A Jewish reggae group made it to number 14 on Billboard’s chart for the genre earlier this year. That’s no small accomplishment but that’s what Lior Ben-Hur achieved with his debut album, “So I Wander.”
Ben-Hur, 34, and his nine-piece band, Sol Tevél, will play May 26 at the Independent in San Francisco. Tevél is biblical Hebrew for universe or world, and the record features Modeh Ani — a Hebrew prayer — as well as other Hebrew songs, along with more traditional reggae-sounding music (sans much of the cannabis references found in the likes of reggae icon Bob Marley’s songs).
Born in Jerusalem, Ben-Hur grew up in Israel and served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces. “I came to San Francisco to let that go, to leave it in the past,” he said. He moved to the city in 2004. “I was traveling the world and I needed a break from Israel, and I had a friend here,” he explained. “Before I got here, I didn’t know anything about San Francisco, but when I arrived I felt some kind of vibe here.”
Living here eventually led him to reggae. “I would see all the new music here that you don’t really get exposed to in Israel,” he said. “The Latin scene, which is really huge here, the Caribbean — like reggae and all that stuff, which I really loved immediately.”
Ben-Hur attended San Francisco State University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree with an emphasis in world music. “When I started studying, I got my first job teaching music at [S.F. Congregation] Sherith Israel,” he said. “That was my first exposure to the Jewish music scene, which is a whole different scene, you know, with different songs and repertoire.”
While at SFSU he and a several classmates formed Sol Tevél.
Amid all the varieties of new music Ben-Hur was exposed to, reggae set itself apart. “I was pretty much hooked when I heard it, there was something in the vibe,” he said. “I got really interested and started reading about it. And in 2009 I took a trip to Jamaica, which was for me, kind of like the exploration of, you could say, identity.”
Identity is a key concept for Ben-Hur, as is authenticity. As a Jew from Israel, he was curious how Rastafarianism — a religious movement among black Jamaicans — squared with that identity.
“I was really interested in this connection between reggae and Judaism,” he said, “because a lot of the themes, the text, the words — the references come from the Old Testament. I was interested to learn it firsthand.”
After his month-long trip to Jamaica, Ben-Hur concluded he was not a Rasta. But that didn’t mean reggae music was out of the picture.
“I’m trying to do a new twist on reggae,” he said. His music is “a little more Middle Eastern, it’s a little more Hebrew, a little more world music.”
The album — from its packaging, all the way down to the venue of the release party at the Independent — represents the culmination of years of work. The recording itself includes contributions from reggae luminaries such as Marcus Urani, a member of Groundation, a popular reggae act that has been active since 1998. Urani produced “So I Wander.”
“In the entertainment industry it’s very easy to just look outside of who you are,” Ben-Hur said. “What I try to do with this record — I try to be who I am. I’m not Jamaican but I love reggae, I have my connection.”
Still, his roots are in Jerusalem, in Israel, he said, and Ben-Hur tries to bring his roots into his music. How so? “One example is the Hebrew. Hebrew is not popular — what’s the deal with singing Hebrew? It’s because this is who I am.
“I’m Jewish, that’s who I am. But I love reggae.”