Her light shines on

At the Yemei Zemer Festival at the Holon Theater, beloved singer Ilanit will take part in a tribute to veteran lyricist Rachel Shapira.

Ilanit singer 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ilanit singer 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ilanit may be some years past the zenith of her popularity, but she is undoubtedly a bona fide member of the Israeli popular music pantheon. Next week, as part of this year’s Yemei Zemer Festival at the Holon Theater, she will take part in a star-studded tribute to veteran lyricist Rachel Shapira, alongside a multigenerational cast of vocalists such as Gali Atari, Yardena Arazi and Din Din Aviv. She will also perform some of her hits from over the years.
Now 63 and fighting fit, Ilanit has enjoyed a performing career of over half a century, peaking in the Seventies. She had a string of hits, including several numbers written for her by Ehud Manor and Nurit Hirsch, plus Shapira-penned songs such as “Nehama” and “Shir Shel Yom Hulin.”
The latter brought Ilanit success in the 1976 national song contest, then called Hagigat Zemer.
Back then, Ilanit was a national icon, churning out hit after hit here and representing the country in song contests and festivals across the globe.
In fact, though, she started her singing career in Brazil, where her family moved in 1953, when Ilanit – who was born Hannah Dresner – was just five years old.
“The transition was not traumatic at all; I just went with my parents,” she recalls. “It was the return to Israel that was a shock. I was no longer a rough-and-ready tzabarit. It took me a while to settle back here.”
Before she returned here with her family, Ilanit had already made a name for herself in Brazil.
“I appeared on TV there when I was eight,” she says. “I started singing when I was very young.
“In Brazil, you can’t help but be swept away by the music. It is everywhere.”
Ilanit returned to Israel unable to speak Hebrew, knowing only Yiddish, which she spoke at home, and Portuguese. Gradually she regained the use of her mother tongue and began to appear at various venues across the country.
Her professional career started in earnest when she teamed up with vocalist-guitarist Shlomo Tzah, who was later to become her first husband.
It was Tzah who was also responsible for Hannah Dresner adopting the professional moniker by which she has been known ever since.
“We performed abroad and realized people simply couldn’t pronounce our names properly, so Shlomo thought up Ilan and Ilanit,” she explains.
Striking out on her own, Ilanit’s career took off on a meteoric trajectory. She was voted Female Vocalist of the Year no fewer than seven years on the trot, between 1971 and 1977 – a feat that has never been equaled.
One of the highlight’s of Ilanit’s working life was when she represented Israel in the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg, the first time Israel participated in the competition.
She came in a very creditable fourth, just one place behind British megastar Cliff Richard, singing “Ei Sham,” which was written by Manor and Hirsch.
“I really enjoyed the Eurovision Song Contest and meeting Cliff Richard,” recalls Ilanit. “I was proud to represent my country, but I mostly remember it all as a fun experience.”
Naturally, after so many years on the scene, styles have changed and musical waves have come and gone. But Ilanit has steadfastly stuck to her classical Israeli songbook ethos.
“Why should I change?” she says defiantly, “I sing from the heart. I want to feel good about what I sing. I connect strongly with the lyrics.
The words are very important.”
Ilanit is not a great fan of much contemporary popular music.
“You have all this Mizrahi music, and singers singing about how their heart is broken and how their love is unrequited, but it doesn’t sound sincere.
If you take songs written by, for example, Rachel Shapira, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the concert, you can feel her love of the language, and how each word is carefully crafted.”
According to Ilanit, Shapira’s songs also strike a chord with young performers.
“They even take classic Israeli songs, including “Shir Shel Yom Hulin,” for kids who take part in A Star Is Born (Kochav Nolad). Even youngsters who were born many years after my heyday appreciate those wonderful songs.”
Even with the retro wave that began sweeping the country several years ago, which included the revival of community singing, Ilanit feels the kind of material she performs gets bad press.
“They play old Israeli songs on the radio on Friday evenings, to sort of generate a nice relaxed Shabbat ambiance, but they don’t primetime airplay.
We are a small country with so many radio stations, but even so, Israeli songbook numbers don’t get much exposure.
“Here it’s all a matter of fads, which change the whole time. It’s all about what’s happening here and now.”
Ilanit would be happy if some of Shapira’s songs got more of an airing in the media, but says she is delighted to contribute to the Yemei Zemer tribute to the 65-year-old wordsmith.
“We could have done a much longer show for Rachel,” says the singer. “Loads of people have performed her songs, like Chava Alberstein and Margalit Tzanani.”
Even so, Ilanit has a particularly strong bond with Shapira.
“I would sit down with Rachel, and we’d chat.
A lot of the songs she wrote for me came out of the things I talked about, about myself, when I was with her. I owe Rachel so much; so much of my success came from the words she wrote for me.
“She is a poet, and a person who always writes from the heart. She has written so many pure, beautiful Israeli songs of the highest quality.”
Despite all her successes over the years, Ilanit has never given the impression of chasing the limelight. And today, is happy to perform in smaller venues.
“People still come to my shows, even with almost no publicity, and they listen to my CDs. Audiences want to hear my music.”
In a now-famous interview in 1964, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger said he thought the group would keep going “maybe for a couple more years.”
Did Hannah Dresner envisage still being around, as Ilanit, over half a century after that first appearance on Brazilian TV? “No, of course I didn’t think about that. I haven’t ever really considered how enduring my career was going to be. But I’ll keep going as long as I am healthy and I have the strength for it.
“My voice is better than it ever was, and I have a better understanding of the texts. You get that with maturity, and I haven’t dropped down to lower scales over the years.
“I suppose you could call me a ‘diva,’ as I have been around so long, but I just see myself as Hanneleh.”
Ilanit will perform in a tribute to lyricist Rachel Shapira at the Yemei Zemer Festival at the Holon Theater on April 20 at 9 p.m. The festival takes place from April 20-23. Tickets: (03) 502-3001/2/3 or www.hth.co.il