Banot: Beloved Melodies, Beautiful Vision

Posted on September 5, 2018 by Cantor Emily Wigod Pincus

Normally, this is the time of year when we start gearing up to ask you (the congregation) for lots of things. But it’s my privilege to tell you about a musical gift for you! Due to a wonderfully generous grant from the Temple Beth-El Sisterhood, we will have the great fortune to have Banot for an artists-in-residence weekend on October 26 and 27. This is Sisterhood’s gift to the Temple Beth-El community, and the entire weekend will be free to the public. But what is Banot, you ask?

Banot is a New York-based band of four young Israeli female musicians, and one percussionist from Spain, who write and perform new arrangements of traditional Jewish songs and modern Israeli music. Together, they are carving a pathway between tradition and cutting edge, between beloved melodies and their own beautiful, uncompromising visions of the present and future. All of these musicians are highly talented, with their own independent careers, as well as scholarships, prizes, and acclaimed recordings under their belts. All four of them sing, and each lends her own instrumental presence to the group: Ella on the piano, Michal on the guitar, Yonit on the bass, Tali on the recorder, and Marian on percussion (and she doubles as the sound engineer!).

Yonit adds that the band members first met while attending the Rimon diploma program for music in Israel, and Tali also has a degree in classical music from the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem. They continued their musical studies at Rimon’s affiliated institution, Berklee College of Music in Boston, where they met Marian. When they eventually found themselves in Brooklyn at about the same time, they began talking about how much they missed the Israeli Jewish music they loved from home, and they decided to form a band. Recalls Michal, “It occurred to Yonit that we all know how to arrange music, we all love these songs and this music, and we all love playing and making music together, so…why shouldn’t we be doing it?” Yonit chimes in, “We wanted to bring something special to the music we brought from home, music that people might think of as old. We decided to bring it to the table again and do something new with it.”

For these women, living abroad in the U.S. sharpened their sense of their musical heritage, as well as their understanding of the great wellspring of melody from which they could draw. Muses Tali, “For me, it has to do with my childhood, and what my family used to sing to me when I was a child, when we would gather all together and sing these beautiful songs that are our heritage of years and years ago, the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe.” In fact, the name Banot reflects their view of themselves as “daughters of this heritage, daughters of this Jewish world,” Ella observes. And, not least, Tali confesses, “I’ve always wanted to be in a girl band – a Jewish girl band!”

Michal, for her part, always knew she wanted to do something in music, although she did not originally envision being a full-time musician. “Music was a very prominent part of my life – I sang in musicals as a kid, and my mom is a cantor. She’s originally from the States and studied with a cantor in Israel after she made aliyah. My mom was one of the first, if not the first, female cantor in Israel back in the 1980s,” she explains. “And so my sisters and I grew up singing prayers and going to synagogue, which is largely how I connected to music as a little kid.” For that reason, “it’s been a real pleasure to bring that side of myself to Jewish music, through both Banot and the temple in Greenwich at which we’ve been resident artists for the past year.” Through these avenues, Michal has come to enjoy and connect “in a new, wonderful way” to the music that was the backdrop to her childhood.

Yonit grew up in Ranana, a small town north of Tel Aviv. She reminisces, “My mom was always singing songs, American folk songs, mostly. She loved John Denver, and when I watched her play guitar, I really wanted to play guitar, too! A few years later, during a trip to a conservatory, I saw two teachers play the bass and I fell in love with it. I was, I think, twelve. I studied music in high school, where they had diploma studies in music and art. That’s when I discovered Israeli music from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and at the same time I was listening to old-school rock, pop, Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, so it was all of that mixed together. It became my musical foundation, and I guess that’s why it never left me: not the Beatles nor the Israeli music.”

Marian is a native of Spain and is neither Israeli nor Jewish, but, says Yonit, “she plays this music because she loves it.” Although Marian plays percussion for the band, her main instrument is the guitar. She is a Latin Grammy nominated studio and FOH engineer, producer, arranger, pianist and guitar player.

Of the five women, Tali is the most rooted in Israeli music, Michal says. “Her aesthetic is very Israeli. Although I’m a little hesitant to explain it that way, because there are so many Israels….Her sound is like a world jazz sound, and she plays recorders like no one else in the world. She studied classical music, but she makes it a point to play everything. She goes around to hip hop sessions in New York…and sits in with the band!” Her versatility shines through in her ability to bring and integrate her musical sensibilities into any musical forum.

So, what do these talented ladies do when they’re not performing with Banot? Ella plays keyboard in a band called Iris Lune, which has an electro-pop/acoustic sound. Yonit has a folk-oriented album coming out soon, and is working on another project called Foreign Hues, which has more of a world funk vibe. She is also a director in an online music education platform called Lessonface. “I give advice, write content, and I have students from all over the world! It keeps it interesting,” Yonit enthuses. Tali is working with a filmmaker “who’s making a documentary of her adventures with the recorder in New York City,” Michal says. Tali also has a serious international career, due to her skill, passion and innovative use of the recorder. Michal curates the Kava Musik concert series, co-produces community arts events for Salomé ArtHaus, and performs with her band at venues across New York. She recently released her debut LP, Daughter of the Sea.

Looking to the future, the Banot members continue to seek new avenues of expression and to develop new projects. Michal notes that “we recorded a couple of new music videos that we’re excited about, and we really want to record another album.” Last year, the group recorded a short album that was commissioned by the temple with which they are affiliated in Greenwich Village. In addition, the group is beginning to record some original music. “For a while, we were doing things that came from the place of honoring this music that we love, but more recently, we’ve been writing some original melodies. So far, it’s been liturgical: we have L’cha Dodi and a wonderful Sim Shalom. So that’s kind of exciting,” Michal smiles.

In its performances, Banot strives to create an atmosphere of inclusiveness and generosity, in the face of the current political situation in Israel. “You know, there’s the whole discussion about Israel and politics, and we try not to get too much into it with Banot,” Yonit affirms. “We promote peace, we promote understanding, we promote co-existence – which is a really close subject to us. We’re working on a project that we want to do in English, Hebrew and Arabic to raise awareness of all these subjects. We always try to take the approach that we’re all people, and we all want to be treated equally. I think everybody deserves to live with their basic rights, so that’s what we emphasize.”

And we look forward to hearing their beautiful message of peace. Banot will be at Temple Beth-El for Shabbat evening services on Friday, October 26 at 8:00 p.m. and for Havdalah and concert on Saturday, October 27 with wine and cheese, starting at 7:15 p.m. See you there!


Cantor Emily Wigod Pincus

Originally published in the September-October 2018 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.