Innerviews, music without borders

Universal Insights
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2004 Anil Prasad.


Building musical bridges that connect cultures and people is something that comes naturally to singer-songwriter Noa. She was born in Israel, raised in the Bronx, New York, and returned to her homeland at age 17. Her music and lyrics often reflect the transitional experiences and thoughts that accompanied those geographical shifts.

Known by her full name Achinoam Nini in Israel, where she’s the country’s leading international concert and recording artist, Noa has developed an enormous and devoted worldwide following. Propelled by her rich, soaring vocals, Noa’s infectious music straddles pop, rock, folk, and Middle Eastern influences. Although she’s best known for her English albums, she also releases Hebrew records for the Israeli market. In addition, she’s sung and recorded in several other languages including French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

Much of Noa’s music has been created in collaboration with Gil Dor, a renowned Israeli guitarist, arranger and producer. Dor discovered Noa while teaching at Tel Aviv’s Rimon School of Contemporary Music, where she was a student. Prior to his tenure at Rimon, Dor studied at Boston’s Berklee School of Music where he befriended jazz icon Pat Metheny, who taught there in the '70s. When Metheny performed in Israel in 1987, he presented a master class at Rimon, further solidifying the relationship between the two guitarists. Dor soon introduced Noa and her music to Metheny, who responded enthusiastically. During a subsequent visit to New York, Noa played her latest songs for Metheny. Suitably impressed and determined to get Noa’s international career rolling, Metheny chose to co-produce and finance her 1994 self-titled debut album. The disc went on to create major waves across the world and she was well on her way to stardom.

The following year, another pivotal moment took place in Noa’s life. On November 4, 1995, she sang at a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Kings Square. Minutes after Noa finished her performance, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took the stage to speak and was assassinated by a member of a right-wing extremist group. The event spurred Noa to political action in which she used her considerable influence to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. She also incorporated her perspectives into 1996’s Calling, a lyrically and musically intense album that stands as a career highlight. The records that followed, including 2000’s Blue Touches Blue and 2002’s Now, also feature songs that promote a united vision of humanity.

Noa’s activism has garnered great respect and admiration, but her actions have had detractors as well who believe entertainers should simply entertain. Fortunately, those voices are in the minority. The United Nations was so pleased with her humanitarian contributions that in 2003 it appointed her an ambassador of its Food and Agriculture Organization which is dedicated to alleviating poverty and hunger. The late Pope John Paul II also considered Noa a kindred spirit and often asked her to perform at his galas. This conversation took place just a few days after she returned to her home near Tel Aviv following a Christmas concert at the Vatican.


What does it mean for you to be asked to sing for the Pope?

I’ve performed for the Pope many times. My first performance was in 1995 when I did a big concert in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. It was a non-religious event celebrating the idea of family within humanity. There were a few other artists there and a children’s choir, and it was attended by Mother Teresa. I sang “Ave Maria” from my first English album Noa which has original lyrics I wrote and an arrangement by Gil Dor. It’s like a song version of the classical piece. It made a huge amount of waves and catapulted me to superstar status in Italy. Basically, anything to do with the Pope there makes people freak out. So “Ave Maria” ended up becoming one of my most well-known songs. Since that show, I’ve been invited to the Vatican endless times and I haven’t been able to accept all the invitations because then I’d become the Vatican house singer. [laughs] But I’ve done a few very interesting performances, including a very big show in 2000 attended by 300,000 people called “The Great Jubilee Concert for a Debt-Free World” with a symphony orchestra and the Pope onstage.

Although I’m Jewish, I do these shows because I’m very much in favor of the opinions Pope John Paul II has expressed concerning the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. He believes in reconciliation and has established representation for Israel within the Vatican, which is very interesting. I genuinely respect him. His influence over so many millions of people in the world is staggering. I really do believe an important way to make progress in solving our human dilemmas and planetary crises is to get more religious leaders involved who make very clear statements against war and violence in the name of God, and this man is doing that in an outspoken way. I felt it was my conscious duty to support him and that’s what I do.

What role can music play in healing the complex rifts of the world?

I think music has one great quality in that it enables us to take a step outside of the system and look at everything from above. It allows us to leap out of the loop we’re in. It’s a great thing because it appeals to our most basic instincts including love, happiness, sadness, the joy of life, the fear of death, the heartbeat, and heartbreak. These are things that are absolutely universal and unite every human being on the face of the planet. Music totally breaks barriers. When you listen to music, you dance, you cry and your soul goes flying out of your body. It happens regardless of where you come from or what language you speak. It’s a very beautiful thing.

Having said that, it’s absolutely impossible for artists to make a difference alone. Artists can be the harbingers of an idea or emotion, but they definitely need the assistance of other factors within the political, social and diplomatic realms. Everybody needs to pitch in, including regular citizens who believe they can make no difference because they’re nobodies. If people don’t go out and vote or speak out and stop putting up with things they know are destructive for themselves, their families and society, nothing will happen. That’s how I look at it. I’ve been given the talent, charisma and ability to influence people and I use that shamelessly for causes I believe in. I feel it’s my duty. That’s what my heart tells me. By the same token, if I was a bus driver, I would contribute just by being nice to the people who come on my bus and helping little old ladies who get on. I think it’s like a pebble thrown into water that makes little circles, then bigger and bigger circles. Finally, all the circles meet up and become waves. So every little pebble makes a difference. I’m a pebble and I’m making my little circles and hoping they meet other circles. But others have to make circles too, otherwise I’m just going to drop to the bottom of the lake and that will be it.

How does spirituality inform what you do as a musician?

I’m not religious. I’m not an observant Jew and I don’t subscribe to any religion in a fanatical or totalitarian manner. I have a problem with uniform-wearing people, religious or otherwise. In an ideal world, I’d like to see people finding their own way through spirituality and not necessarily going with the uniforms and dogmas. My spirituality consists of the belief that love is the number one most important emotion of our existence. If you do everything from a place of love, kindness, compassion, and open-mindedness, then there is a chance for humanity. So, in my music I include those positive messages and try to live my life that way. It’s why I fight for the causes I fight for, write the lyrics I write, and say the things I say.

How have you evolved as a singer and songwriter since your career began?

I have a song on the album Now called “We.” I remember playing it for a friend of mine named Walter Veltroni who is the mayor of Rome. He showed me a book he compiled called Me We. He said it was something Muhammad Ali once said. “Me” and “we” are mirror images. If you put “me” on a mirror, “we” comes out. I think that summarizes where I’ve gone as a songwriter. I’ve gone from me to we and from we to me. I’m always dealing with the place between those two words. They’re so close to each other, yet so far. When I was very young, I would write very truthfully about myself and my personal experiences. As I grew older, I opened my heart and mind to a lot of different pictures that weren’t necessarily taken from my own life, but from everything I see around me. I think my songwriting has become more and more universal as time goes by. I’ve become more interested in the human condition, not just my own personal condition as I was when I was 17. Beyond that, I’ve also deepened my collaboration with Gil Dor. Originally, I wrote all by myself and today we basically write together. It’s a hard thing for a songwriter to give up part of yourself and let go of your ego to truly let somebody into your secret place where the inner workings of the heart and the creative process reside. But Gil and I have been working together for 15 years and we’ve truly become songwriting partners, and that’s a wonderful thing.

I’ve also become a much better singer than I used to be. I feel like I’m just now getting really good. I was born with this voice, but I’m only now discovering its depth and breadth. Also, as time passes, you become more mature and see more and everything reflects in your voice. There are things a voice teacher can teach you, but what’s important is what life teaches you. Voice teachers taught me how to breathe and how to deal with all kinds of glitches, but what’s really taught me to sing is just living, and in particular, having my children. Having my children in recent years has made me a human being. Before that, I was an ambitious young lady with some talent and intelligence and that was about it. Being a mother is truly living. I really feel alive as a mother—much more so than I’ve ever felt before.


How does being a mother influence your music?

It influences my singing and songwriting endlessly. It’s influenced the way I perceive life. Everything has become more acute with my children. I see daily life through them and next to them. Dealing with the problems of motherhood is so incredibly challenging. I learn more and more about myself every day. Something is always becoming settled and unsettled. And some very old stuff that I’ve hidden under layers and layers of protection comes out every day. I’ll pull out another emotion, experience or image from my soul and put it out there, give it some air and hang it out to dry. I’m totally cleansing myself on the inside through my experience of motherhood. You just get rid of a lot of bullshit when you become a parent. You get rid of a lot of silly obsessions and stop wasting time on totally idiotic things. You get to the heart of matters a lot more—at least I do.

Like a lot of things, when you stop trying to do things, you do them a lot better. This is the sad thing about the music business as I see it. What’s left of the record companies is trying to sign young artists as young as they can get them for obvious reasons. Then the moment something is not as successful as it was a minute ago, they’re thrown out on the street. These very young, ambitious people are put up on pedestals and propped up to be whatever, but aren’t given the opportunity to mature within the element of music. They end up missing so much. I think before the age of 30 you don’t even know what you’re talking about at all. You’re doing stuff, but then you hit 30 and you suddenly dive into totally different depths. It’s a totally different league of getting into life, emotion and putting your heart out there in the most beautiful way. That was the case for me. I feel so fortunate to be doing what I’m doing at my age. It’s a shame that in a lot of world music, you’ll see artists of all ages, but you won’t in the popular music culture of almost any country.

Your 2002 album Now had a very declarative title. Provide some insight into its meaning.

“Now” is a simple declaration and maybe a title every album could have. “Now” is what an album is. An album is who you are at a given time if you’re an artist who thinks that way. I think most creative artists and singer-songwriters consider who they are at a certain point in time in their lives and take a Polaroid and put it out as a CD. I think Now is our best album by far. Musically, the production is gorgeous. It’s the first album Gil produced himself. The songs represent all the knowledge and experience we’ve accumulated. To elaborate on the title, it was made after the birth of my son, Ayehli. Children connect you 100 percent to the present, given moment. For children, it’s always “What now?” That’s because for children, there is no past and there is no future. There’s no past because they haven’t managed to gather one yet. There’s no future because they’re not built to see things that way. They just deal with the here and now from the moment they get up to when they go to sleep. It forces you to do the same. If you’re walking down the street, you stop because they want to see the ant going into its hole or it’s “Let’s now be miserable because I want an M&M.” These are the kinds of things we lose touch with when we get older. So for me, the focus is on the here and now and I feel that very strongly as a mother.

Tell me about your experiences dealing with the American music industry.

I’ve been exposed to the pop music side of things in Los Angeles where my record company resides and I’ve found it to be extremely superficial, commercially oriented and subservient to the almighty God of money, success and fame. It’s just not for me. I’ve sat there with songwriters in Los Angeles whose one goal in life is to write a song that gets played on radio and probably sounds like 3,000 other songs. They’d pick up hooks and lyrics from here and there and try to guess, double guess and triple guess what a certain artist would like in order to have that artist pick up the song. What has this got to do with art, the soul or the inner workings of the heart? Nothing. I became so depressed after awhile. I tried to get out of there really, really quickly. And I did.

I feel so much better working in Europe. Even though America influences Europe and the rest of the world in many positive ways, it also has a negative influence. It’s largely responsible for the incredible drive for the brand, the fame, the glitz, the now, the in, and quickly moving on to whatever is next, next, next. I like things that go deep and last for years. I like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, The Beatles, and Leonard Cohen. Those people move me. I don’t communicate with things that come and go. Fashion and the everlasting race to catch its tail are just not for me. I think one of the reasons the music industry has collapsed is because it forgot that its primary job is to create beautiful music and ensure that music gets out there to people to listen to for posterity, rather than making a quick buck. They can make money while they’re making incredible music. They need to support music because it’s good and not just because it sells to 15-year-old girls. They forgot about that and the substance disappeared. What they were left with is cotton candy. And cotton candy melts. And it did. It just melted.

You’re a major star in most of the world except America. You’re even signed to a U.S. label that’s reluctant to release your English records there. What do you believe is the issue for them?

They just don’t think the music is appropriate for American audiences. Why? God only knows, my friend. I’ve stopped trying to understand. I’ve stopped trying to bend over backwards to please anybody. I did that when I was younger and I don’t do that anymore. I don’t need to please some A&R person at a record company that doesn’t know his elbow from his asshole about music. The other day, I did a show in New York and Pat Metheny came to see it. He’s one of the artists I respect most in the world. He totally flipped over the show. He and his wife told me how wonderful they thought it was. Having a true artist tell me he loves what I do is all I need. But it took me years to feel that way. I’m a much better person and artist as a result. As you’re busy perfecting your art and trying to be as true to yourself as you can by not producing any bullshit, you realize there are other people that resonate with you. If you’re lucky, there will be a lot. If you’re less lucky, there will be a few. So that’s how I work. I start with me and find resonance where I can. As for the United States, I’m sad that I haven’t been able to perform there more, not because I have any interest in being famous per se, but just because I’d like to perform more frequently for an English-speaking audience that can understand what I’m writing about and saying. European audiences have been very loving and embraced me, but I can’t say they really communicate with my lyrics. There’s something else that’s enticing or enchanting for them. But I love it when people are really listening to what I’m saying.

I think at the base, I’m an eclectic artist and can’t be pigeonholed. That’s a tough thing for the American music industry to deal with. They just don’t understand who I am and what I’m doing. I’m a Yemenite Israeli and I’m not the bimbo type. I’m not selling sex. I’m not 25. I think what goes through the heads of American music industry people are things like “Okay, so we have a Yemenite Israeli. Oh, it must be world music. It’s an ethnic thing, right? But wait. It’s in English. So it’s rock and roll, but it sounds like pop too? Sometimes it sounds like folk. What is it for God’s sake? How the hell are we supposed to sell this?” So they don’t try. They have no idea what to do with it. If you look at American pop culture, it has to be clear cut. The thought process goes something like this: “What is it? Sell it to me in a second. Do I understand in five seconds what it is? If I don’t, too complicated. Next!” On the contrary, in Europe, it’s fascinating to people. They go “She’s Israeli, American, Yemenite, English, Hebrew with Middle Eastern influences, ideas about the world, a political opinion, and deep black eyes. We like it!” [laughs] It’s the exact opposite.


Tell me how you go about incorporating Middle Eastern elements into Western pop forms.

I haven’t done it consciously as a stylistic decision. That’s never been the case for me. I write songs as they come. I’ll have an idea for lyrics and then I’ll think of a musical context that’s most appropriate for those lyrics. I don’t say “I’m an Israeli and I better make it sound Israeli or a little Middle Eastern because that’s what’s expected of me.” The sort of Middle Eastern fusion things that I’ve done have always been lyrically sustainable. For instance, there’s a song on Calling called “Manhattan-Tel Aviv” that has a very strong Middle Eastern riff in it. My songs in Hebrew, because of their linguistic context, also have Middle Eastern elements. In addition, I’ve chosen to perform songs in the original Yemenite language with the original Yemenite music and do them without any instrumental accompaniment because that’s how they were first sung. So I’ll go the whole range. I sometimes do things to preserve the original roots or I’ll mix different things if it’s appropriate lyrically. There’s one song I have called “Pines” with lyrics that go “My roots are on both sides of the sea.” It was originally a poem in Hebrew and I translated some of it into English. I think it’s one of the loveliest songs we’ve performed. You can’t put your finger on where the music comes from. It comes somewhere from the Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen era and the old Israeli songs of the '60s that have a modal feel to them. So bridging these worlds is not a problem. It comes very naturally for me and I only do it when the idea of the song calls for it.

What was it like for you as a 17-year-old, having lived most of your life in the Bronx, to return to Israel?

I had gone to Israel during my summer vacations, so I knew what Israel was about, but it was still pretty shocking. It’s just such a huge leap from the Bronx. I went to Yeshiva religious Jewish school in the United States and I came from a very free, secular Israeli context. However, everything about Israel is different, including the way people communicate and interact, the way things look, the food, the weather, and the overall vibe. Maybe the most dramatic thing is that people are very direct in Israel. They say what they think and are very clear, personal and familiar immediately. There is much more political correctness involved in being an American, no matter who you are. So, that’s something I had to get used to. Language was a problem too because even though I looked totally Israeli, my Hebrew was very poor. When I moved to Israel, I had to really catch up on the language, music and literature. I was literally coming at it from another place. I was between two places. The reason I moved is because I was in love with the man who is now my husband. So, I had someone I loved a lot that I could rely on. But it took a long time to adjust. And then I went into the army for two years of mandatory service which was another total culture shock. It was very, very hard for me to be in the army. I was in a singing troupe, which was the best possible post I could have got, but I hated it and couldn’t wait for it to be over. But it taught me a lot and gave me perspective about Israeli society, its politics, the meaning of life, and the importance of that.

Tell me how the song “Manhattan-Tel Aviv” relates to your perspectives on life in both places.

The song looks at the similarities between the two places I come from, good and bad. They are two places that are the subjects of so many people’s dreams. For many, Israel is considered the Holy Land, the promised land, the golden land, and the land of milk and honey. America is considered the land of endless opportunity and where dreams come true. So a lot of people direct their dreams towards Jerusalem in Israel and Manhattan. Yet there is a lot of violence in both places. There’s a lot of sacrifice to be made if you want to live here or there. The song also relates to a lot of the more painful elements of being in either place, including people giving their lives, whether it’s out on the streets or in the army.

How did the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at the peace rally you performed at affect you?

It was definitely a life-changing moment. Before it happened, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. You wouldn’t believe how many people turned out to support the peace process. It was amazing. Then after he got killed, everything changed and it has not gone back to normal. It will never be the same. Everything has gone downhill from there. I’m hopeful that maybe something good is going to happen though. But since that moment, Israeli society and history have taken a turn for the worse. I was shattered. It was like I lost a family member—a close uncle or something. I think that’s the way a lot of Israelis felt.

Describe the sense of resolve and urgency the event created for you.

I was on fire. I could not relax at all. All I wanted to do was speak out against the violence and reiterate everything that he said that I believed in very strongly. I spoke about my support for the peace process and the establishment of the Palestinian state alongside Israel. I spoke of the mutual respect Israelis and Palestinians should have for each other. I spoke out against the settlers in the occupied territories and how I felt it was wrong of Israel to do that. I said both nations have the right to peace and independence. I also spoke for democracy in Israeli society and discussed how repulsive I thought the dominance of orthodox political parties over our society was. We have a coalition system in Israel that enables relatively small parties to wield a great deal of power. They really have a lot of leverage to suck the blood out of the system and get a lot of money. I said what so many people think but nobody says. I was very vocal and got into a lot of trouble for some of the things I said. I made a lot of people angry. It caused many to distance themselves from me and my music because I was so clear with my political opinions. That isn’t a very popular thing for artists to do here in Israel. It almost killed my career but I managed to survive it.

How did it impact your career?

I was supposed to give a very big concert in Tel Aviv during that period and they cancelled it. Half the people returned their tickets. I also had threats to my life. It was pretty bad at the time. It took me a few years to bounce back from that. This only occurred in Israel. Outside of Israel, my political views have been extremely well respected by the non-Israeli community. But in Israel, it’s a much bigger problem. There are many people who think differently and are very sensitive to the issues. They want to have their artists above all that. But the political opinions I express are humanistic opinions. They’re about morals and values, not about this or that politician. So, of course they should be spoken about and expressed. For me, it’s just like art.

How did you rebuild your career after that point?

It took time and a lot of integrity on my part. I just kept saying things over and over again. Also, I learned to say them in a much more diplomatic and mature way. Initially, I was just so driven after Rabin was killed. I was so angry, but I was young and had no experience, so I was very easy prey for the journalists. They took everything I said and exaggerated it 16 times. They made what I said sound very sensational. I didn’t let them do that later on. I said what I believed and acted on it by going to the peace rallies and meetings and just expressing myself in many different contexts. That approach proved much more effective.

You once said living in Israel is like playing Russian Roulette.

Yeah. You don’t go around thinking about it all the time, but the statistics say your chances of getting killed in a traffic accident are higher here than any place else in the world. And then there’s the whole terrorism thing. Sometimes you think “When will the terrorists hit? Where? Will it be in our town? Will someone in my family be affected?” You try to go through the motions and live your daily life as if nothing is happening, but it can’t be totally normal. The concerns are always under the surface all the time.

With your international profile, you could probably live anywhere you want. What keeps you in Israel?

Simply put, it’s my home and nobody ever wants to leave their home. I feel very connected to this place. I also believe there are a lot of bad things happening in a lot of countries around the world. Whenever you visit a place from the outside, you usually see the nice things about it. When you scratch beneath the surface, you realize that problems are everywhere. So I’m not going to live with the illusion that a perfect place exists on the planet when it doesn’t. Ultimately, I believe Israel could be a wonderful place to live under different circumstances that are within our reach. If we can get the peace process activated and moving, I believe Israel will transform itself into a paradise and I’d really like to be there when it happens.