Relentlessly optimistic

The Nine Lives band is the balm that soothes its musicians’ souls – helping these disabled IDF veterans find their way back to normal life.

IDF veterans  and musicians Shai Ben-Shushan and Shlomo Gvili toast with a glass of wine at La Boca restaurant in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IDF veterans and musicians Shai Ben-Shushan and Shlomo Gvili toast with a glass of wine at La Boca restaurant in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Goal: Discover the source of optimism of Nine Lives members.
The Means: Wine by Tanya Vineyards, and a gourmet meal at Jerusalem’s La Boca restaurant.
Meet some of the most extraordinary rock stars to grace Israel’s stages – the members of the Nine Lives band. They are all disabled IDF veterans, former members of combat units who were critically wounded during their military service. Music is their way back to normal life – their anchor.
We met two members of the group for some wine therapy. The first is Shai Ben- Shushan – drummer and former fighter in the renowned Duvdevan elite commando unit. Today, he is a sought-after music teacher in Jerusalem.
The second is Shlomi Gvili, a bass guitarist and former soldier in the Givati Brigade.
Against all odds, he carved out his own unique path in the music world, and is now considered one of Israel’s leading sound technicians.
We met prior to their upcoming concert to be held on the National Appreciation Day for Disabled IDF Veterans. The show will take place on December 8 in Beersheba, at 6:30 p.m. in the Youth Center, 12 Herzl Street (Old City).
What is Nine Lives?
Shlomi Gvili: It’s a band with nine members, from different places and of different ages, who were all wounded in the army during military operations. Nine Lives is the synthesis of all of us into a band. Each of us has his own soul that was wounded in the past, and through music and creative pursuit, it finds relief.
Shai Ben-Shushan: Nine Lives is our story. We all underwent complex experiences during our military service. For example, there’s Ofer, who lost an eye while fighting in Lebanon. He didn’t break down but instead went on to save people, and received the Medal of Distinguished Service. Then there’s Matan. One day he was caught in a terrorist ambush, and he was hit by 14 bullets.
How did the project start?
Ben-Shushan: It began as a musical project that one of us, Raz Haggiag, wanted to start. A few months later Shlomi and I joined, and we became a band.
Gvili: At first, no one knew what would come of it and where we would go with the idea. But there was a strong bond among us, and we produced some good material.
At what point in life did you join the project?
: It happened during the period when I began to admit I had post-traumatic stress. I was injured very severely in the army, and after four years of dealing with the physical aspect of the injury, suddenly the emotional injury began to surface.
In what aspects did the band help you?
Gvili: Music played a central place in my world. But then the injury happened, and part of it was losing the fingers of my left hand. So for me, music should have taken a different direction. But suddenly this band came along, and led me to play again; to actually take the bass guitar from my childhood and find a way to play.
Ben-Shushan: He found a new way to play, a method that’s unique to him.
Gvili: I had no choice but to invent a new way, because I’m missing my fourth and fifth fingers, and my second and third fingers don’t function. But the thumb functions.
So you play with one finger?
Gvili: I hold the guitar as usual, and I turn over my hand and play with my thumb. The right hand plays normally, and the left only with the thumb instead of four fingers. I developed a system, and after lots of practice, blood, sweat and tears, it works for me. It’s less technical, but based on grip and sensation.
A kind of “against all odds.”
Gvili: This is the way it is, and I’ve decided to deal with it.
Can you compare the level of your music today to where you were before the injury?
Gvili: Today I’m at a much higher level. After the injury, it became my entire world.
Who supports you?
Ben-Shushan: The Brothers for Life organization, which has projects for supporting disabled veterans, to help them move forward in life. In addition, NATAL – Israel WINE THERAPY Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War assisted us with the emotional side, with therapists who supported the band.
Shlomi, tell us about the incident in which you were wounded.
Gvili: I was a company medic in Givati; I spent all of my service in Gaza. My incident was a very serious attack on the post, in which terrorists attempted to penetrate. Mainly, they shot mortar bombs. I was serving as company sergeant- major at the post, and the first place the mortar hit was the company command room – my room.
It started burning; this was all in a matter of seconds. We began to extinguish the fire, and mainly searched the area to find terrorists, because we heard they had light weapons as well. One of the trackers said, “I hear firing,” and each time that happened, we stopped everything and sent the soldiers into the rooms. One of these firings was my mortar.
Do you remember hearing it?
Gvili: Yes. Almost everyone went into the rooms, but I didn’t get there in time and was stuck outside. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion. It’s hard to forget the experience. The mortar exploded on a fire extinguisher mounted on a wall half a meter behind my head. My body flew into the air, and I screamed – not your usual shout, but the shriek of a wounded animal, like something subliminal. I hit the floor and said the Shema prayer, then I lifted my head and looked at my body. I saw that my legs were pulverized; my left hand was also smashed, two fingers were blown off.
The soldiers came out and started treating us; several of us were injured. I was injured severely. My friend, who was a bit farther away from me but wearing a regular bullet-proof vest, not a ceramic one, was killed on the spot. They pulled me into the room, and I realized I was severely injured. The soldiers didn’t know how to treat me, as my medic was also wounded. They began to ask me what they should do, so I was pretty much commanding the incident as I lay there. I tried to talk to the soldiers and explain that they should put a tourniquet on my arm. I calmed them, and asked for information about the others injured.
That’s pretty amazing.
Gvili: It could have been different; I could have panicked. You can’t know in advance how you’ll function in such a situation. From there I was evacuated by helicopter to Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba, and I just held on to myself so that I would live.
What thoughts went through your head in those moments?
Gvili: I thought about what I would say to my parents and grandmother. I also allowed myself to cry a little. Suddenly, I had the funny thought that this was the first time in my life I had ever flown… At Soroka I had 16 emergency operations, and then I was sent for massive rehabilitation that took about a year.
What was Operation Protective Edge like for you?
: Brothers for Life sent us to support wounded soldiers, according to the type of injury.
Can you explain?
Ben-Shushan: If a leg amputee comes to visit and support a soldier who just underwent a leg amputation, he can share his experience and try to show the optimistic light at the end of this dark tunnel – that there is hope. We divided the visits up between us and went to visit them, and invited them to join the organization.
Gvili: During the first alarm of the operation, I panicked. I didn’t leave the shelter; I went to sleep there. I had an anxiety attack, and it was the first time I ever took a pill to relax.
Are you defined as post-traumatic?
Gvili: Yes, and it’s expressed in many aspects of my life.
What is the significance of this?
Gvili: Nightmares, flashbacks. Sometimes the anxiety manages you, sometimes you manage it. But I’m fairly able to direct it to good places. For example, the anxiety I manage makes me a more careful driver.
Ben-Shushan: I took my injury to a place in which I’m constantly alert, I don’t want to lose control. I live clean – I don’t drink, don’t smoke. I constantly want to create and do things that keep me focused. That’s how I live, always in control.
Shai, tell us about how you were wounded.
I was a combat soldier in the elite Duvdevan unit. One night we went out on a very big operation: We went to catch some suicide bombers, who according to our information were about to blow themselves up in central Israel. During the crossfire, I was hit by shrapnel from a grenade launcher, in my face and hands.
My rehabilitation was in the jaw – physiotherapy and surgeries; I also underwent a series of operations to remove the shrapnel. During rehabilitation, I felt what it was like to be disabled, to be constantly dependent on others. I couldn’t wait for the moment when this would be reversed, when I could give of myself.
The second I recovered my abilities, I directed it towards giving, like work with special-needs children in many nonprofits such as Alei Siach, Shalva and Keren Or.
Each of the band members came with such heavy baggage. How can you create in such an atmosphere?
Gvili: The band is a kind of therapy for all of us. For the very same reason that our creativity touches many open wounds, it becomes something forceful and compelling.
Ben-Shushan: In each period, another one of us pushes the band forward, so we balance each other out and grant space for creativity to flourish.
Tell us about the show.
Gvili: The Nine Lives show is special, different. Our togetherness gives energy that the audience receives immediately, and that’s why it’s very exciting. We take the audience on a musical journey that tells our story.
What highs have you experienced on stage?
Ben-Shushan: At first, it was hard for me to stand on stage and say, “I’m disabled.” I never talked about it anywhere, and suddenly I opened up on stage. It’s very freeing, and connects people to us on the highest levels.
Gvili: We aren’t afraid to touch open wounds. We let the audience take it to their own places, so each individual can connect.
Share some fun moments from band life with us.
Ben-Shushan: At the beginning, I was constantly talking to my family about the band. Some of my elderly family members didn’t even know what a rock band was, and they never saw us perform. At my wedding, I took advantage of the opportunity and asked the whole gang to perform a song with me. Here we are on stage in front of an audience of 600 people, we start to play, and... whoops, they had drunk too much alcohol. They played the wrong chords, played out of tune, and laughed uncontrollably. All I could think of was what my mother and grandmother must be thinking now. The band completely embarrassed me.
Gvili: It’s funny and strange, but sometimes we get offers from girls, just like real rock stars. But I’m married, so it’s not for me.
Ben-Shushan: We can’t talk about everything.
Gvili: We can’t talk about most things!
What are the band’s next goals?
Gvili: We’re working on a road show abroad – in New York, and we’ll probably go to Chicago for Independence Day.
Ben-Shushan: In the past, many Jewish communities contacted us and we went on a road show in places like Los Angeles and London, but we felt we couldn’t perform so much. Now it’s more appropriate.
Gvili: The band really wants to appear in Israel and abroad, in front of as many audiences as possible. Our goal is to spread the message.
What is your message?
Ben-Shushan: It doesn’t matter what kind of injury you walk around with in life – emotional or physical. You can live with it, move forward and enjoy a normative, healthy life.
To book a show: