One of Israel
's most respected musicians, Ehud Banai was one of the first artists to attempt to incorporate traditional Middle Eastern motifs into Western-style rock music. He has written music in many different styles, including Dylanesque folk, surrealistic dream ballads, dub (his first single was called Yiddishe Rastaman), musical versions of Arabic folk tales, and others.
Until Ehud Banai came along with his unique vision, there were basically two camps of popular music in Israel, and the division between them was a symptom of Israel's ethnic divisions. Israelis of European descent (Ashkenazi) had rock music and other Western varieties, while Israelis from Arab or Mediterranean countries (Sephardic) had "Oriental music". The latter is a genre based on traditional motifs from the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Oriental music, while wildly popular throughout Israel, was widely regarded in the high society as ghetto music, not fit for serious musicians and unsuitable for playing in respectable venues. Most of the money in the music industry was invested in Western-style musicians, while on the street millions of copies of Oriental albums were sold in the form of cheap cassette copies.
Then came Ehud Banai, scion of a family famous for producing more than its fair share of great musicians and actors, and almost singlehandedly made the Middle Eastern sound "respectable". I say almost singlehandedly, because at around the same time period, there were a few other artists working to achieve the same goal - notably, Shlomo Gronich, Yehuda Poliker who combined traditional Greek sounds with rock on the album "Ashes and Dust", and Margalit Tzanani, whose music from "Mint" onward might be labeled "Oriental Soul". These works were preceded, however, by Ehud Banai's amazing debut album, "Ehud Banai and the Refugees".
Released in 1987, "The Refugees" took Israel by storm. Produced by Yosi Elephent and featuring a backup group of well-known and superb musicians, the album contained not only the usual songs about life, love and the quest for meaning. It also featured a song about the sad fate of the Ethiopian immigration to Israel, another about the life of the stage worker in Israel (a personal favourite, as I was one of these for a couple of years), and the underground hit "Mix the Cement", a song about a Palestinian construction worker named Ahmed. This was almost definitely the first reference in mainstream Israeli music to the thousands of Palestinians who traveled into Israel every day to work in construction, building office towers and luxury hotels for the Israelis, who considered such work too menial for Jews to undertake. Needless to say, the popular IDF Radio station and the inoffensive middle-of-the-road Reshet Gimel station did not see fit to play "Mix the Cement". But the "Refugees" album, which also featured thinly-veiled protest in the biblical allegory "The Golden Calf", sold extremely well.
Since then, Banai has released four other albums in the same general vein, becoming more popular with each release. He continues to write songs about the working class and the downtrodden of Israel and the experiences of a Sephardic Jew growing up in a world that was culturally controlled by Ashkenazis. He brings snippets of Aramaic and Arabic into the Hebrew songs, and uses traditional Middle Eastern percussion instruments to accompany the guitars and drums. He has written musical interpretations of Persian folk tales and Oriental-style versions of traditional Irish songs. Showing no signs of quitting the scene, compromising his artistic integrity, or changing his subject matter, Ehud Banai has become a legend, one of the few artists who can truly claim universal respect in Israel. I can only hope he will continue his work for many years to come.
On a personal note, I can also say he is not only a great performer, but a wonderful person to work with. I did stage work for him on several different TV shows, and he is one of the friendliest and most down to earth artists I've met (remember, he did a song about stage workers!). And he works hard on every show, unlike many artists who might as well have been telecommuting to the studio.
- Ehud Banai and the Refugees - 1987
- Karov (Nearby) - 1989
- HaShlishi (The Third) - 1992
- Od Me'at (Soon) -
- Tip Tipa (A Little Bit) - 1998
- Has also written songs for several Israeli films, written and performed in the massively popular rock opera "Mami", released an album of children's stories together with Yossi Banai, and written songs for other artists such as Mashina ("Night Train to Cairo") and Yehudit Tamir ("The Earth's Sigh").