surprised at how well the collaboration went, because we seemingly have no connection. But we ended up working on three songs, one theirs and three of mine. And it was amazing. I never played in that style before," said Bar. "There's so much inspiration in Israeli music. I looked for the genetic connection between us - the value added. Sometimes the musical styles go to different places and it doesn't work. And sometimes it creates something new that's great. This time, it was great." The genetic connection is a big deal for Bar, who was born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1943, and arrived in Israel soon after with his family. As a child, he followed the lead of his musical mother and began singing at an early age. "I remember my mother singing to me, and I think that's what made me into a music lover. I sang all the time, and because my mother also used to play percussion instruments, I started doing that too," he recalled. Becoming proficient on the darbuka and other ethnic percussion instruments, Bar began playing in various configurations in the 1970s, including backing up Mati Caspi. His big break came, however, when he acted and performed in the 1976 Yehoshua Sobol play Kriza, which was one of the first public dissertations about the social injustices Sephardi Israelis faced. One of Sobol's poems that Bar set to music struck a national chord - "Yeladim Ze Simcha" (Children are Joy), a deceptively happy tune with a bittersweet undercurrent about the economic haves and have nots. "There's no doubt that we invoked a big discussion in society. Art and music can change things, for both good and bad. I think what we achieved with Kriza was that for the first time, people started talking about the social gap. More than a million people saw the show, and soon after, for the first time, the party in power [Labor] lost the elections after 40 years," said Bar. "I'm not sure how much better it is today. There's certainly more awareness, but I don't know if a lot has changed. There's still a big social gap. But in times like these, especially with the economic situation today, I think that culture and music play an even more important role of making people happy." BUILDING UPON his newfound notoriety, Bar decided to form his own group in the late 1970s, and found an unlikely group of free thinkers to band together with - the original lineup was Samson Kehimkar, an Indian violin and sitar virtuoso; Miguel Herstein, an American guitarist; bassist Israel Borochov; and Bar on percussion and vocals. According to Bar, the eclectic quality of the band's music was the child of necessity. "I didn't start with a plan of trying to create a fusion between Western and Eastern music. The guys in the band all came from different worlds. If weren't able to create a connection between us - musically and historically - then we were going to run into problems," he said. "So our music became a bridge. Israel's a big melting pot anyway, and culture borrows from everywhere." That includes the Bible - as Bar, along with like-minded colleagues like Banai, have been among the mainstream entertainers who have incorporated ancient texts within their lyrics and aspire to something akin to spiritual music. "Commercial music is like Bamba [snacks] - a product. It erases the culture. Lyrics that say 'I love you, you love me' are nonsense. And why bother, when you already have beautiful lyrics in our ancient Jewish texts? Judaism has a very deep memory," said Bar, who doesn't label himself as religious or secular, preferring to call himself "Jewish." "Modernity needs to come from the inside, from us. New by itself is nothing. I'm not God, I can't create something from nothing, there first has to be a source." For Bar, that source has been the Hebrew language, the bond he says has kept the Jewish people together through the ages. "Music is the memory of the past, and I'm sure there is a musical genetic code in us. And likewise, the Hebrew language is what has kept us alive. For 2,000 years we didn't have our own land, and we existed by right of our religion and our language," said Bar. Unlike some Israeli musicians who say they sometimes find it awkward to write lyrics in Hebrew, Bar is captivated by the language and it peculiarities. "If you look at Hebrew, it's one of the most beautiful instruments in the world. It contains a system of sounds that don't exist in any other languages - the ayin, the het, there's an amazing depth to it and the whole spectrum of colors it represents," he said. "That's why Hebrew songs are so rich. They're strong like a tree root." It appears that Habrera Hativit shares some of that strength. While the band has gone through numerous personnel changes in its 30 years, the focus has remained the same - providing musical continuity between past and present. "In my music, I try to create this bond to be a link in the chain connecting my parents to my children," said Bar. "I'm very happy that I've never been fashionable. Look at the word in Hebrew for fashionable - ofnati. Inside it is 'ofan,' the bicycle. And what categorizes a bicycle? One minute it's here, the next moment it's taken off. I'm glad I've stayed here." Habrera Hativit will play with Ehud Banai on April 23 at the Zappa Club in Herzliya. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets: (03) 767-4646.