The Shalva Band

Reaching people through music, while empowering those with disabilities

By Ilan Preskovsky

Taking place in Tel Aviv this year, the Eurovision Song Contest 2019 was an even more controversial, often contentious event than usual. From questions about the Jewish State hosting the competition over Shabbos to the usual brow beating by anti-Israel activists who wanted Eurovision to boycott Israel, it was a hot-topic conversation starter even for those who don’t usually care about musical talent shows in general, let alone the oft-mocked Eurovision Song Contest.

With all of this going on, the one thing that ultimately threatened to steal the show was, of all things, a musical act – no, not the Dutch winner of the contest (Duncan Laurence with his song, Arcade), not Iceland’s pro-Palestinian political gestures, and not even the always controversial, self-styled “Queen of Pop”, Madonna. The real “people’s heroes” of Eurovision 2019 was, instead, a band that wasn’t even competing in the competition, but stole everyone’s hearts anyway: Israel’s own The Shalva Band.

The Shalva National Center House Band is a professional musical group comprised of eight musicians from across the globe with different kinds of disabilities, and are employed by and represent Shalva, the Israel Association for Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities. The band has long been one of Shalva’s most acclaimed and successful inclusion programmes that uses music to bridge the gap between the disabled and the general population.

Among the eight members of the band are individuals with physical and developmental disabilities like Down Syndrome, war injuries, William’s Syndrome, and blindness/visual impairments. Along with giving purpose, financial independence, and a genuine sense of pride to these young adults who could all too easily have been left behind by “mainstream” society, being in the band allows them to show the world around them that they are absolutely not defined or crippled by their disabilities.

The Shalva Band is made up of genuinely talented musicians – many of whom having gone through Shalva’s rehabilitation programme and having their prodigious musical talents both discovered and nurtured by Shalva’s music therapy programme – who come together to create professional, world-class music of standards high enough that they have been hired to play at a number of major musical events, often performing with major celebrity music stars.

Case in point, the Eurovision Song Contest is as high profile as it gets and The Shalva Band were all set to show off their incredible musical prowess by competing against top musical acts from throughout Europe. Unfortunately, they hit an insurmountable obstacle that meant they had to withdraw from even being considered to be Israel’s representative in this prestigious event.

Though the band made it all the way to the finals in The Rising Star (HaKokhav HaBa), Israel’s own music competition that decides who will represent the country at Eurovision, they dropped out of Eurovision at the last minute. The reason had nothing whatsoever to do with their disabilities or any lack of talent, but had everything to do with members of the band not wishing to desecrate Shabbos. Though the actual finals were to be held on Saturday night after Shabbos had ended, the rules of Eurovision state that all finalists have to perform on stage in a general rehearsal the night before.

Despite petitions by Israel to the European Broadcasting Union to have them bend their rules and allow Israel’s representative – who, as the host country, would be guaranteed a spot in the finals – to compete in the finals without appearing over Shabbos, the EBU refused to change their position and The Shalva Band stood by their principals and withdrew their name from consideration. Members of the band at the time voiced their great disappointment that it had come to that, but were proud of their decision not to perform on Shabbos.

As it turns out, though, the inability to compete in the music competition did little to stop Eurovision having a profound effect on their career by launching them to all-new levels of public admiration in both Israel and abroad. Even as they were applauded for their refusal to betray their deeply held religious beliefs for a shot at stardom, they were offered a chance to at least perform during the semi-finals, which would take place on Thursday – a chance that they gladly and gratefully took.

Taking to the stage on Thursday night to perform, fittingly, the song A Million Dreams from the beloved 2017 film-musical starring Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman, The Shalva Band was a smashing and very emotional success. They received a rapturous and long standing ovation from the audience and teary-eyed praise from host, Bar Rafaeli. Seconds after the broadcast went out, they trended on Twitter with Eurovision fans heaping generous amounts of praise on the band, hailing both their performance and the message of inclusivity and empowerment that is at the heart of everything The Shalva Band does and represents. As Dina Samteh, one of the band’s vocalists, put it as the band hit the stage: “We dreamt together and here we are on the biggest stage we could imagine. Don’t stop dreaming no matter what people say.”

Their performance at Eurovision made them even bigger stars in Israel and won them an international audience. So popular were they, in fact, that the day after they performed, offers to tour in Europe had already started to come in. Despite their new-found fame, though, their mission remains the same: to reach people through their music and to empower those with disabilities.

As if to prove this point, it was just announced that the Shalva Band are to perform at the Israeli-American Council (IAC) National Summit this year in Florida. To quote the official message of the IAC on why they selected the Shalva Band for such a prestigious event, “They are a true inspiration for a spirit of strength, values, inclusiveness, unity, persistence, talent, and everything else we would hope our society to be!”

It’s hard to argue with and, despite the world wide acclaim they received at Eurovision being the sort of thing that represents the apex for most musicians, there’s little doubt that for The Shalva Band this is really only the beginning.

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