Owner of a Jewish heartby Jeff Berkwits June 21, 2010
Trevor Rabin, formerly of the super-group Yes, recalls growing up in an observant South African home.
In an odd twist of fate, Trevor Rabin was working on a space-related project when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated early last year. Details of the disaster came while he was crafting the music for “Mission: SPACE,” a new exhibit at Walt Disney World where visitors participate in an imaginary journey to Mars. The folks at Disney, who had worked with NASA on the ride’s design, immediately began planning a tribute, and turned to Rabin to craft a memorial melody for Israel’s fallen astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
“I did a very unusual and interesting version of ‘Hatikvah,’” says the composer, who was born in South Africa and now lives in the Los Angeles area. “It was basically just very somber strings, with guitar and a bit of piano, but I took the chords and added a lot of extra textures to give it a very different feel…. It really had an impact on me, because you realize how truly sad the melody is.”
Writing sad songs is not usually Rabin’s forte. For more than two decades, he was a well-regarded pop star, recording tunes in his native South Africa during the early 1970s before joining the progressive-rock band Yes in 1983. As a member of that group, he penned such worldwide hits as “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Love Will Find a Way.”
In 1995, Rabin left the band and began a second – and quite successful – career scoring high-profile motion pictures like “Armageddon,” “Enemy of the State” and the recently released “Exorcist: The Beginning.” It’s for his work in this arena that Rabin is being honored with the Outstanding Career Achievement in Film Composing Award at the 10th Annual Temecula Valley International Film and Music Festival.
“When it was first presented as something they wanted to do, I thought, ‘Well, doesn’t that mean my career is over?’” laughs the 50-year-old musician. “Usually, whenever you start getting these things it means you’re on the downhill slope. Well, my agents had a big laugh at that. They said, ‘No, on the contrary, it’s a great thing to get and you should absolutely accept it!’ So I was delighted.”
The great-grandson of a cantor and son of a well-respected attorney who played violin professionally, music and Judaism have always played an integral role in Rabin’s life. Though the family did not keep a Kosher home, they regularly celebrated the Sabbath and, in the company of relatives, observed the Jewish holidays.
“I was a good singer, and every Saturday morning I would sing in the choir, so it was a rich upbringing in that way” he recalls. “We also always looked forward to [Passover], because it was just a great party with the whole family. I remember my uncle sitting right at the head of the table, which seemed like five miles from me because I was so small and young and there were so many people. His wife would prop his chair up with pillows and he would go through the whole service. Sometimes I wished the stories and history were shorter, but it was always fun.”
Judaism’s spirit of social justice also played a vital part in Rabin’s personal development. Many members of his tight-knit family fought against apartheid – his cousin, Sir Sydney Kentridge, was the senior counsel for the family of Stephen Biko, and his father’s law firm was among the first in the country to hire a black lawyer – while the spiritual leader of their Johannesburg synagogue, Rabbi Arthur Super, served as a role model.
“Rabbi Super had a profound impact on me because he was always so balanced,” remembers Rabin. “And my dad was always a champion, and vigorously opposed to apartheid…. Integrity and honesty and balance has always directed me and, in all aspects of my life, determined how I conduct myself. When I go to bed at night, I’m always checking, ‘Did I do everything with that sense of integrity that my father lived with?’ It’s sometimes hard to live by, but it has been a very useful trait.”
Rabin’s Jewish background has also been useful in an unexpected manner: forging relationships within the rock-music world. When producing or playing on albums with Jewish musicians – especially South African Jews like Manfred Mann (“Blinded by the Light,” “The Mighty Quinn”) – an often unspoken link is unmistakable.
“There’s definitely a very easy connection that South African Jews have who’ve never met each other,” he says. “It happens almost immediately, and especially with Manfred. We’ve remained very close friends, more so than I think anyone I’ve ever worked with…. It’s just the common experiences and really having the same outlook. There’s a familiarity that you don’t see, or you certainly don’t feel, from other connections.”
So next time “Owner of a Lonely Heart” comes on the radio, or the name Trevor Rabin appears in the credits in a big-budget Hollywood film (“The Great Raid,” due out in February, is his next high-profile project), listen closely. The music may sound a bit more familiar – and Jewish – than you might expect.
Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival Closing Night Gala
When: 5 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 12
Where: Wilson Creek Winery, 35960 Rancho Creek Rd., Temecula
Tickets $95. For more information, call (909) 699-5514.
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