Shai Gabso’s spiritual journey

Shai Gabso’s spiritual journey

:: see the article on the Jerusalem Post site here ::

By DAVID BRINN – 03/21/2011 21:27

Belying the glitzy, showbiz ‘Kochav Nolad’ environment that spawned him, the 27-year-old singer/songwriter is far from your everyday, one-dimensional pop star.

Shai Gabso, who burst onto the public’s consciousness in 2003 as second runner up behind Shiri Maimon and Ninete Tayeb during Kochav Nolad’s maiden season, has not taken the cookie-cutter celebrity route in the ensuing years.

How many pop stars choose to hide their teen idol faces behind beards, get married minus the paparazzi in the West Bank (as Gabso did last week in the Samarian settlement of Ofra), publicly volunteer their talents to help increased a sense of Jewish heritage among the nation’s youth, and write songs that have evolved into patriotic anthems like “Arim Roshi” (I Will Lift My Head; from the first of Gabso’s three albums to date)? “I became religious when I was 12, but it’s gotten stronger in recent years,” said Gabso last week before the wedding, explaining his decision to not perform on Friday nights – traditionally a big money maker in the local concert market.

Gabso’s identification with Jewish tradition is also what has led him to launch a collaboration with Nefesh Yehudi, an organization founded by Rabbi Eliahu Ilani, which attempts to expose secular Jewish college-age students in Israel and Europe to Judaism.

The organization, with over 30 centers throughout the country and in Europe and boasting over 30,000 participants, provides scholarships to students on the stipulation that they commit to taking Nefesh Yehudi’s classes in Judaism, not necessarily that they commit to a religious life.

Last month, Gabso performed for 120 Israeli students studying in Lita, and this month he’s playing to Nefesh Yehudi students in Tel Aviv and Haifa, with more performances planned throughout the year.

“Nefesh Yehudi approached me about doing a show for them in Lita – they thought it was a good shidduch,” said Gabso.

“And it was, it was amazing to find a common language with the students through music and Judaism. Nefesh Yehudi’s goal is to expose them to tradition and the Jewish story, but to widen it beyond learning and bring some culture into it too.”

Gabso said he held some trepidation before the shows as to what was being expected from him – by Nefesh Yehudi, which he knew was hoping for a particular message, and from the students who may have been expecting a no-strings attached rock concert.

“It was a real challenge. I didn’t know how my show – which on the face of it doesn’t really jibe with a Jewish message – would go together with what they were expecting,” said Gabso.

“Before the Lita show, I discussed it with my manager and told him I knew I had to reach the students from the deepest and most sensitive of places in my soul and speak to them like a friend. And it worked really well.”

Nefesh Yehudi spokesman Natanel Izik explained that the organization decided to approach Gabso because he possessed the values they were trying to pass on to the students.

“We try to strengthen Jewish identity and to fight assimilation. And Shai is a great representation of someone with a strong Jewish identity – not necessarily in a religious aspect. And his music appeals to all kind, religious as well as secular,” said Izik.

“As opposed to what you might think about someone who was on a TV show and appears on stage, Shai is a simple person – a pleasure to be with. I’ve produced a lot of shows and worked with a lot of performers, and I’ve never met someone as down to earth.”

GABSO’S MATURATION from the teen sensation of A Star is Born to the adult artist of his latest album Caravan didn’t take too long, and according to the singer, the journey is all laid out in his music.

“Caravan is very different from any of my music that came before it. There was a need to go backwards and look at myself, because I myself have changed so much during this very critical stage of my 20s,” he said.

“And I think I succeeded, I know it’s really touched people.”

Not that his earlier music didn’t also have a huge impact. Gabso is still taken aback when his song of patriotism “Arim Roshi” is played at national ceremonies “It’s amazing – it came out eight years ago, and it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s bigger than the artist, it has its own independence – it’s really supported a lot of people,” he said.

Gabso hopes that another song of his will also provide support for people in need. Along with other Israeli artists like David Broza, Nurit Galron, Avi Toledano and Dudu Fischer, he recently contributed a song to a project initiated by Pioneers for a Cure.

The American-Israeli campaign to raise funds for cancer research asked artists to record a song from the public domain (whose royalty rights have expired) and the songs are available for the public to download at http://pioneersforacure.org/. Among the American artists participating include Suzanne Vega, Ben E. King and Randy Brecker.

“I recorded a poem by Chaim Bialik written in 1891 called “To the Bird” and the proceeds from the download will go to the children’s department of Rambam Hospital,” said Gabso, who added that he identified with the lyrics, Bialik’s first poem, in which he pours out his soul to the bird that flies back and forth between the Holy Land and the Diaspora.

Not your typical pop music fare, and indeed, it’s symbolic of Gabso’s inclination to take the potentially career-damaging path of taking on bigger issues in his music – of statehood, faith and tradition and not from the viewpoint of the standard Left-leaning North Tel Aviv entertainer bandwagon.

It’s that individualistic streak that may have touched the viewers and judges of Kochav Nolad eight years ago, and it’s that trait Gabso advises future musical artists and would-be contestants to develop.

“My advice is to find the strength to be yourself,” he said. “Everyone has their inner voice that God gave them. Rather than copy someone else, it’s better to find your own voice.”

It’s advise that Gabso clearly took to heart himself.