"Music is a shared language"

Amir Pinhasi

Location: bus 480 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv

Residence: Jerusalem

Age: 31


The encounter: When I boarded the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, I hoped the seat beside me would be taken by someone who’d agree to be interviewed. I was lucky. Amir and I talked all the way to Tel Aviv. When we approached Tel Aviv, it turned out he had actually boarded the wrong bus: he had to be on the south side, while we were heading north. I hope he made it in time to his gig!

What are you doing here right now?
I’m on my way to play at a wedding. I don’t know who’s getting married, but it seems to be a nice party: on a rooftop in Jaffa.

What is you occupation?
I’m finishing my fourth year at the music academy in Jerusalem. I’m doing the jazz track for percussion, but I also love other musical styles. I drum in three bands: Sabir, Begleri, and Na'ama. We play a mix of ethnic and electronic music, influenced by Balkan, Arab, Turkish, and Mediterranean styles, but with a modern twist.

Can you tell me a bit about your family?
My parents divorced five years ago... or fifteen years ago... depending on whether you count from the beginning or the end of the divorce proceedings. My mother has become religious since the divorce and my little sister went along with my mom. But my two older sisters and I are completely secular.

Where is your family from?
My mom was born in Tunisia. She came to Israel with her parents during the North African emigration of the 1950s. Her father was born in Libya, but he fled to Tunisia during the Second World War, when they started sending Jews to concentration camps there. In Tunisia, he met my grandmother.
My grandmother on father’s side was born in Israel, but her parents came from Persia. My father’s father was born in Kurdistan and came here at the age of three, sometime in the early 1930s.

How do you describe your religious or national identity?
I’ve asked myself that very often! My answer changes all the time, according to the situation I find myself in: musician, male, Jew, Israeli... I have no answer. It’s natural for people to define themselves by the things they do in life – selling vegetables, playing music... – until they encounter religion and nationality. Then, they are forced to pick sides, and we get all divided into different groups that fight each other.

What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land?
That’s hard to answer because I’m divided between an idealistic vision and a practical vision. Ideally, I wish we could all live together as equals, without religious or national distinctions, and without borders or personal property. It’s a pity Communism didn’t work out! On the other hand, if there is no other option but to divide this earth into countries, then there should be a Jewish country and a Palestinian country.
The Palestinians need a country because we shouldn’t be occupying another nation. And the Jews need a country because... you can’t look at history and claim that there was no need for a Jewish country! But again, I just wish there was no need for this distinction between people!
It’s crazy that many Palestinians still won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But it’s also crazy that there is a Jewish state on Palestinian land. It’s all thoroughly messed up! We need some kind of complete, global solution. When we try to solve things locally, the problems just keep popping up again.
In the meantime, I make music. I try to do whatever I can in my limited way to make the world a better place. Both bands that I’m in have an agenda of bringing people together through music. We’ll be playing in Istanbul this summer, and, insha’Allah, in the future, we hope to play in Beirut and in other places in the region. Ultimately, we’d like to play together and collaborate more with Arab musicians.
Of course, making music is not a solution: playing a few Arabic songs doesn’t bring peace. But music is a shared language that connects people across cultures and identities.