Achinoam Nini, the Israeli singer-songwriter known to all simply as Noa, will perform on June 18 at American Jewish University as part of the new Geller Festival of the Arts. Born in Tel Aviv in 1969, Noa moved to New York as a child and lived there with her family until she returned to Israel at 16. After her military service as part of an entertainment unit, Noa went on to Israel’s Rimon music school, where she met Gil Dor, now her longtime songwriting partner and musical accomplice; the 23-year collaborators will perform together in Los Angeles. Based in Israel, but a truly international artist, she performs in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Hindi, Arabic, Hebrew and the language of the Yemenite Jews, the last being her own heritage. Noa is also an outspoken peace activist and has performed (and spoken) at the Davos World Economic Forum, sung for Pope John Paul II, performed at LIVE 8 and was in the finals of the 2009 Eurovision contest performing with Israeli-Arab singer Mira Awad. She spoke by phone from her home in Israel, and the following is an edited version of the conversation:
Tom Teicholz: Will you be doing material from your most recent album, “The Israeli Songbook,” in your performance here?
Noa: First, a little background: I am a singer-songwriter, and most of my career has been based on original material in English and Hebrew. I grew up in the United States, so English is my first language. I write mostly in English, but I also write music to Hebrew poetry. … [However], two years ago, I did an album that pays homage to classic Hebrew songs that I called “The Israeli Songbook.”
TT: How would you describe these songs?
Noa: They’re songs that have had a great impact on the Israeli psyche and Israeli culture. What is beautiful about them is that they were written by mostly Western or Eastern European composers that came in the early waves of Zionism to then-Palestine. … They encountered the Eastern culture that existed here, the Arabic music and then the waves of [immigration], including the Yemenite immigrants, which my family were part of. And this East-West encounter gave birth to many beautiful songs that really reflected the emerging State of Israel and its state of mind.
Musically, the compositions are really beautiful, and the lyrics are the highest form of Hebrew poetry that exists. In that period, the Hebrew language was experiencing a renaissance. It was going from being a strictly biblical language to becoming a contemporary, vibrant, growing language. And these poets and composers were really exploring the depths of this beautiful language.
TT: But given that you were raised in the United States, were these songs you grew up with?
Noa: Actually, I did, because my parents are both Israelis, Yemenites. … I grew up with quite a mix of cultures, because not only did I have a very Israeli home, but I had my Yemenite grandmother who lived with us, and she raised us. … I grew up with these songs and Yemenite music. I also heard American music. The music of the ’60s, which was the music that I loved the most, even though I was born after it. I would have loved to live in that period and have worked in that period. … Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell were all a great influence on me. [Nonetheless,] this is the first time in my career that I decided to perform these songs. I really wanted to raise them on a pedestal and so we decided to collaborate with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. … We called it “The Israeli Songbook,” after the “Gershwin Songbook,” which Ella Fitzgerald did with Nelson Riddle and all these great arrangers. We’ve arranged it for quartets for this show, and it will be a featured part of this program. There will also be other [songs].
TT: Did you hesitate before recording these songs, which so many Israeli artists, such as Arik Einstein, have made famous?
Noa: Yes, there was one song, for example, that we did have a lot of hesitation, called “Hayu Leilot” (There Were Nights) which everyone in Israel knows. … We took another poem by Arhel, another very well-known poet of the time, put it to music and then wove the new song into the old song. We also took two very well-known children’s songs, put them together and created a classic operatic aria. One of the highlights of the show [is] a medley of songs that were written about the Yemenite emigration that is very vibrant and rhythmic with percussion. We did all kinds of things to give these songs a new life.
TT: Why these songs now? My theory is that with Israel’s 65th birthday, and all the societal changes that have been occurring in Israel, the time is right to remind Israeli society of songs that united them.
Noa: Yes — you can say that. Here we have the opportunity to shed light on a lesser-known corner of Israeli culture and diversity and beauty and depth. I’ve been performing [these songs] all over the world, and people are very intrigued by and fall in love with them.
TT: Having been a vocal peace activist in Israel and abroad, can you talk a bit about why you feel it is important to speak out as you do, and also why, as you’ve said elsewhere, you believe artists, even those who oppose the Israeli government, should perform in Israel rather than boycott it.
Noa: Israeli artists who perform abroad invariably carry a message of peace and of culture, and arts, above all. There are so many people in our country who believe in peace. Not everybody, maybe, but enough — not only in our country, but on the other side of the border. It’s the responsibility of every human being who wants to live in peace to work for it. You can’t expect people to do the work for you. … I’m a singer, so I sing for peace. I think whoever can do something, should.
As for artists boycotting Israel, I am absolutely against that. [Israel] is a pluralistic place, a diverse place.
As for artists boycotting Israel, I am absolutely against that. [Israel] is a pluralistic place, a diverse place. Turning your back on Israel and not playing here plays directly into the hands of the extremists, [because] people say, “You see, everybody hates us, nobody wants to come here. Let’s be more defensive. Let’s build more walls. Let’s be more protective of what we have.” Rather than [being] more embracing, more open to the international community and to international humanistic values. Not coming here is making the situation much, much worse. That’s one. Second, if you do have the balls to come here as an artist, then come and say what you think. Visit this country, then go to the Palestinians and visit them and see for yourself what’s going on. If you believe in peace, say it. Say it! And practice what you preach.
For tickets and more information, please visit: http://wcce.aju.edu.
A version of this article appeared in print.