Si Hi-Man: Tel Aviv Interview 1989

By LARRY YUDELSON

TEL AVIV--The Israeli girl in the London classroom was clearly uncomfortable, but the teacher would not relent.

"No, Si, you can't be excused from Religious Education," she said. "And let's talk some more about how your people crucified our Lord."

One day Si Hi-Man would find an outlet for her pain in rock 'n roll.

But as a child, not yet 12, Si could barely hold back her tears. She had lived in London for three years, and she hated it. Her classmates beat her up and called her "dirty Jew," and now her teacher was doing the same. She wanted to go home, back to Israel, back to her kibbutz - - and this time her parents were going to have to listen.

Si rose to her feet and blurted out one sentence to her classmates:

"If you checked the blood of all this class, you'd realize-- to your deepest astonishment--that it's the same color."

17 years later, Si Hi-Man's appeals for brotherhood may brand her "Arab lover," not "defender of the Jews," but she hasn't backed down.

Today, though, she is no longer a little girl with a trembling voice; she is a singer-songwriter with her own band, and she has distilled her convictions--and her childhood pain and loneliness--into two best- selling albums.

Lady Sings The Blues

As Si -- dressed in blue jeans, black tee shirt and denim vest -- plays to a mostly-teenage Jerusalem audience of 400 on a recent Saturday night, both the self assurance and alienation of her childhood outburst show clearly. At first, she seems to play for herself and for the band, her love of the music and rapport with her fellow musicians obvious but the connection to the audience slow to form. She moves for the music, doubling over to bellow a bluesy solo on the harmonica, but stands almost ramrod straight as she sings, definatly raising her fist for emphasis. Even when the audience draws her out, when she makes eye contact and feels free enough for her body to flow with the rhytm, Tina Turner's dirty dancing is not her style.

The audience knows her old songs by heart and listens attentively to the new ones. The Hebrew lyrics interweave political and sexual warfare in a style reminiscent of Tracy Chapman, but while the Grammy winner filed haunting dispatches from the American urban underclass, Si Hi-Man reminds Israelis of their own bitter truths, that "on a clear day you can see from Tel Aviv to Beirut."

She started out singing in the clubs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and soon hooked up with Local Band, a basic four-piece rock ensemble. They struggled for years, developing their talents and finding a following. Si didn't fit into the world of Israeli pop music, where a woman's place was singing other people's beautiful -- and non- threatening -- songs backed by pleasant music. Not until 1987 did Si win a recording contract for her own rock 'n roll, when she issued Si Hi-Man and Local Band to widespread popularity.

But one song, released the following year, made her name a household word and attracted the attention of the music world abroad. Si saves it for the second half of the concert and her fans greet the opening chords with restrained, respectful applause. A few light matches and wave them back and forth as they've seen in videos of Led Zeppelin concerts.

Hi-Man's signature ballad cuts deeper than "Stairway to Heaven," the British band's heavy metal paean to adolescent mysticism and anti-materialism. The power of her song comes not from the percussion -- she accompanies herself on guitar, though her vocals could carry the song alone -- but the lyrics.

She sings, with a husky voice more urgent than beautiful, of boys who play with lead and girls with steel dolls, of danger and dread, of the oppressive shadow that has changed everything in the Arab street cleaner's village and broken through her window in Tel Aviv.

"Shooting and Crying" is the premiere song about the intifada. Played in concert, it lets the audience, many just shy of draft age, share communally in the frustration blurring into despair of the past two years:

"It doesn't matter at all who will be the victor now
The world I had is no more
The great light has been turned off.

"They shoot and they cry. They burn and they laugh," she sings, with more anguish than anger. "When did we learn to bury people alive? When did we forget we too had children killed?"

Si's restatement of her childhood credo did not win universal applause. Army Radio, whose hip popular music programming attracts civilian listeners across the country, declared the song an insult to the country's soldiers and barred it from the air.

Political World

While Si uses her songs to make a point, she doesn't want to be confused with a Joan Baez, heralding a new age with protest and earth mother redemption songs. She pushes Local Band to rock hard, and her lyrics run closer to Punk alienation than loving hippy protest.

"Wars don't happen in the summer
Even for us it's too hot to hate"
she sings in "Big Hero," her first hit, which combines cynicism, a danceable beat and an attack on the macho, Israeli gever (male) mentality:
"Hey you! Big hero man!
Come show me that you can
It's no trick to be strong in a war...
I'm leaving
'cause I'm believing
That I love you too much
I never did order
A green plastic soldier
That would tie my life up"

It's a far cry from "Tzena" of the pioneer days, with its cry of "Girls, go out and see the soldiers!"

And if the soldiers are no longer a source of pride, neither are the powers above them. The stream of images in "Marionette" depicts a world where a nameless "they"

"divide the crowd
The good -- forward! The bad -- to the center!";
raise taxes "in the middle of the night"; and treat each citizen as a puppet. Yet despite their power,
"They fear that
She'll find a dance
She'll sweep you away
They'll vanish, hey!"

In "Industrial World," wokers, masters and servants trudge to work "row after row" every morning at 6 a.m.

"Because they never had whom to betray at all
They had a local hero -- very small
They had a national hero -- so very small"
And yet there is a ray of hope amidst the dehumanization of modern times:
"The industrial world
Swallowed me
Inside a concrete box
I built a window...
Everything goes in one direction
Not to be alone."

When her songs aren't explicitly political, Si paints the loneliness and alienation of Tel Aviv's streets. The city "reminds me of New York," she sings in one song, but it's the despairing dirty boulevards of her hero Lou Reed's New York City, not the magical city that never sleeps. The protagonists of her love songs are all anonymous; she writes of "local heroes" and "local stars," but no names are ever dropped in her elliptical tales of black motorcycles, dusty streets, youthful dance-hall killings, and underground realms with their own endless laws.

"What I say is local here is local somewhere else," she says. Most Israeli songs, however, don't take place amid the urban facelessness of the late 20th century; they're set in the orchards or fields favored by the pioneering generation, or the interior spaces where Israel's pop composers first dared to rebel against communal, Zionist imperatives.
The new album, called Working on the Road, includes its share of political songs. "Out of the Closet," which she didn't perform in Jerusalem, risked a different sort of controversy. "Maybe because I've been with a guy already many years, I can allow myself to write it," she says of the song which has already brought her grateful letters from homosexuals who have heard it in concert.
A song of hers ridicules the Israeli addiction to news of terror and crisis but she shares the national obsessession, seeing political double entendres even in other people's love songs. In Edith Kaufman's "Poker Morning," set to music by a member of Local Band and included on the new album, a gambler's lover pleads "take me with you, even beyond the black border."

"Are you sure you didn't mean any of our borders in Israel?" Si asked the songwriter. "And does gambling have anythign to do with the political situation?"

"Si, you're getting so heavy," came the reply. "I wrote a love song, that's all."

Tight Jeans

In concert, microphone and tambourine in hand, the politics and the message recede and the beat takes over.

"When I'm on stage, I have a lot of fun. I'm a product of the '80s, I'm a product of the video age. I love rock 'n roll, I enjoy it. I love wearing my tight jeans, getting on stage, sweating, looking at all the guys getting horny."

(And off stage? She says's she's "a nice Jewish girl, a little Yiddishe mama. I'm the one who brings the sandwiches to the band, who all the time worries about them if they don't eat."

After the show, the anticlimax sets in, along with a feeling of claustrophobia. From Jerusalem, home -- Tel Aviv -- is only half an hour away. There are no road trips in Israeli culture, no endless hotel stays. And, once home, there's nowhere to unwind at 2 a.m., no club where Si and band can listen to someone else's music. "Israel is such a hard place for rock 'n roll," she complains. "Actually, there is no rock 'n roll here, not as a way of life."

Tel Aviv, she says, "is very active and very lonely. We always say Israel is so warm, and every five minutes you meet someone you know and you can eat humous with him.Well, first of all, humous is the traditional Arabic food; it's not the Israeli food. And secondly, every five minues I do meet someone, and it makes me feel even lonelier, because so many people meet each other here only on the surface."

Blaming the country for universal problems -- loneliness, rudeness, dishonesty, confusion -- is a common Israeli habit. But Si backtracks.

"Maybe it's because I was a wanderer all my life. Maybe if I had grown up in Tel Aviv from the age of zero, I would've felt that this is a great home. Maybe wherever I may be, I'll always be lonely."

Perhaps that's the reason she lives in a North Tel Aviv hotel, rather than an apartment. She says she needs the isolation to create. Her neighbors down the halls have never heard of her; the maids offer motherly concern.

The small hotel room is a reminder of how confining Israel is for those who dream of stardom, of being more than local heroes. It is not a bad location, near the beach, but it resembles nothing so much as a college dorm, with concert posters on the wall. A video monitor and a synthesizer keyboard ("it took me two years to save for this") are the only luxuries.

It takes a long time to get rich as a rock star in Israel. Si's second album just went gold, her first will soon turn platinum -- which totals only 60,000 copies.

At times that success means very little and she envies her classmates who stayed on the kibbutz, who are married and are mothers. ``I'm 28 and all I have are two records,''she says. ``There's nothing bigger than having a child.''

``It's written in all my songs. All my songs talk about the conflict between machoism and family, wars and family, career and family.''

No Direction Home

It is precisely these conflicts between a career and family, between a small home and wide success, which formed Si's painful childhood. Her father, Nahum, a composer who wrote the music for hundreds of popular songs in the '50s, left Israel for further study and to pursue more fame than the country could offer. (Nahum, incidentally, spells his name Heimann; Si's hyphenated spelling is a punk affectation, like the pink hair she wore in the clubs or the peroxide blonde from her first album and tour.)

Si was six when she went with her family to Paris and London; she was 12 when she returned alone to the kibbutz. Her parents promised to follow, but they remained abroad for over a decade while her father continued his studies and his career.

Meanwhile, Si was learning that Israel was almost as difficult as England.

"Imagine coming back from a school where everyone smokes joints and cigarettes, and curses all day, and fights, and coming back to the pastoral Jezriel Valley down there near Beit Shean, to my left wing kibbutz, very narrow minded in a way, but very loved, and having to fit in to their quiet way of life.

``I had to give up a lot. I had to make myself like these kids now, otherwise I'd feel a stranger here too, you know? And I looked weird to them, because they remembered me from six years old.'' The nice little girl had returned wearing jeans and peace signs, with long hair and a hippy headband, with American cassettes of Woodstock and John Denver.

``Very soon they started hating me too, because again I was too different. So one day I just took all my stuff and just threw it away, I decided I must get into this community.''

It didn't work. At 16, she dropped out of school, and started as a waitress in the Pargod, a tiny club in Jerusalem.

``I think that then I decided, in a way, that that's the life I want to live, the night life. I was very fascinated, giving drinks to all these artists coming in. Although today I know that they weren't so well regarded.''

Then someone gave her a Janis Joplin record, Pearl. ``She shocked me. This record for me was like all the worlds together, united. The times of London and the hard times of kibbutz and the hard times of the club I was working in. But she sang and I knew that I'm going to be a rock singer and I'm going to sing about everything I can.''

Highway 71 Revisited

Si returns to the kibbutz with her new single, ``The Road From Beit Alpha.'' On this trip, though, she notices that the road (route 71) passes through the Arab village of Wadi Ara and is ``paved with madness.'' Mount Gilboa looks on in silence as Kibbutz Beit Alpha is besieged by hypocrisy; the Arab field hands and the Arab prisoners in jail nearby put the lie to the kibbutz ideals of equality.

``The Road From Beit Alpha'' also reunites Si with the milieu of her father, who recently joined her on stage when she was awarded her gold record.

``It's funny, because my father wrote so many tunes about the fields and the flowers, and this song is about the same fields and flowers.

``He saw in the landscape the country that he hoped I would grow up in, and I see in it the country that today is not a dream, not of my parents, not of the children of my parents, and not of the children I hope to have. It's exactly the same flowers and fields, but a different time. I write about the same thing he wrote about, but 20 years later. Twenty years of conquest later. But during those 20 years, I didn't realize what a hurricane we are in.

``All I'm thinking about is that we're missing a paradise here. I'm very naive; I used to think that it's possible. I'm not so sure anymore.

``Two years ago, I would have said, `let's give whatever there is to give and just have peace.' Today, I'm not sure that I'm not afraid to give it. I want to. But I'm not sure that the Arab Palestinian who would come to live near me would not try to take more of what he doesn't deserve --and he wouldn't have done it a few years ago--because the uprising has reached such a terrible limit, that today it's killing only, it's no more listening.

``They don't have a leader, they don't have even someone who, when we do reach an agreement, will keep the area quiet. I'm afraid. I'm afraid anyway, I'm afraid today, I'm afraid tomorrow."

Soul Music

Si is not alone in singing about the "situation," as the Israeli euphemism puts it. Nurit Galron's song, "The Flood is Behind Us," was sarcastically juxtaposes "a nation in uprising, dressing the wounded" with Tel Aviv of parties, food and drink, was also banned from Army Radio--and rose to the top of the Israel Radio charts.

The most penetrating such song was released shortly before Passover by veteran singer Chava Alberstein. Taking a traditional Italian tune for Had Gadya, she recorded the Seder song with an haunting voice backed by eerie synthesizers. After going through verse by verse--the kid eaten by the cat, the dog hit by the stick, the fire quenched by the water, until the Angel of Death-- she added a verse of her own:

``Why do you sing Had Gadya now?
Spring hasn't arrived, Passover hasn't come.
And why is it different for you, what has changed?
I've changed this year.
On all other nights, on all other nights
I asked only four questions
On this night I have another question
How long will this cycle of violence continue?
Chaser and chased, beater and beaten
When will this madness end?
I was once a sheep and a tranquil kid
Today I am a leopard and a mad wolf
I was already a dove
And I was a deer
Today I don't know what I am
Had Gadya
Father bought a kid for two zuzim
We start again from the beginning.''

Si was impressed. ``She really hurts. She has enough wars here and she sang for so many soldiers.

``She did it in a very very interesting way--she took a traditional song. What can I tell you, it's about yetziat mizraim, the Exodus, what more can we say? It's a fantastic combination that she did.''

Si, who grew up on a secular kibbutz, regrets she can't draw from the power of the tradition. ``Why shouldn't I be able to see one time Kabbalat Shabbat without being forced to become a ba'al teshuva? All I want is to have a glimpse of the tradition that I had missed, because I come from a very very secular background.''

She interrupts herself, suddenly remembering that she did have a taste of Jewish education--in her first year of London. ``I was too young for a secondary school, I had one year left in primary, and I had no choice but to be in a Jewish school. For one year I was in a very very strict Jewish school. They forced me to pray, every morning we drank our bottle of milk and we sang the whole prayer--and I forgot everything, because they made me do it.''

``If I had the choice, to hear people singing in shul, you know, to hear the tunes, it would have brought me more to something I don't have and them something they don't have. But in Israel you can't do it. It shouldn't be such two countries, two Israels. I wish it could get together, you know? It looks like everything the Israeli and Jewish community can divide in two, it divides. If it's left and right, if it's Arabs and Jews, if it's the Jews between themselves.''

The tradition Si can't reach offers more than spirituality; in 1989, it holds out the possibility of superstardom. Not only in Israel, where Sefardi, ethnic music is booming more than one would guess from listening to the Ashkenazi disk jockeys, but all around the world.

But like the Shabbat candles, Si doesn't feel that's her heritage.

``To do ethnic things, like Ofra Haza for example, or any other Yemenite or Moroccan things, you have to really be from there. I don't believe in imitating.

``I don't do Eastern music. I don't know to do it. Many times people say to me, why don't you do a record, do like Ofra Haza, send them something in Yemenite. I can't. She was in beit knesset, in synagogue, from the day she remembers herself.

``I've never been there. I was brought up differently. She heard old people from her neighborhood singing the prayers in Yemenite. I didn't hear stuff like that.

"I can't just say, great, it's popular." She ululates in imitation, low and hoarse, and makes her point. "It just ain't me.

"My drummer is Moroccan and he always says to me, `stop being so Polish, do something more.'

"I say, what can I do? Baby, I'm Polish."


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