By Don Heckman
Israeli singer/songwriter Noa, whose given name is Achinoam Nini, makes one of her rare Los Angeles appearances on Saturday night in a UCLA Live concert at Royce Hall. Her remarkable resume encompasses performances and/or collaborations with artists reaching from Pat Metheny, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli to Lokua Kanza, Khaled and Mira Awad, to name only a few of many. As well as her musical partner of more than two decades, guitarist/producer Gil Dor. Noa has performed with ensembles ranging from a duo with Dor to the Israeli Philharmonic, in major venues throughout Europe, the Middle East, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Japan and beyond. Through it all, she has been a tireless advocate for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
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DH: Noa, your Saturday night performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall will be one of your rare appearances in Los Angeles. So let’s get down to basics. Can you give me a little advance word about the program we’ll be hearing.
NOA: Since I do not often perform in the US and even less often in LA, I chose to take advantage of the wonderful stage I have been given to present a range of my original material in English, Hebrew and Yemenite. There will be a selection of songs from various albums made over the past 22 years of creative work with my musical director and guitarist Gil Dor. And, in addition, a special spot for ‘the Israeli songbook,’ a collection of classic Israeli songs we recorded together with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in 2011.
DH: What about the ensemble? You’ve performed with everything from a full symphony orchestra to a duo with Gil Dor. Who will be with you at U.C.L.A.?
NOA: Of course Gil Dor will be with me, playing guitar, as he has been for 22 years. We also have a wonderful multi-instrumentalist named Gil Zohar, who will play piano, bass and flute. I myself will be singing and playing percussion.
DH: An intimate, but obviously very musical ensemble.
NOA: We try to make music that stands on its own, regardless of the ensemble.
DH: Your New York appearance a couple of weeks ago was with Mira Awad, the Palestinian singer. She won’t be here in L.A. Will that – in this concert — in any way diminish the dialogues for peace which have played such a prominent role in your performances?
NOA: Mira and I have known each other for over ten years and have done many concerts together. I myself have been performing for twice as long and have collaborated with Arab artists from around the world on numerous occasions. I convey my message of peace in many different ways: in interviews, on my blog or other written platforms (social and such), through collaborations and with specific texts I write and put to music (like the song ‘Shalom, Shalom’). Having said that, I am first and foremost a singer/songwriter. I am happy for the opportunity to share my music with whoever will come out to hear us in Royce Hall.
DH: Expanding on that thought, can you say something about what brought you to the point at which your art became an expression of your belief in the changes that you feel need to take place – in the world, in general, and in Israel, in particular?
NOA: As I said in my previous answer, I do not consider my art as a platform for specific ‘political’ beliefs. My art is a study in the complexities of the diverse, ever changing human spirit. What I do is use my privileged position as a public personality whose voice is heard. In that context, I convey my message any way I can. I realized early on that as an Israeli artist I had two choices: running away from politics or tackling them. I chose the latter, and have become a sort of informal ambassador for all those people in Israel who share my views of dialogue, compassion and peace.
DH: What would you see as the ideal conclusion to your quest for change, in Israel and elsewhere?
NOA: I dream of a world driven by kindness, compassion, generosity, empathy, sharing, creativity, respect and love. A world where ‘we’ becomes much more important than ‘me,’ without compromising either. A world where religion would assume more modest proportions and serve only as an instrument of solace and enlightenment, never of self-righteousness, hatred and violence. Yes, a more modest world. A simple trip to the neighborhood planetarium will help you screw your head on straight any time.
DH: Your music reaches out to embrace many styles and genres. Has the application of your music to your desire for change in any way limited the expression of your far-reaching creative interests?
NOA: Art is always about making choices and limiting yourself in one way or another. Though I have far-reaching interests and a diverse musical and cultural palette, I do try to ‘speak a language’ — one that Gil and I have been perfecting and deepening over the years. Granted, our slightly off beat definition of ‘style’ has made us harder to market, as we do not fall squarely into any one genre. But we are very particular and uncompromising about what we do, and strive for the highest level of excellence. We’ve always said, we bow only to the God of Music.
DH: Given those creative interests, what haven’t you as yet done that you would like to do? With whom could you imagine having a satisfying musical encounter?
NOA: I dream of meeting and possibly writing/singing with my heroes: Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. I also dream of singing at the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Palestine. I would also love to be able to bring my symphonic project to places like Carnegie Hall in New York City (my dream since childhood) and Disney Hall in L.A. But really, my greatest wish is to just keep at it, keep travelling this fascinating road of music. The journey is the dream.
DH: Speaking of traveling, you’ve had a very unusual life’s journey – so far. You lived in the U.S. from the age of 2 to 17. Basically your childhood, adolescence and teen-age years. How has that affected you, if it has?
NOA: I was very fortunate to have the childhood that I had, which was not at all simple but so enriching. I grew up in a Yemenite Israeli home, a small apartment in an old tenement building in a lower middle class Bronx neighborhood populated by every type of race and color, and studied in a predominantly Ashkenzi yeshiva. Needless to say this was a source of much confusion to my budding identity. Culture and music were everywhere, from the Yemenite songs my grandmother taught me at home to the Broadway musicals I adored, my mom’s opera obsession and trips to MOMA. I was immersed in art and culture and drank it up with thirst and passion. My parents are the most supportive loving people in the world. They drove me to piano lessons, dance class, choir practice, what not. They listened to the songs I started writing at age 8 and clapped as enthusiastically as if I were Barbara Streisand reincarnated. When I fell in love with an Israeli man — I was 16 — and asked to leave the States and return alone to Israel, they let me go, and they have been enthusiastically following my career and helping me with my three children ever since.
DH: After all that, what was it like to make the transition from essentially being an American teen-ager to returning to Israel and serving in the Army?
NOA: Israel was a shock — still is, after 25 years! — and so was the army. It was a bucket of freezing water poured over my head. I had a hard time in the military, no place for a free spirit, but I learned a lot, and after those two years I was full of ambition and energy, ready to gobble up the world.
DH: But, given conditions in Israel and the Middle East, along with the hazards that an outspoken artist who performs in public might encounter, have you ever considered relocating back to the U.S. – which could be a kind of homecoming for you – and raising your children, as you were raised, in this country?
NOA: I have considered it, but will only do so if things get really, really bad in Israel. The definition of ‘bad’ is very subjective of course, but I guess I’ll know when the time comes. For the moment, I’d rather stay in Israel, which I love, and fight for what I believe in, than replace one promised land for another…
DH: Noa, a final question about a very significant moment in your life – in many people’s lives. You were at the Tel Aviv peace rally in 1995 when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Can you say something about the impact it had on you?
NOA: I was there on stage, in one of the happiest moments of my life, performing for the many hundreds of thousands of people that had come out to encourage Rabin on his quest for peace, post Oslo [Accords, establishing the Palestinian National Authority]. Twenty minutes later, the dream was blown to bits by a mad assassin. I was so shocked and horrified. I think I haven’t recovered to this day. I pledged then to do my utmost, even at the expense of personal security, comfort and commercial success, to carry the torch that had fallen from his hand that awful night, and work for peace. That is what I have been doing, stubbornly, ever since.
DH: Thank you, Noa, for this illuminating conversation. It’s been a pleasure. I look forward to hearing you at Royce Hall on Friday night.
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