STAV : The language of languages
Stav Shaul aka STAV. is a contemporary folk artist and winner of the 2018 Folk Alliance Australia Young Artist of the Year.
Through her music, STAV. shares her story of migration with bursts of rhythmic fire and soaring melodies. Exploring the vast tonal qualities of her voice and the themes of connection, STAV. sings in both Hebrew and English languages, which enables her to explore her unique identity and stand apart from other artists in Australia.
STAV: I always take a little breath before answering the 'where are you from' question.
‘I’m Australian, but...’
I feel that aside from the good food and getting gold stars for being a cool language nerd, the topic is loaded with responsibility, expectations and split-loyalties. I give a different answer every time because there isn’t one simple answer. Our identities are fluid and multifaceted. Plus, there are other things about me that are important too - take for example what makes me laugh, what can’t I resist doing even when I’m beyond exhausted.
To begin with, I was born in Israel in a small town near Tel-Aviv, but I guess I have to go back a bit further than that.
Aba's parents are Iraqi Jews who migrated to Israel because Iraqi Jews were persecuted around that time in Iraq (the Farhud) and the newly established state of Israel wanted to increase the Jewish population. My paternal family openly spoke Arabic and Hebrew and were proud of the Iraqi food and culture but they experienced some systematic discrimination from the state when they arrived. Ima's parents are Polish Jews who migrated to Australia because of the rising Nazi regime. My mother's dad was a Holocaust survivor. When he came to Australia, he refused to speak Polish because of the trauma. Totally different cultures. I'm still figuring out how I fit in with all of that.
I feel lucky to have been born - the chances of me being alive are so slim! I was taught to appreciate differences so it's wild to think that a lot of people strategically planned to wipe out my ancestors ultimately not wanting me alive. They never even met me, you know, how could they judge? Sometimes I get this tight feeling in my stomach thinking about it because these things are still happening today. Sometimes it feels like I'm gatecrashing the party of life.
THE PIN: What was it like growing up in an Australian country town with a Jewish identity?
There's no synagogue or Jewish schools there, so I didn't have a very religious upbringing. At my schools, I was often the only person with more than one language at home so I felt different to the others. Despite being a fairly alternative and open-minded town, my family has experienced racism there, especially when we first moved because there were barely any people with dark skin and dark hair, so we stood out. Stares, being misunderstood, even rocks thrown. I guess we're pretty eccentric too (laughs). I remember a teacher once explaining that I couldn't have a main acting part because the character had to be blonde. In high school, I often skipped chapel to practice music instead but I got caught. In my town, there was a small Jewish community but not everyone spoke Hebrew. We would do Friday night Shabbat but most of us played soccer on Saturdays. We celebrate some of the holidays together in an alternative way.
Since you've moved to Naarm (Melbourne) have you found that there is an expectation when you tell people about your cultural heritage?
I don't always tell people but people usually ask questions. To put it simply, I guess I feel more "Israeli/Australian" than "Jewish Australian", and a lot of people in Israel identify as secular anyway. For me, it's more a cultural connection than a religious one, but I also believe that there's something bigger than us. I'm quite spiritual in my personal life but I don’t follow conventional traditions.
Yeah, people usually ask me to explain all aspects of the history, culture and languages, but the first question is usually abruptly about war or the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. On that topic, I think that avoiding conversation is counter-productive and hypocritical, although it does raise an important issue. I have been a victim and a perpetrator of the system and I’m gradually becoming more aware of that in different contexts. People here often compare the situation in Israel to the ongoing colonisation in Australia, but it’s important to distinguish them. My heart goes out to everyone that has suffered. It’s an intriguingly beautiful yet tiny place that can at once be frustrating and invigorating.
Do you think the diversity of being Jewish is understood in Australia?
Not usually. There are so many variations! You can be a secular Jew, Jewish and not Israeli, Israeli and secular, Arab-Jew, the list goes on. I've been a lot of people's first real-life encounter with an Israeli and so many times they've expressed their surprise that I'm friendly and capable of conversation. A backhanded compliment. It’s kind of like when people say ‘you’re a good guitarist, for a girl’.
Are your cultural identities something that you are exploring to help you navigate through the world?
Yes - on one hand there were the generations of persecution, on the other hand there were generations of hope, dreams and strength that got us to where we are today. It’s good to look at the positives - it’s part of the healing process. It can be confusing too. For my granddad on my mums side, it was significant to carry on a religious aspect of Judaism because of being a Holocaust survivor so I question 'what is my responsibility in that?'
When did you start playing music and is it part of your identity?
I remember Aba and his dad always humming around. He never got a chance to study music because he was one of six which wasn't easy and they couldn’t afford it. In Australia, I went to a Steiner primary school so we sang (almost all day) every day and I also got a lot of positive musical experience there.
For me, music is a part of my identity and I use it as a way to process life and to share stories. It takes me to another place. It's like another language that connects people.
It makes sense that you sing in multiple languages, because you are bilingual, but did you feel any pressure to sound traditional in your music because of this?
I have been playing live for four years in Melbourne, and I have experienced some people calling my music ‘middle-eastern folk’, but that was before I even sang in Hebrew. I have a feeling people just say that because of where I was born and expect it to be like that. My music is pretty eclectic anyway so seems natural to sing in Hebrew. I definitely grew up singing along to heaps of music in Hebrew and some in Arabic and other languages. Because of Israel being a cultural melting pot, I’ve been exposed to a lot of incredible music. Recently, I have been listening to a Syrian-Armenian singer called Lena Chamamyan and I’m absolutely in love with how she uses her voice.
There must also be things that don't have the same meaning or sound when translated in English, right?
I have thought about these things a fair bit because I did a degree in languages. I think that the real meanings of words come from their context. The more you see a word in context and the more associations you have with the word, the more it makes sense and carries a true meaning to your story. Translation's weird; you lose a lot of things because when you translate words from one language to another you lose their contexts and the true meaning behind the original words is lost entirely. In my last release, ‘Weakening, Awakening’ for example, I use the word ‘neshama’ which means ‘soul’ but in Hebrew it is also linked to the word ‘breath’ and has a deeper meaning.
Is that why you sing in both languages, to represent your identity, or is this something quite new to your songwriting?
It's only been in the last year or so that I've wanted to write in Hebrew. Technically it was my first language and it has this different kind of intimacy for me.
A lot of people shy away from their differences and later on in life realise that these are their strengths. Do you think singing, writing songs and performing in Hebrew has also come through exploring what makes your tick musically, and finally coming to a place of feeling comfort in your identity?
Yeah definitely, if I didn't sing in Hebrew, I would get a lot less questions about that part of my identity.
Is that something you feared?
A little bit...
Are you sick of having to talk about it?
Sometimes it's exhausting. There are times I don't want to go into it, but I also think that the conversation is more important today than ever. With technology and globalisation, it seems like the world is more connected, but on the other hand, there is a lot of apathy towards important issues, people don't want to talk about the effects of migration for example because they say it's too hard. I think the conversation starts with us and how we interact with individuals on a daily basis.
You've just been touring in Israel and Europe with your brother who lives there, how was your music received in Israel versus performing in Australia?
People really connected to the sister-brother collaboration, especially when we sang harmonies together. It was the first time doing the ‘Stav and Dudi’ thing and we created some beautiful music.
When I am there, the first impression is that I am no different, but then people find out that I am Australian and say 'but you grew up there (Aus), so you don’t understand,' and when I am in Australia people say ‘you wouldn't understand because you didn't grow up here'.
There is a total shift in how people perceive me. I can adapt to both places, but some things stand out about me more in each place.
I guess it's that thing of being a cultural chameleon but just knowing which language to use to get your message across in two different places. How was it to perform there?
Some of my family got to see me perform for the first time. It's different singing in Hebrew in Israel because it's the element that people say 'I understood and connected, it sounds real when you sing in Hebrew' and I appreciated that because it gives me the confidence to continue having that sense of connection.
In Australia, it's seen as a bit of an exotic thing for people to write in languages other than English, but it can be a good thing because it also sets me apart from other songwriters. I find it strange Dr G Yunupingu won a world music award in Australia for singing in his native language.
Is Stav the short version of your name?
No it's just Stav, it means Autumn in Hebrew and it's an androgynous name.
Can you tell me about your new single? What inspired you to write this song?
It's called Poison Remedy, and it came from a few different experiences but the name of the song and the chorus take inspiration from the expression 'one person’s poison is another person’s remedy'. It's about me as well but it’s mostly about people believing the negative assumptions others make about them.
I know it can be tough when indirect prejudice is a constant in someone's environment. This song is about the exhaustion from that and how it can lead to self-doubt and apathy, not wanting to deal with it. On the other hand, it’s also about the generations of people that have brought me to where I am now, which can be empowering.
Is that where you feel you're at when it comes to negative perceptions? Are you going through a shift?
It fluctuates but yeah, I guess and that's why I recorded the song with just guitar and vocals and some harmonies because I wanted to capture the raw state of when I wrote it - this one’s all in English by the way (laugh).
With Poison Remedy, I have also explored different tones in my voice; I like the idea of using the emotions we use in daily speech in singing. It takes me through different characters.
When you say ‘different characters’ what do you mean?
It’s like there are different characters for different parts of the story, some are humorous, some are confrontational and some are more soulful.
THE PIN: If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you're in, what would it be?
STAV. Speak up when you know you want to.
Photo credit: Tom Riley