The soul of Monique Benabou

Monique Benabou might be a guy’s ideal woman. The 23-year-old former contestant on NBC-TV’s reality singing competition show, “The Voice,” handpicked by pop star Christina Aguilera, is beautiful and equipped with soulful pipes, along with being adventurous, compassionate and proud of being Jewish.

Her big moment, featured on the second season of “The Voice” this year, came when she sang Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All” during the show’s blind-audition round: Production cuts cycled back and forth between her belting out lyrics like a diva, her nervous parents watching backstage with host Carson Daly, and close-ups of Aguilera — the show’s only female judge and a vocal star herself — itching to press the button that would signal she wanted Benabou to join her team.

You could do something with her,” country artist and judge Blake Shelton whispered to Ag-
uilera, prompting the pop queen to finally hit her button.

In the next round, paired head-to-head against the show’s favorite, operatically trained Chris Mann, Benabou was eliminated from the competition. She says she learned from the experience, however briefly, especially from being coached by Aguilera, and she will apply what she’s learned when she’s one of the headliners at Sunday’s Israel Festival at Rancho Park.

Born in Oakland, Calif., in 1988, Benabou stayed home from school when she was 12 to take care of her mother, who’d been diagnosed with cancer and survived the disease. During her junior year of high school, tired of being bullied due to the color of her skin — she’s a mix of Moroccan and Israeli descent and stuck out on the mostly white campus — she dropped out of school to pursue her love of singing. While living in the Bay Area, she auditioned for “American Idol” twice, at 16 and 20, but both times failed to advance beyond the first audition. Four years ago, she moved to Los Angeles and performed at open-mics and bars in Ventura County and West Hollywood, often playing in a cover band, before auditioning for “The Voice.”

Benabou talks to The Jewish Journal about how she went from teaching Hebrew school to performing in front of millions of people on national television, why participating in “The Voice” is worthwhile even though it can be painful, her teen challenges and what to expect from her first album, tentatively titled “Ride the Wave,” a collection of six songs she plans to release digitally and without a record label in July.

Jewish Journal: Describe your connection with Israel.
Monique Benabou: I feel better when I’m in Israel. Something about the land, the air, the culture, the way of life, it hits so much closer to home, it just makes me feel that’s where I’m supposed to be. I have family in Tel Aviv, in Herzliya, in Jerusalem, in Sderot.

JJ: In Sderot? Where the Katusha rockets are falling from Gaza?
MB: That’s where most of my family is, actually. Luckily, thankfully, no one in my family has died from the bombs there. The bombings, it’s scary. It’s definitely like when we hear something on the news we’re holding our breath and calling everyone and making sure we’re all accounted for. It’s so nerve-wracking, and all we can do is pray and go about our lives and not live our lives in fear because of the unfortunate circumstances that are there.

JJ: How much family do you have in Sderot?
MB: A couple hundred [relatives]. We’re Israelis; we procreate. I have cousins, two aunts and uncles that live there, and they each have about 13 children, and their children have children at this point.

JJ: Tell us about your upcoming album.
MB: I’m very, very excited. I want it to be such a well-rounded album that is commercially viable, that sells some records but still maintains the artistry of songwriting and my vocal ability. 

JJ: We hear so much about the hopeless state of the music industry today. How do you find encouragement in the face of that?
MB: It is a cutthroat business. There are so many ‘nos’ you have to get through. Even when you do get your break, there’s still ‘nos’ ahead. You have to keep working hard.

JJ: Does a show like ‘The Voice’ help or hurt an artist’s chances of succeeding in the industry?
MB: ‘The Voice’ is a great opportunity on many levels. You learn so much, but you also emotionally go through this up-and-down roller coaster. Sometimes you’re left pretty empty and pretty drained and not knowing where to pick up the pieces from. That’s personally how I felt afterward. But there are always two sides. ‘The Voice’ definitely gave me the most realistic glimpse of what the industry is like.

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JJ: What are your goals outside of music?
MB: Are you familiar with the term tikkun olam? That is my No. 1 thing that I promote, and it’s very important to me. I’m really supportive of the anti-bullying foundations that are starting to come up. I want to help our youth understand that bullying is not OK and it’s not cool.

JJ: Has bullying personally affected you?
MB: I grew up in a predominantly suburban area, and I was a poor kid out of all the rich kids. The school I went to was predominantly white and Asian. From being beat up every day, from not being able to keep friends because they would get made fun of if they befriended me, I had a conversation with myself one day and said, ‘I want to sing, no matter what; this is what I want to do.’ I dropped out my junior year, took my GED, and I enrolled in a junior college.

JJ: So, that was the moment when you decided that a music career is what you wanted out of life?
MB: I’ve always kind of known. Since I was 3, that’s all I did was sing.

JJ: What motivated you to audition for ‘The Voice’?
MB: It took my cousin pushing me. I thought about auditioning prior to my cousin telling me to do so, but there was that phobia of dealing with the rejection. I didn’t want to do it — because I had such a bad experience on ‘Idol,’ I thought ‘The Voice’ was going to be the same thing, but it wasn’t. It was actually quite the opposite.

JJ: What was it like working with Aguilera?
MB: Going onto Christina’s team, it was an amazing experience working with her. She is so filled with knowledge, and she knows herself, she knows the stage and that specifically is [what she worked on] with me, on my confidence and stage presence and stage performance. I’m very excited for the Israel Festival, because I get to showcase everything I learned from Christina.

JJ: What was your thought process the day of your elimination, before and after you were eliminated?
MB: I was convincing myself that I was going to win, even though I knew I was going home.

JJ: How did you know?
MB: Because I didn’t see from a business standpoint, from a television standpoint, and from a marketing and record level standpoint, I did not see [Chris Mann] leaving. He’s very talented, and he’s one-of-a-kind on the show.

I said, ‘F it, I’m going out there to perform for myself, for my family, to make myself proud and give the performance of my life, because, at the end of the day, this will be televised.’ I felt like I took it, but that’s not how the cookie crumbled, and I’m grateful for the experience.

JJ: The bio segment of the show revealed that your mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when you were 12 years old, and that you took care of her. What was it like to have that exposed to the world?
MB: For all that to come out was a little unnerving, but I am a pretty open book.

JJ: Were you able to have a bat mitzvah at the age of 12, or was life too crazy at the time, given your mom’s sickness?
MB: I did not have a bat mitzvah. My parents are Sephardic, and how they grew up is that the boys are getting bar mitzvahs and the girls not really.

JJ: How do you go about writing songs?
MB: Lyrically, I’m writing the songs, and then I have co-writers who accompany me either on piano or guitar and put a supporting instrumental or melody behind it or help me create that vocal melody behind it. I cannot read music — I’ve learned what I’ve learned from working with musicians. Thank God I have a natural ear and good music intuition.

JJ: Where do you record your music?
MB: Right down from Simi Valley, there’s a home studio where I had an internship for the last three years. It’s called Rock City Studios, and it’s in Camarillo. The man who owns it, Dan Peyton, has also been my mentor for the last three years. He took me under his wing, taught me about songwriting and the industry, helped me find my voice. I went from laying vocals down over beats to working with live musicians. It was a completely different feel, and I loved it.

JJ: Without the support of a record label, how are you financing the creation of the album?
MB: My parents are helping me out a great deal, and Dan doesn’t charge me for recording as of right now. I’m also in the process of working on a promo and putting it on [crowd-funding site] Kickstarter. Hopefully anyone who believes in the project will be able to help us out and help us raise money to put out a great album.

JJ: What can we expect from your upcoming performance at the Israel Festival?
MB: Put smiles on faces and further my place in the Jewish community.

Benabou performs on Sunday, April 29, at the Celebrate Israel Festival, which commemorates Israel’s 64th Independence Day. For additional information and to purchase tickets, visit

Harel Skaat, an Israeli pop “Idol” comes to the Ford Amphitheatre

One way to describe Israeli pop star Harel Skaat to American pop aficionados is to call him the Israeli “Clay Aiken”—a comparison Skaat might not like, considering he shies away from comparisons lest they smear his individuality.

But like the 2003 “American Idol” runner-up, Aiken, Skaat reached the finale of the second season of his national singing contest, “Kochav Nolad,” only to emerge more famous than the winner.  To be fair, Skaat has probably enjoyed more radio hits in his home country, and he’s way more handsome than Aiken; yet their lean frames, thick, spiky hair and happy go-lucky styles have made both teenage heartthrobs. They may have broken their share of ‘tween hearts when they made headlines announcing they were gay.

Six years after winning “Kochav Nolad” in 2004, Skaat felt it was time to come out. He had developed a fan base that appreciated him first and foremost as an artist.

“I was not ashamed of anything and really proud of myself and my choices, and I was proud of how God created me, so it wasn’t difficult, but to expose yourself is always kind of annoying,” Skaat said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv, speaking in English, a skill he’s fine-tuning for an upcoming English album.  “I don’t think it changed anything; actually, the opposite. I feel when I go out on the streets people respect me for sharing my life with them, and the fact that they heard me talking about myself like a human being and not a singer or a celebrity, it really affected them.”

He also says Israel has a relatively open attitude to gay entertainers. Pop rock singer-songwriter, Ivri Lider, is another example who enjoys wide commercial success in Israel.

“It’s crazy because Israel’s supposed to be more traditional, and it’s not like that in the real world,” Skaat said. “I’m very happy for that because people are very open-minded here, maybe not all the people in Israel, but most of them, and I see that now.”

His main goal as an artist is to touch people through his soulful pop, no matter if songs are sung in Hebrew, Spanish, or English or if love ballads are directed to men or women. The power of music comes through its emotive storytelling.

“Everyone understands the worldwide language,” he said. “I think I have the opportunity to sing in other languages, even in Hebrew, and touch people by it, even if they don’t understand a word.”

That’s what he felt he proudly accomplished when he took 14th place for Israel and a slew of awards at the 2010 Eurovision Singing Contest. It’s what he plans to do at the Ford Amphitheatre on Aug. 28, when he performs alongside Macy Gray, R&B singer Abraham McDonald, and rapper MC Lyte at Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble’s “Rhythm & Roots” multi-cultural extravaganza benefiting Children Uniting Nations, which also features Los Angeles’ African American Lula Washington Dance Theater and multi-ethnic, interfaith Agape International Choir.

Skaat grew-up in a traditional Jewish Yemenite and Iraqi home in Kfar Saba. He recalls sitting on his cantor grandfather’s lap in synagogue listening to him wail the Hebrew hymns.

“It was a vocal lesson for me,” Skaat said. “I learned how to pronounce the words right, and one of the most important things in music is to pronounce the words right.”

Skaat’s voice has a spiritual quality—it’s smooth and clear, with an angelic yearning and guttural power characteristic among singers of Yemenite origin (Ofra Haza, for one).  His first eponymous album went platinum, while his second, Dmuyot (Figures), took gold (20,000 copies sold in Israel). When pressed for his musical inspirations, he lists Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, James Blunt, Justin Timberlake, and Beyonce.

“You can see I really admire singers.”

Lately, Skaat has moved beyond the stage and studio to activism. Several months ago, he penned an article in Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot, urging Israelis to take to the streets and protest social injustices they experience.  With such protests now sweeping Israel, he likes to think his words were prophetic.

“I think we are making history now in Israel because we finally went out of our living rooms and out of our conversations with friends about living in Israel and life in Israel and the financial issues, and we went out to the streets.”

He recently performed at a protest rally in Jerusalem, feeling one with the average Israeli, and while he uses his influence as a well-known figure to promote causes that are important to him, he thinks that, ultimately, Israeli pop stars aren’t “idols,” but one of the people.

“People in Israel are the same. You don’t have stars you can’t touch.”

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For more information on the Aug. 28 concert, visit