Have you heard of Bezalel? Not the famous Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Nor the Biblical figure of Bezalel, the guy who was appointed by Moses to be the chief artisan of the tabernacle (somewhere in the Exodus, Wikipedia docet).
I am talking about Chaim Issac Bezalel Raviv, born in Israel in 1979, from a family of Tunisian Jews. His story is quite unique. Bezalel is essentially a singer who has been around since at least 2006, date of the release of his first dance-hit Into my life.
Bezalel (Credit Mauro Balletti)
His early biography is not unlike that of many Israelis. The youngest son of 12 brothers and sisters, he grew up studying in a Yeshiva (conservative religious school), while secretly listening to pop songs on his Walkman. He then served in the army until aged 21, when, after seeing a documentary about pop star Madonna, he decided to move to New York. There he performed in clubs and bars, enjoying a certain success in Manhattan’s gay milieu. In 2006 he moved to Milan, where he was invited to work on a music project which resulted in the single Into my Life entering Italian top charts.
But the big fame, and the really unique part of this story, came with the song Tunisia, which he composed in 2008, after returning to Israel. The song embraces a different sound which is often referred to as Oriental-Pop.
Here is the video:
This song, imbued with oriental sonorities, tells the love story between an Arab man and a Jewish woman in an unspecified Middle East country.
“Two hearts made of gold Breaking an old conflict Like never before”
In the video, we see the boy (Bezalel himself, as handsome as you can see) wearing the girl’s necklace with the Star of David under his own keffiah, in a symbolic fusion of interreligiousness. The clip, self-produced with a budget of 2200 $, was actually shot in Jaffa, an historical Arab city, which today is part of the Tel Aviv municipality. It even contains a message (in Arabic) from the mother of Bezalel, who speaks about peace and tolerance in a message which was recorded on an old cellular phone.
Here is where the story takes a clamorous turn.
The song Tunisiawas reviewed on Palestinian TV, and very quickly received huge attention in the Arab world, thanks to the social media over the internet.
The domino effect was so strong that the song was ultimately picked up by a very, very unexpected actor: the Jasmin Revolution movement in Tunisia. As simple as that, and as impossible as that: Bezalel, a Jew and incidentally a gay, wrote a song which quickly became the leading anthem of Arabic revolution. Bang!
I had to interview him. Here you get to hear the story of this now famous Galilee boy in his own words.
A still frame from Palestinian TV
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1. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with music?
At a very early age I’ve realized music has an enormous impact on me. I was born the youngest of 12 bothers and sisters and my family was and still is a very religiously strict one. Listening to music from America became my way out of the ghetto I lived in. There were a lot of pressure in the family, a lot of moments when I, as a kid, wanted to run away or wish for a different life. In those moments I used to start singing to myself and dancing to the mirror with a hair brush.
When I was 10 years old, the management of “Flowers of Jerusalem” (the Israeli national choir), came to Tiberias, the city where I was born, to audition boys for the band. It was like recruiting the new voices that will represent Israel in the world. When the examiner looked at me, she asked me to sit down and repeat notes she sang. I was hired on the spot. My family, especially my parents, supported me. They saw how happy I was.
Bezalel, first from the rights, at Flowers of Jerusalem Choir, aged 10
My voice changed when I was 11, as it happens at that age, so I was let go of the band. I was devastated because I didn’t want to go back to my old life. Since I couldn’t bring my virginal voice back, I started to do the one thing I could – write and compose songs. It took me to a whole new level, because up to that point I had only sung songs of others.
2. You became famous with the single Tunisia, which became an anthem for the Jasmin revolution. You must be very proud of how things turned out. What were your intentions in writing the song?
I exiled from Israel in 2001, after my military service. I wanted to go to a place where I can lose my past and rebuild my identity. It took me 9 years to close circle with myself, to be able to understand who I am, as opposed to what I was taught to be, or who I was expected to be – who I am for real and what I am here for.
This is when I found courage to return to Israel. The first song I wrote was Tunisia, my first autobiographic song. My parents fled from Tunisia to Israel in 1952 and the song is about coming to terms with my past and reconnecting with my roots. This is where things have become amazingly great as my private lyrics became familiar for millions of people in Tunisia who felt the same connection with their history. The fact that I was Israeli didn’t matter to them and for this I am so proud of my fans there and in the rest of the Arab world.
3. I heard you were invited to perform in Dubai, but that you have received threats by Al Quaeda. Are you afraid that your career may be paralyzed by politics?
To be afraid or paralyzed is a matter of personal choice. I know it is very important that I will do these kind of shows, as a lot of my fans are youth from Middle Eastern countries and their motivation toward peace accelerates when we are face to face, naturally. The only reason I did not perform in Dubai is because it cost a lot of money to travel with my show and since I am an independent artist I had to postpone the invitation for now.
4. Your newest single Beautiful is dedicated to the cause of refugees, in particular refugees in Israel (to whom little or no attention is given to by foreign press). I know from your biography that your family has fled to Israel in 1952. What do you know about that period? Has the transition to Israel been easy for them?
My parents came to Israel on the same ship, but they did not know each other. In a cosmic kind of way, they only met in Israel and got married shortly after. I was born in Tiberias, in the Galilee region, but I always felt like a foreigner in my own town because my parents kept their Tunisian way of life. It was like eating couscous everyday and listening to Arabic songs from a radio channel in Jordan. My parents spoke Arabic most of the time, so in many ways I felt like I was not born in Israel at all, and this is maybe why I feel for the refugees who have to leave their country and start life all over again. One of the things I can remember about the Torah is that there is a commandment that says: love the man from a foreign country. I love that! It means that if your love is only for those who are near you and familiar, you are far away from knowing what love is about, as love is to share with all the different types of people, regardless of their complexion, religion etc.
I’ve also launched an international remix contest for the single, so music producers and D.J.’s from all around the world will gather and share their own interpretation to the word “Beautiful”. I hope it will bring people from different places to one equal zone where the only thing that matter is your talent.
5. I read that you have lived some time in Milan. Why did you chose to go to Italy? I believe Italians are quite conservative on issues like multiracial relationship and gayness. What has your experience been?
I heard from many people that in Italy there are a lot of good looking people. Since I am attracted to beauty and fine art, it was important for me to verify that (just kidding). I was scheduled a meeting with a sweet man called Massimo Battaglia from Universal records in Milan. He wanted to find out if I will sign with them. I quickly figured out that Italy, even more than conservative, has its own tempo, so I said “No”. I decided to stay in Italy because I had my first real relationship ten days after I arrived to town, and quickly after I was offered to collaborate with three other music producers on a song I wrote and composed. This is how the song Into My Life came to life and the reason I stayed for in Italy for over 18 months.
Bezalel on the cover of Italian Clubbing Magazine
6. Social media were the launch platform for your career. What is your relationship with the Internet?
I’m obsessed with it. I love the fact that can reach anyone anywhere in the world and I can be reached by anyone. I wanna thanks Mark Zuckerberg for the creation of the Facebook. It did change my life as well as many other lives.
7. Many people have a very confused and biased idea of Israel, as a place of conflicts and religious extremism. How is your life here?
I am a person of many conflicts, so in Israel and the Middle East neighbourhood I feel I’m home.