A Conversation With Hanan Ben Ari

Hanan Ben Ari will appear live in concert in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami in October 2022. In honor of his upcoming shows in the USA, Hanan sat down with Israel Hour Radio host Josh Shron to discuss his career, his family, his most popular songs, his upcoming USA tour, and more. You can watch the interview on YouTube above, and the full text of the interview appears below.

[Josh] It’s Israel Hour Radio – and my gosh, I cannot tell you how excited I am to speak to our next guest…he is one of the most admired people in Israel today, he is a singer, he is a songwriter, he is an inspiration…and, my gosh, what a thrill to speak to Hanan Ben Ari, welcome to Israel Hour Radio and My Israeli Music Live.

[Hanan] Thank you very much, Josh. It’s a lot of fun to be here.

[Josh] Thank you, thank you. So, I’m going to speak in English and Hanan is going to answer in Hebrew. We’ll do our best to translate whatever he has to say, and I guess the first question is something we always like to ask when we have people on the show is, tell us about your musical journey. I know that your father is a Chazzan (cantor), my father is also a Chazzan, and I know he was a big inspiration, but tell me, how did you get to where you are today?

[Hanan] So first of all I grew up in our house where my father was a cantor and a writer of religious poetry in synagogue and he would put me right next to him, from age 3, 4…I absorbed it, and I sang next to him and we really loved to sing at home. And about from age 12 they saw that I like to invent melodies and to sing and to create songs, so they sent me to an after school piano class, and there I really stared to “surrender” to music. I would lock myself in my room and write and compose something like 5, 6, 7 hours a day…nonsense, really nonsense…but music pulled me in. Afterwards, I thought I would become a teacher. I went to learn education, I thought I would be a teacher, and thought, music is nice, but as a hobby. But as the years went by, the music “overcame” me once again, and happily for me and for all of us, this is what I’m doing today. It really fills my world, and this is what I’m doing.

[Josh] Very nice, thank you. Tell me, who did you listen to growing up? Who were your musical influences?

[Hanan] It’s a big mixture. A part of it is from the religious world that I grew up in. [Shlomo] Carlebach and [Avraham] Fried and Mordechai Ben David…and from the Sephardic side, poems from the synagogue, and on the other side, I would listen to Alicia Keys and Eminem in my teenage years, and…Nina Simone, and all kinds of “black music” that I have no idea how I got to them, but they captured me, and of course Israeli music. So it was a big mix.

[Josh] And who were your favorites in Israel?

[Hanan] There are a lot, but let’s say Ehud Banai, Meir Banai, Barry Sacharof, Evyatar Banai, you could say all the rock music of the 80s and 90s.

[Josh] Very very nice. Now, every time you come out with a new song in Israel I always tell my audience that you don’t know how to write a bad song. I need to know a little bit about your creative process. What is involved, what does it take for you to put out a new song when you sit down to create something new?

[Hanan] That’s a good question, because I myself haven’t cracked how I write a song. But what you said, that “he can’t write a bad song,” it’s something like…I’ll give an example. There are a lot of artists that write every day. Every day they write a song. And they say to themselves, I’ll write a song every day, there will be 300 songs a year, and 250 of them, 290 of them will be terrible. But 10 will be good. I write four songs a year. Because all of the songs are racing in my head…there ARE 300 songs racing in my head in a year, but I dismiss them. I dismiss them before I write them. So if I’m already sitting down to write a song, it’s after I feel that there’s something really meaningful, new, good, catchy, deep, that says something really new. If it sounds in my head, in my filter, that it sounds like something I’ve done, or others have done, or it’s just not it, I rule it out in advance. I write very little, in practice, each year. Maybe 4 songs.

[Josh] We know that you’re a…you make no secret of your dati background and that you live your life as a religious person, and you’re working in an environment that’s pretty secular. The Israeli music industry, by and large, is not so dati. Is it challenging at all to be a religious person in the industry?

[Hanan] It’s not very hard. People really accept it and forgive it. All the people around me, most of them are not religious, but it’s never something that became for me some sort of obstacle, or something I felt prevented me from advancing. It’s complex to be a person who lives between two worlds and skips all the time between two worlds. Also inside of me – these two worlds exist within me. So it’s a complex thing, but I never felt that from outside any behavior or someone preventing me to succeed or to become well known or to do something because I am religious. I never felt something like this.

[Josh] Now  on the other hand, we see artists like you, and others, Ishay Ribo for example, who are making it very well in the industry despite being religious. What do you think that is? Do you feel like Israeli society is becoming more…I don’t know…accepting of that kind of music?

[Hanan] I think that artists that came from a religious background were able to make some kind of adaptation, something maybe in the past they were less successful with, and also the Israeli public made strides in accepting something that until today they accepted less, or would have immediately said, no, this is not for me. So the two sides got closer to one another.

[Josh] Tell me about the period of Coronavirus. I know it was difficult for many artists, many singers who make their lives doing concerts. You turned it around, and you created an opportunity to sing Kabbalat Shabbat and to get together every Friday with your family. We got to know your children a little bit. Tell me about that whole process for you.

[Hanan] So at first, like for everyone, it was very hard. I felt it was a critical stage for my career, and suddenly everything stopped, just as I felt that it had started to grow, and just when “Aluf HaOlam” came out a year beforehand, and “Im Tirtzi” came out two weeks before Corona started. So at first I said what’s happening, and why is this happening. And then I said, ok, there’s an opportunity here. Because everyone’s at home, and everyone’s sitting and everyone’s going crazy from their kids and going crazy from boredom, so it’s an opportunity for me specifically to forge a connection with people, and to bridge the gap between us. And so we started to do the Kabbalat Shabbat on Fridays, and suddenly an audience started coming, very large, from the United States, and also from Europe, that didn’t know me – and I didn’t know them. And suddenly I started getting, wow, so many comments, so many people that I didn’t know listened to my music, and didn’t know that they follow me. And suddenly a connection was created every Friday with thousands and thousands of people from all around the world – and also in Israel, of course, and really Corona became an opportunity. And suddenly everything grew. Many more people connected with me, and I connected with more new people, and like you said transformed from something challenging and difficult to, suddenly, a wonderful opportunity.

[Josh] It really was, yeah. And we were so impressed with your children. Do you see any of them going into the family business and following in Aba’s footsteps?

10:49 [Hanan in English] It’s not family business. [Hebrew] It’s not a family business, it’s really…I think the oldest girl obviously…she’s really talented, she sings, she writes, and she composes. She’s still young, she’s only 12, so her life can still take her to all kinds of places. Really it’s their choice. It’s not just to be the son or daughter of so-and-so…there’s no boundary, but we try as a family to give each one of them to choose their path and to determine their fate on their own.

[Josh] Very nice. I could sit and talk to you about every single one of your songs because they’re all so deep and so interesting. I’m just going to ask about a few of them, if you could tell me, beginning with what I think was your first big hit, HaChaim Shelanu Tutim in 2016. It was a great look at Israeli society. Tell me what went into that song.

[Hanan] In Israel there is…and really, Israelis in general, we have a tendency to complain, about everything…everyone is allowed to say everything about everything, and on the other hand, there is this thing of, it will be ok, it will be ok. With God’s help it will be ok. So there’s a kind of contrast, that I was always curious about, and in this song, first came the chorus, “we have no right to complain, everything is cool, thank God, because our lives are like berries.” And then we said, let’s make the verses the exact opposite, and talk about everything that’s hard – but really hard – in Israel. And it stopped people in their tracks, because it’s very Israeli to complain and complain and complain and then to say, but it’s all good.

[Josh] And I remember after that song came out you released a video on YouTube that said, everyone is pressuring me to make the next ‘Tutim’, and you did! You did! I don’t know how you’ve done it but you really did and I loved the honesty of that video that you put out. Now tell me, you already spoke about ‘Im Tirtzi’, it’s 2020, it’s a few weeks before Coronavirus, who knew that when you shoved everybody into the elevator, that a few weeks later, that would be totally off limits and the wrong thing to do, why do you think that that song became the song of the year, insanely popular, what was it about that song that took everybody by storm?

[Hanan] [English] I really don’t know.

[Josh] Ok…

[Hanan] {Hebrew] I really don’t know. You know, I have a tendency to give grades to my songs before they are released, and to predict, we take bets on how successful they will be, just for fun. And I really didn’t give this song enough credit. I thought, it’s a nice song, fun, but I never thought it would explode like this. It’s possible that it’s because of Corona, it came out two weeks before, and it “grabbed” people and gave them comfort and encouragement and people danced to it and there’s something in this song that kids can sing it but also people in their 70s and 80s can identify with the melody “la la la…”

You know, so there was something in it that was family-oriented. In Corona, families were crowded together, so maybe, if I have to look at it retroactively, maybe the secret of this song was in it’s family-oriented nature.

[Josh] Now only a few weeks later, you wrote a very different song, “Ga’aguim Livnei Adam”. And I remember the day that song came out I saw the words and the images on YouTube and my God, it just captured my heart. What was going through your mind when you wrote that song?

[Hanan] First of all, the lyrics were written by Lior Engelman, a friend of mine. I only helped a little. And he came up with the idea. He said, we need to write a song about the situation. I said to him, I don’t like to write songs on the CURRENT situation, as it’s taking place. I like to have perspective. But he said, listen, people are sitting at home and really experiencing a major crisis, everyone experienced it differently, but everyone experienced a crisis. And our job as artists, at times like these, is to give perspective and comfort and something, some sort of inspiration. And I didn’t even release this song to the radio, it was a minute and a half…something from me to the audience, that it will be possible to sing together and experience together, and it gave people, fortunately, a moment of inspiration that’s beyond the difficulty…and we really had no idea how long it would last for. No one knew when it would end. So there was a line in this song where we said, soon it will all end, and I ask, if possible, that the morning after you [Corona] go away, it won’t be the same again. That we’ll learn the takeaway, that we’ll be better from this.

[Josh] And I wonder if we learned. I wonder if we learned that message.

[Hanan in English] I wonder too.

[Josh] Last song I want to ask you about. When I told people I was interviewing you they said, you have to ask about “Cholem Kmo Yosef”. It’s an amazing song, and so many characters from the Tanach, and just tell me how that song came together.

[Hanan] I remember that I travelled by taxi to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, and in the taxi I opened a book by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and there was a line ….

And I said, wow wow wow, this is a song! And I immediately went to my phone and wrote the whole song in five minutes. When it comes, I know it comes, and when I read those lines I knew that I’m going to write a song, on…yes, there are heroes of the Tanach and we don’t really know them, and I have no idea who they were or what they were, but I know that when I read the Tanach, I want to know, how is it relevant to me. What can I learn from this, how it’s related to me. And really, I believe this. That every one of us is part Joseph, part Queen Esther, part King David, part Abraham our father, and part Lot (Abraham’s nephew), and part Cain and part Abel. We have all of this, and so it stays eternal, because it wasn’t something that happened and it’s over, but it’s something that all of us still can draw inspiration from in our own personal lives.

[Josh] And we don’t hear about those characters being sung about in Israeli pop music, or any pop music so often, so I think the whole Jewish world really appreciated that song. So Kol HaKavod (well done).

So you are coming to the United States in October. We are so excited. Every time I’ve ever seen…I’ve never seen you live in concert, but I’ve seen lots of videos, especially your show in Caesarea looked incredible, it seems like a giant party, in front of an audience who clearly LOVES your music. And we do! October 24th in Los Angeles, October 26th in Brooklyn, October 30th in Miami…tell me what you have in store for the audience in the United States.

[Hanan] First of all, I’m very very very excited to come to the States, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, before Corona it was supposed to happen, and we waited until things calmed down and we could come the right way, without limitations, without masks, so I’m very excited. We’re bringing our whole production, just like in Israel, just like you saw in the concert in Caesarea, we’re not going to skimp on anything. We’re determined to see it through to the end. Very excited to meet the audience waiting for us in the US. I get tons of messages on Instagram and Facebook and I know of a lot of people who are waiting, and we’re also waiting. And we’re coming with all of the well-known songs, “Aluf HaOlam” and “Im Tirtzi” and “Tutim” and “Shemesh”, with the band, with all the staff, and we’re very very excited. I’m really curious who will come and what the vibe will be. It’s new for me. I understand that there are differences between Los Angeles and New York and Miami, and I’m dying to encounter the people and the energies, and…let’s do it! It’s happening soon!

[Josh] Well, we cannot wait, and for anyone watching or listening, you can find out all the information you need to know about these shows at our web site, MyIsraeliMusic.com…cannot wait to see you in the United States. Tell me, what is next for Hanan Ben Ari? What future plans do you have?

[Hanan] To continue writing songs and to sing them and…to enjoy it. To enjoy it. This to me is the most important thing.

[Josh] And we can tell you’re having an amazing time doing what you do. New year coming up…what message do you have for your fans in the United States, in Israel, all around the world, the entire Jewish nation, in honor of the new year?

[Hanan in English] That sounds so big. I’m only one person, you know. [Hebrew] The only message I have, as a family man, what I discovered in the past two months…I don’t know how it is in America but in Israel we just returned from the summer vacation (from school). And we were together a lot, with the kids and with the family. To re-discover the family, to discover what’s important in life, for me, to take advantage of the time for important things and less time involved in nonsense, and politics, and in so many things that seem very important and urgent but at the end you go home and stay with your family. So if I have two minutes to say something to myself and to others, it’s to enjoy your family.

[Josh] That’s a perfect message. It can’t get better than that.

[Hanan] Thank you.

[Josh] Hanan, it is a thrill to talk to you, I cannot wait to see you in Brooklyn on October 26th, and thank you so much for spending a few minutes with us here at Israel Hour Radio, it was great to talk to you and B’hatzlacha (good luck). We love you, keep doing what you’re doing and Kol HaKavod Lecha (well done to you).

[Hanan] Thank you very very much. We’ll meet again.

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