Meir Banai, the celebrated singer who died Thursday at age 55, was one of Israel’s beloved performers, as familiar and recognized as the battered black fedora that was nearly always on his head.
It was the kind of hat probably worn by his great-grandfather, Meir Eliyahu Banai, known as a master storyteller and the progenitor of a family of entertainers closely identified with the shifts and evolution of Israeli society.
Over a 30-year career, Meir Banai careened from soul to rock before finally landing on a soulful spiritual sound that has become part and parcel of the Israeli music scene.
Melding ancient lyrics with modern sound, something now emulated by Banai’s younger brother Eviatar Banai and their cousin Ehud Banai, is today heard in rock concerts, albums as well as by younger artists competing on reality shows like “The Voice.”
It was all initiated by Meir Banai, though his story goes back to his grandfather the greengrocer. Eliyahu Banai, as he was known, was one of the first merchants on Agas Street in Jerusalem’s famed Mahane Yehuda market.
It was Yossi Banai, Meir’s famous uncle, who grew up in the tiny apartment above the family vegetable stand, and became know for his skills as an Israel Prize-winning actor and raconteur.
A Star of David with Eliyahu Banai’s name is carved into the lintel of the house where the Banai family lived. Agas Street has been renamed Eliahu Banai Street.
Meir Banai, born in 1961, was the nephew of Yossi, and the son of Yaakov Banai, a judge. He was raised with his siblings, comedian Orna Banai and singer Evitar Banai, in Beersheva.
He began playing guitar and composing music at 17, and his first hit was a single called “Eviatar,” about his little brother:
plays all day
goofs around all day
plays in the grass, in the colors of the world
I love you, Eviatar my little brother
play on the hill
until the sun goes down
I’ll enter the game
and get yelled at by Mom
He paid for that first album himself when he was just 23, earning that vital, initial airtime on the radio. After that, Banai got busy, playing small bars and venues around the country, with a strong, soulful voice that was considered unique for the still fledgling Israeli music scene.
According to critics, it seemed that Banai wasn’t sure whether to become a rocker or stick with more soulful, Israeli folk music that was typical until then, and he seemed to vacillate between the two options for the next few years.
There wasn’t a tremendous amount of public attention paid to his early music. Certain highlights in his career pushed him onto center stage. He appeared in “Breaking,” an early Avi Nesher comedy, which also featured his song, “Shiro Shel Shafshaf.”
His second album in 1987, “Rain,” was more of a commercial success, achieving gold album status and selling more than 20,000 copies, which was four times that of his first album.
Banai said that the inspiration for the title song, “Rain,” came from a scene in director Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film “Taxi Driver.” The album was famously produced in just one week of recording, and has been covered since by many younger artists, who have followed in Banai’s lead.
Banai became known for his collaborations with other musicians, as well as his own solo work. With an acoustic guitar in his hands and harmonica clenched in his mouth, his song “Gates of Mercy” was released in 1992 and was another major hit, although critics often commented that it was about his own personal struggles and not of a religious nature, despite lyrics referring to Jerusalem’s Old City.
I’m going around in the Old City
and noise comes from every corner
I already know,
I know my way already
on the way to the gate of mercy.
Not all of Banai’s albums were major sellers, but they always featured several songs that became classics of the Israeli playlist, known for their lyrics that characterized his personal experiences, often mirroring the hopes and desires of his fellow Israelis.
In 1999, Banai and singer Arkadi Duchin collaborated on a tour that featured each of their songs, and released “Domino,” another successful mini-album which included the very successful, “A Brief Love.”
Banai also appeared on and wrote for several TV series, including 1989’s “The Last Vacation,” “Not Including Service,” in 1991, “Zinzana” in 2001, “Jerusalem Mix” in 2003 and “Sabbaths and Holidays” in 2004.
It was after Banai emerged in 2007, a little more religious, and with an album called “Shema Koli,” a collection of Sephardi piyuttim — poems taken mostly from Yom Kippur liturgy — combined with his own, modern composed music that he achieved a more significant level of fame and became a household name.
The single, “Lech Elay” became a hit as soon as it was released, and the award-winning album sold more than 15,000 copies.
The album represented a fundamental shift in Israeli culture, as mystical themes entered Israeli rock and roll. According to writer Yossi Klein Halevi, who has written extensively about the soulful forces re-energizing Hebrew music, the music industry is now a central force in re-Judaizing Israeli culture – thanks in large part to the extraordinary musicians of the Banai family.
Noam Banai, Meir’s son, who recently released his first single, with a sound that is familiar to those who know his father’s voice, said recently that his father’s shift toward religion had a major effect on him. He was around 10 years old at the time, and it was when Banai and his wife also divorced.
“It was a big change, but I came around with time,” said Banai, who is not religiously observant.
When Noam Banai told his father he wanted to become a musician, his father told him to work hard, he said.
It was a line Meir Banai took from his own life.