Israel’s most famous singer is back with a new album and a rare London concert.
Seventeen years into her career as Israel’s best- known 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 first-hand 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, seven-year-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. Two years 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 preoccupy her, the centre of her life these days 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