It’s a sad fact of life that, for every soldier killed in a war, several more return home wounded. Many of these injured soldiers face a difficult transition back into civilian life—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), lingering injuries and the tough adjustment from the regimented reality of the military to civilian life often leaves soldiers feeling lost and adrift.
When Raz Hagag was discharged from the Israeli army, he never expected that a career in music would be what would provide him and some of his fellow wounded warriors with an outlet for healing, but that is the genesis of 9 Lives, a band built around helping raise awareness about the struggles of ex-soldiers.
Like most young Israelis, Hagag joined the Israeli military as a teenager. He was assigned to be a medic for an elite unit, and he served with honor, but when his service was over, he found himself suffering from PTSD. Hagag sought help and was soon connected with other wounded vets through the organization Hope for Heroism, a group run by and for Israeli soldiers to help those wounded in the course of their service. Hagag found the company of the other soldiers comforting, but his healing was taken to the next level by a campfire.
“We were sitting around a bonfire, and somebody said, ‘Let’s play some music,’ ” Hagag said. So he took a guitar and began to play some songs he’d written. They went over well, and someone suggested he start a band. Soon, other soldiers were volunteering to join. “Guys would tell me, ‘Hey, I can play guitar, I can play drums, I can play bass,’ ” Hagag said. With that, a band was formed.
Hagag and his bandmates began crafting a sound for their group, and it quickly became apparent that their music was going to be as much about their personal stories as their influences. “It’s a real fusion,” Hagag said. “I grew up on metal, another one of the guys grew up on reggae, and some of us listened to Middle Eastern stuff.” Each member of the group brings his own experiences to their concerts, a fact that Hagag finds very important.
9 Lives’ music feels like an American jam band tinged with a Middle Eastern flavor. The band tends to be playful on stage, its members looking to each other and improvising over the constant, mellow groove of bass and percussion. When they sing, they often sing together, harmonizing and adding more layers to their sound. You can feel their enjoyment.
For Hagag and the other band members, it isn’t just about playing music, it’s about healing. “When you’re on stage, playing, you’re not thinking,” he said. “You’re in the music.” For many of the band members, it’s a chance to escape and to feel part of something greater. “When you’re in the band, you have a role.” In that sense, being in the band reminds him of the best part about being in the army — the camaraderie and the chance to be on a team.
Los Angeles resident Josh Donfeld first heard about Hagag and the other soldiers through friends, who encouraged him to attend an event in Los Angeles at which the ex-soldiers had been invited to appear. After that, he traveled to Seattle to see them again. For an American Jew like Donfeld, the chance to connect with Israeli soldiers who’ve put their lives on the line for the Jewish homeland was a special experience.
“Here, I am, the same age as these guys, and I’m here working at a hedge fund,” Donfeld said.
He spent some time with the soldiers and ended up becoming friends with a couple of the members of 9 Lives whose stories touched him. So when one of the band members asked him to come see them perform in London, Donfeld jumped at the chance.
During Thanksgiving weekend, Donfeld made a 36-hour turnaround trip to London to see the band perform and was not disappointed. “The Jewish community in London really came out to support them — there were 300 people there,” Donfeld said. He was so moved by the concert that he knew he had to bring 9 Lives back to Los Angeles.
Donfeld began contacting friends and acquaintances to make arrangements to get 9 Lives to the United States. His sister set up a mini-concert at Milken Community High School for the band, and another friend managed to get the Viper Room donated free of charge for a full concert, which will be held May 30 at 8 p.m.
Others were eager to help as well when they heard the story of the formation of the band and its mission to bring attention to the needs of injured veterans. When Yoni Saban heard about the band, he went to work contacting everyone he could to get publicity and help sell tickets. It’s been a real group effort.
As for 9 Lives, Hagag is optimistic about the group’s future. A documentary about the band is currently under way, and they plan to record their first album when they return to Israel after their shows in Los Angeles. Hagag said that 9 Lives’ music “is not just for Israelis; the stories are universal.” He also joked that it was his girlfriend who “came up with the name 9 Lives, because all of us in the band are on a different number,” he said, noting that some of the members of the band have had brushes with death. Nevertheless, for its band members, 9 Lives is not about reliving close calls, it’s about celebrating second chances, and healing, and the power of music to change lives.
9 Lives will perform at the Viper Room, 8852 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, on May 30 at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7:30 p.m.). Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door, and can be purchased through ticketweb.com. All proceeds from the event will benefit Hope for Heroism (hopeforheroism.org).