Noa’s arc, fromBronx toSouthBank

Is­rael’s most fa­mous singer is back with a new album and a rare Lon­don con­cert. She talks to Nick John­stone

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

SEV­EN­TEEN YEARS i nto her c a r e e r a s I s r a e l ’ s best­known mu­si­cal ex­port, Achi­noam Nini (aka Noa) is show­ing no signs of slow­ing down. To date, she has sung for the Pope at the Vat­i­can, for Pres­i­dent Clin­ton at the White House, toured with Sting, wit­nessed first­hand the as­sas­si­na­tion of Yitzhak Rabin, and re­leased roughly a dozen al­bums, all fea­tur­ing her trade­mark Joni-Mitchell-in-Tel-Aviv song­writ­ing style. And now comes her latest of­fer­ing, Genes and Jeans.

“The ti­tle la­bels it very clearly,” ex­plains the 38-year-old, speak­ing from New York where she is in the mid­dle of a world tour. “It’s about fam­ily, my fam­ily his­tory and want­ing to re­vive the Ye­menite songs I heard my grand­mother sing when I was a child and give them a con­tem­po­rary sound.”

The songs, sung in English, He­brew and Ye­menite Ara­bic, fea­ture tra­di­tional Ye­menite mu­sic fil­tered through Noa’s jazzy, soul­ful sound. High­lights in­clude the prayer, Lecha Dodi, an English-lan­guage re­write of the Ye­menite wed­ding song, Heart and Head, and the ghostly Ayelet Chen (In­tro), on which Noa’s voice is sim­ply beau­ti­ful. “It’s my best album,” she says. “In this day and age, there’s so much mu­sic out there that’s very low. It’s com­mer­cially ori­ented, very fash­ion­able, very fad-ori­ented. I don’t make mu­sic that tries to please any­body. I only try to please my good in­stinct and artis­tic sen­si­bil­i­ties.”

Noa is not the first to take tra­di­tional Ye­menite mu­sic to a con­tem­po­rary Is­raeli pop/rock set­ting. Shoshana Da­mari and Ofra Haza, each in dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions, made a suc­cess of such a fu­sion. But Genes and Jeans is not con­cerned with a broader mu­si­cal con­text — it is an en­tirely per­sonal album. Noa recorded the songs at her new home stu­dio near Tel Aviv. Her mother helped source tra­di­tional Ye­menite-Jewish mu­sic from Is­raeli archives. Her pe­di­a­tri­cian hus­band, Asher Barak, sev­enyear-old son Ayehli and four-year-old daugh­ter Enea helped choose the songs that made the fi­nal cut. In all re­spects, it is an album cre­ated by fam­ily, about fam­ily. “It’s about where you come from,” Noa adds. “It’s about my fam­ily’s jour­ney from Ye­men to Is­rael to the United States, then back to Is­rael.”

Achi­noam Nini was born on June 2 1969 in Pe­tah Tivkah, just out­side Tel Aviv. Her grand­par­ents left Ye­men for Pales­tine in 1908. When Noa was one, her fa­ther won a schol­ar­ship to study chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing in New York. The fam­ily lived in the Bronx. Age three, Noa made her per­form­ing de­but at home, singing into a car­rot. By five, she was com­pos­ing songs about the cock­roaches in­fest­ing the Ni­nis’ home. They spoke He­brew at home, English out­side.

“My fam­ily was not re­li­gious but tra­di­tional. Though I got a very re­li­gious Jewish ed­u­ca­tion in the United States in mod­ern Ortho­dox yeshiv­ahs,” she says.

When she was 17, she moved back to Is­rael, and went through army ser­vice as part of a singing group. Then, aged 19, she stud­ied at Ri­mon School of Con­tem­po­rary Mu­sic in Tel Aviv, un­der jazz gui­tarist Gil Dor. In­flu­enced by Joni Mitchell, Ca­role King and Leonard Co­hen, Noa was ea­ger for Dor to teach her to play jazz. The pair be­gan col­lab­o­rat­ing and in 1991, re­leased the album, Achi­noam Nini And Gil Dor Live. Twoyears later came Achi­noam Nini And Gil Dor, an album un­der­pinned by Noa’s dis­cov­ery of Leah Gold­berg’s po­etry. A hit in Is­rael, it led to a deal with Gef­fen records. Her in­ter­na­tional de­but, Noa, pro­duced by jazz leg­end Pat Metheny, put her ca­reer on the global jazz/pop/rock map.

Then, on Novem­ber 4 1995, Noa per­formed at the rally in Tel Aviv in sup­port of Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin’s peace ini­tia­tive. Five min­utes af­ter her per­for­mance, Rabin was gunned down right be­fore her eyes. A long out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate of peace with the Pales­tini­ans, she vowed to con­tinue Rabin’s cam­paign. “I con­tinue to carry the torch, you might say. And I do it proudly.”

She had be­come used to field­ing po­lit­i­cal ques­tions, the world over. “I’ve cho­sen not to shy away from that,” she says. “I feel very priv­i­leged to be able to show peo­ple a more pos­i­tive side of Is­rael, a more bal­anced side than what they get on CNN or BBC.”

Al­though pol­i­tics will al­ways pre­oc­cu­py­her,the­cen­tre­ofher­lifethese­days is fam­ily, rais­ing her chil­dren. Does she con­tinue the Jewish tra­di­tions of her own child­hood home? “Since I moved to Is­rael, I’ve be­come even less re­li­gious in the for­mal sense of the word. But I’m very spir­i­tual. I raise my chil­dren with a lot of val­ues. For me Ju­daism is sum­marised in that one sen­tence: Love your brother as you love your­self. I teach my chil­dren com­pas­sion, kind­ness, open­mind­ed­ness, open­heart­ed­ness. The rest is just tech­ni­cal­i­ties.”

How does she view her body of mu­sic to date? “My ca­reer has al­ways been led by the high­est level of in­tegrity. I want just good mu­sic to be out there when I’m gone. That’s all that mat­ters to me.”

And what of fu­ture goals? “When­ever I’m asked what my great­est dream is, I say I want to be present and singing at the sign­ing of a peace agree­ment be­tween Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis.” Noa per­forms, along with fel­low Is­raelis The Idan Raichel Project, at the Semit­ica evening at the Queen El­iz­a­beth Hall, Lon­don SE1, on May 26. Tel: 0871 663 2500


Noa per­form­ing in Switzer­land as part of her world tour. She is due to sing on the South Bank next week

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