Her new stage

At 56, rock icon Astar Shamir has come out of retirement to perform the original material she is known for

Astar Shamir (photo credit: Eldad Rafaeli)
Astar Shamir
(photo credit: Eldad Rafaeli)
Back in the late ’70s and ’80s Astar Shamir was the biggest thing on the Israeli female rock scene. She was the first woman singer to perform her own material in a male-dominated environment, and paved the way for a slew of other female rockers and pop singers such as Nurit Galron, Yehudit Ravitz and Corinne Alal.
Her star burned brightly for over a decade, striking gold with her first hit album, Hamakom Hachi Namuch B’Tel Aviv (The Lowest Place in Tel Aviv), and producing a string of other big sellers, both for herself and for other performers of the day. Then, in 1988, she suddenly upped stakes and quit the stage for a different, more spiritual path. She began to develop and then practice her “Voice of Light” therapy method, which she continues to do to this day.
Last week, after a full 23 years away, the 56- year-old Shamir returned to the stage to perform material from her latest album – her sixth to date – Zeh Beincha L’ven Elohim (It’s Between You and God) at Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine. For those who missed it, there’s a second gig lined for August 10 at the Zappa Club in Herzliya.
So what changed Shamir’s mind and brought her back to the boards? After all, she put out an album in 2003, Ha’anashim She’ani Hachi Ohevet (The People I Love the Most), and didn’t do any gigs at all.
“Of course it’s about the [new] album, and there’s something in the songs that tempted me back to the stage,” says Shamir. “There’s something about the songs that fits the stage I am at in my life, and what I want to convey.”
Evidently that wasn’t the case with Ha’anashim She’ani Hachi Ohevet.
“I thought about gigging with that album, but something just wasn’t right,” Shamir continues, noting that her latest album “comes from a different place. Anyway, music is a wonderful medium for giving to others. There is some power in the writing, the singing and arrangements that allows me to approach [performing live] in a different way.”
Shamir has certainly paid her dues over the years. In 1974, then called Astar Herschenberg (she later Hebraicized her family name to Elad), she served in the IDF, where she joined the Nahal band. The band’s musical routine was based on a program entitled The Story of a Band – 25 Years of Nahal. Although she filled the lead singer slot on several numbers, she did not get an opportunity to display her songwriting skills.
In 1975, she married Ephraim Shamir, then a member of the hugely successful seminal poprock band Kaveret, and soon began to practice songwriting. In November of that year, she released her first self-penned number, “Avarti Rak Kedei Lirot” (I Passed by Just to See). Thanks to her marital connections, she benefited from some heavyweight sideman support that included several of her husband’s Kaveret cohorts – bassist Alon Olearchik, Yoni Rechter on organ and Ephraim on guitar, drums and vocals, along with jazz drummer-percussionist Araleh Kaminski, and further vocal enhancement provided by Kaveret lead singer Gidi Gov, Yossi Piamenta and Avner Kaner. It was an impressive lineup for a debut offering.
Much of Shamir’s childhood cultural baggage and her early musical influences shone through in her initial offerings. She was, it seems, always on the lookout for something beyond the mundane.
“I grew up in Jerusalem, and I remember staring at sunsets and the sky a lot, searching for something,” she says. “There was a sense of holiness in Jerusalem that captivated me as a child.”
In the musical domain, she readily imbibed much of the folk and folk-rock sounds that filtered across from the States and Britain.
“There was Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and later the Doors and the Beatles,” she recalls. “As a young singer, I used to do stuff by Baez, Dylan, and [South African protest singer] Miriam Makeba. I also got into rock ’n’ roll and stuff by Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King and Joe Cocker – basically, any music that had some sort of message to it, which attached importance to words.”
Shamir was also influenced by some of the established artists on the local scene: “Arik Einstein and Shalom Hanoch inspired me, as well as Matti Caspi and all the things that were happening at that time [in the ’70s]. It was a period of amazing music in Israel. There were Yoni Rechter and Shem-Tov Levy and [prog rock band] Sheshet [which included the likes of Levy, Ravitz and jazz-oriented keyboardist Adi Rennert]. And there were other female vocalists like Yehudit Ravitz and Corinne Alal. I think there was some sort of shared mind-set during that period.”
But Shamir offered the scene some added value.
She wasn’t so much into performing and recording tried-and-trusted material that fed off the “the songs of good old Israel” approach; she wrote her own material. It must have taken some courage, as a young artist taking her first steps in the field, to peddle her creative wares, but Shamir had no trouble.
“I came from the writing end of things, and it was perfectly natural for me to sing what I write,” she declares. “Most people who start out in music come more from the musical-compositional side.
For me it was about the words and the tune. The drive to say something is stronger than any extraneous factors. I was driven by that, so I really had no choice but to go for it. It would probably have been easier to just play crowd pleasers, but that’s not my way.”
She certainly went for it. The eponymous 1977 record she put out with her husband at the time – Ephraim and Astar Shamir – included a multilayered song called Hashcheina Haktana (The Little Girl Next Door) in which she expressed her thoughts about the standing of women in the Israeli rock world. The lyrics include such lines as: “In the house across the street they are playing records, and quiet when you are next to her. I bring up dolls, I am still a little girl.”
THE TRAILBLAZERS generally have to deal with plentiful flak, and Shamir’s pioneering singersongwriting efforts in the then very masculine local rock community were not always greeted with alacrity.
“There were all sorts of questions along the lines of, ‘What do you need this for? Why do you need to write songs? Why do you wear pants? Why don’t you wear a dress?’ By the way, I see that all the female vocalists today wear dresses.
Jeans have had their day, but I’m still there, I still wear pants,” says Shamir, who lives in Kfar Shmaryahu with her partner of 15 years.
Despite these limiting logistics, nothing deterred Shamir. “I had my protest songs and my own agendas, and there were fewer venues to perform in compared with nowadays.”
In fact, many of her gigs took place in surprising locations, and she had to make some allowances. “We did a lot of Friday night shows in kibbutz dining rooms and in community centers. I generally didn’t play with a band. It was just me and someone else playing acoustic guitars, so it wasn’t exactly rock and roll. And I sometimes had to tone down some of the songs.”
In 1980, she started working on Hamakom Hachi Namuch B’Tel Aviv, the record for which she is still best known, and it was released in 1982. It was an album replete with forthright messages,and it placed her at the forefront of the Israeli rock scene. She wrote all the lyrics, and composed most of the tunes as well.
In between writing the numbers for the LP, she worked on raising her public profile by recording her own song, “Brit Lo Muteret” (Forbidden Pact), with rock icon Shlomo Artzi and performing at the odd festival and at smaller venues all over the country.
Her second record, Klaf Hazak (Trump Card), which came out in 1984, was also well received, and the Shamir couple promoted the release with a nationwide tour. Shamir put out two more albums over the next four years, without by-nowex- husband Ephraim. Ad Hasof (All the Way) came out in 1987, followed in 1988 by her last release, Du Kiyum Be’ahava (Coexistence in Love), before her long sabbatical from the music scene.
While Ad Hasof didn’t sell too well, Du Kiyum Be’ahava got a slightly better reception.
Although she continued writing songs for other artists, the singer stayed away from the country’s music venues and recording studios, other than a one-off contribution to a protest song in 1996. In 1999, Hed Artzi put out a collection of Shamir’s hits of the 1980s, and that was that – until she surprised the music community by releasing Ha’anashim She’ani Hachi Ohevet in 2003.
The voice therapy work has left its beneficial mark on her, as well as on her clients. While many singers tend to lose some of their vocal quality over the years, Shamir’s voice has mellowed and improved like a good bottle of wine.
“That’s part and parcel of the vocal work I have done all these years. Most of the time, I have used the voice as a vehicle for healing and for exploration. There is something in this approach which improves the voice,” she explains. “My voice has become a tool for working with people.”
That is abundantly clear on her newest album, which also has a strong spiritual element. In “Ee Shel Sheket” (Island of Calm), for example, she sings: “Don’t fear, child, there is nothing bad in what is happening. Even if it doesn’t look that way, nothing happens by chance… Catch the sound of the wind, like a melody on your yearning heart. And see how it strums the strings of God.”
Shamir has clearly undertaken an odyssey of some significance since she quit the local rock circuit, and that comes across in the lyrics of the new release. Then again, there may be a danger of fans being wary of a didactic, “I’ve seen the light, now I want to share it with you” mind-set. The singer does not think that will be a problem.
“As I use music as my conduit, I have chosen a means which has no defined system,” she says.
“On the contrary, in my vocal [healing] work, the only thing to which I direct people is to themselves, and to the God within themselves.
Voice work explores the common denominator between all religions and all ways of life.”
She says her lyrics also look to what we all share, rather than what sets us apart from one another. “My songs talk about what unifies us, and what suits everyone. The God I write about is light, and a sort of natural energy.”
She muses that religious Israelis, particularly, may find her songs more user-friendly and familiar: “I think secular people are deterred by dogma and a systemic approach, but people who have the ability to accommodate abstract belief don’t need something specific, they can carry a single light for all.”
BACK IN Shamir’s first bout as a professional musician, she was viewed as an out-and-out rocker, and that is probably the way most people will approach her work, although the new release may convince them otherwise.
“It depends what you mean by rock music,” she proffers. “Is it the energy or the power of the music? But I think what really typifies me [as an artist] is that I am a singer-songwriter. It is the creative side that galvanizes me, and which has brought me back to being a professional musician. Yes, I sing, but what really drives me is the creativity and the words.”
That drive made her one of the most original artists on the Israeli rock scene, and she brings her strong individuality to her current project, too.
“I paved a new way in Israeli rock music,” she declares. “It was completely natural, just like I feel I am breaking new ground now. I am not sure what that path is or what it will lead to.”
That path may not be too smooth, despite her highly successful show in Jerusalem last week.
“I know that my music does not immediately appeal to mass audiences,” she states. “For a start, the religious sector can’t come to my shows, to hear a woman singing.”
Naturally she feels somewhat frustrated by that state of affairs. “It’s strange in a way, because I have worked with a lot of religious people with my therapy. It’s a shame that not everyone will have access to my music because of the religious aspect. We are one people and we need to find the way to bond, not separate.”
Even though her life has taken plenty of twists and turns over the last quarter of a century, Shamir has mixed memories of the days when she was belting out rock numbers to highly appreciative crowds.
Hamakom Hachi Namuch B’Tel Aviv was a very big success, with lots of air play and great responses. But nothing much happened with me [on a personal development level]. That’s why I split the music scene. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing.”
The performing artist-audience relationship no longer provided her with the satisfaction she needed. “I wanted to have a more direct relationship with people, and I wanted to start a family. I knew that bringing up a family wouldn’t go too well with a musical career.”
In the meantime, she has absolutely no regrets about not maintaining her pursuit of success as a rock musician. “What I have been doing for the last 20-plus years, and the exploration I have undertaken, are very meaningful to me, for my own development and for the development of people around me.”
Even so, she says she has always been on some spiritual road or other: “I have had all sorts of experiences since I was little, so in that sense, I have not changed at all. I have engaged in light, God and meditation from a very young age. What has changed is that all that has risen to a higher level, and I have realized that there is something that binds us all, and that is a very important factor in my work, for my and everyone’s development. It is like a triangle – me, people around me and the light. The connection between all of us generates the electricity that enables us to feed off the same source of light.
The people around me are an essential part of the process. That is an important realization.”
Light, of course, necessarily reveals things that were previously concealed by darkness.
“When we ask for light, we have to remember that it will show us things we did not see before,” she says. “That will change us.”
Shamir has certainly brought new light to her music, and has come a long way from The Lowest Place in Tel Aviv.