Israeli Singer Achinoam Nini.
Photograph by Ronen Ackerman. Courtesy of More Management.
Achinoam Nini (Noa) is an Israeli icon: a singer, composer and lyricist of world stature who is as passionate and principled as she is talented. Her musical achievements are the stuff of legend. She has sung for the Pope, performed with the Israeli Philharmonic and the Solis String Quartet, at the Eurovision song contest together with Mira Awad, with Sting and with Stevie Wonder, at Carnegie Hall and at a Sacred Music Festival in Fez … where not? On October 17, ESRA supporters will have a chance to hear her too, as she performs in a not-to-be-missed benefit concert at the Tel Aviv Opera House.
Today, Nini lives in Israel in a house by the sea filled with color, bright, primitive paintings, toys and many books – a contrast to her early life, which was spent overseas.
The ethnic influences on her life and style are so varied that it's easy to understand why Nini describes her childhood as "quite a confusing one, though happy, actually." Born to Israeli parents of Yemenite origin who moved to the US when she was two, she grew up always feeling a little different. The other students at the yeshiva school she attended in New York were mainly of Ashkenazi origin, and – another dichotomy – her family was traditional, but not religious. After school, she played with the Puerto Rican and African-American kids in the neighborhood. "It's no wonder" she says with that familiar wide smile, that "I had to deal with an identity crisis."
Precocious in music, Nini found an outlet in song-writing and singing. At the age of seven, she joined the school choir led by Avshalom Katz, who was to prove one of the great influences on her life. Katz not only taught his choir wonderful songs, but also "inspired us to rise to the occasion of music." Moreover, he took Nini's talent seriously, and when she was 12, he arranged for her to record her compositions.
But then, life took another tangent. On a hiking trip on a visit to Israel, Nini fell in love. She was 16; he was 21. She left school and followed him to Israel, because she believed then, as she does now, that "love is the greatest driving force in the world." Many parents would have had a fit, but hers were Zionists who had always intended to return to Israel, and she believes, "in some ways, they were proud that I managed to do what they couldn't at the time."
Nini certainly has never had cause to regret her decision (though, she admits, she might not be so willing herself to let her own children leave school and run off to another country.) Today, she and her former boyfriend, who is now her husband, Dr. Asher Barak, have three children, Ayehli, Enea and Yum.
After finishing high school at a boarding school in Jerusalem, Nini served in an IDF military entertainment unit. She had planned to study music at Julliard, but that would have meant leaving her boyfriend, so she attended the Rimon School of Music instead, majoring in composition and vocal training. One of her teachers was Gil Dor, the greatest musical influence on her life. Their success took off after they gave a collaborative teacher-student performance in Tel Aviv which resulted in a recording deal with Geffen Records. "We were on our way," she says. The collaboration has lasted 20 years.
Nini's style is not easy to categorize. Her beautiful mellow voice lends itself to ballads, to jazz, blues, Rhythm & Blues and to ethnic and classical influences. Among the singer-composers who have influenced her songs are the great talents of the sixties, such as Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, who sing, as she does, "from the gut." In Hebrew, a major influence has been Leah Goldberg, whose songs she has recorded.
It's been noted that she has sometimes been perceived as more successful overseas than at home. To Nini, the main reason is that Israel has a smaller population, and she is not the kind of singer who appeals to the masses. "If you're living for art, you're appreciated by fewer people. I couldn't fill a stadium and I wouldn’t want to." Also, "my natural multiculturalism is embraced by Europeans, but here, people don't really know how to swallow how I fuse languages. It doesn't fit into the consensus." Nevertheless, songs like 'Bo'i Kallah' are Hebrew classics.
Overseas, she is a genuine star. One of the highlights of her career was her performance of 'Ave Maria' before Pope John Paul II, a live audience of 100,000 and a television audience of millions. The engagement came about through a fortuitous piece of luck.
"I had recorded a version of 'Ave Maria' with original lyrics for my album 'Noa' as a prayer for peace. The lyrics are ecumenical, in fact, iconoclastic, although most people missed that. One of the organizers of a concert which was being planned at the Vatican in honor of the Year of the Family happened to come across one of my albums and thought the cover photo of me was interesting. He turned it over and saw that I had recorded 'Ave Maria,' so he listened to it and liked it. That concert established me as a person who had something to say that was universal."
Nini met the Pope not just once, but several times – ("I think he liked me.") She certainly was taken by him. "He spoke highly of Israel in such an openminded way. He was just what a religious leader should be. He really believed that the breaking of barriers in religion would bring peace."
Another song that resonated internationally was the theme from the movie 'Life is Beautiful,' whose English lyrics she wrote. Says Nini, "I'm good with things that have a deeper meaning. I just can't do a pop song without a higher level of dealing with life."
That extends to other things she believes in, such as peace and co-existence. Nini, who sang at the fateful rally in 1995 minutes before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, has often collaborated with Arab and Palestinian artists and has worked on many occasions with the Peres Center for Peace. Her dedication has been recognized by the award of many international prizes, including the Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Gemona Seminar prize for artistic excellence and The Italian Stella de la Republica award. She has also been appointed Good Will ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. "I have a sense of injustice," she says. "That’s why I'm here."
It has sometimes led to controversy. During the Gaza war in 2009, she felt that "things were starting to get distorted. I started seeing a demonization of Israel in every sense and I felt that a sense of balance was needed." She wrote an open letter urging Israel to get rid of Hamas, which was misinterpreted by some Palestinians as an attack on innocent civilians. In her response, she wrote, "I am sorry for every innocent life lost on both sides of the fence… I call on all people to listen to all sides with an open heart free from prejudice… Let's show the beauty of all cultures, the wisdom of all religions, and the human, compassionate face of mankind."
A passionate, courageous person who believes strongly in equality and the possibility of peace, she denies that she is in any way naïve. "On the contrary, those who do nothing are the naïve ones." And she is cautiously optimistic. "There has been progress," she maintains.
So, life is beautiful? She smiles as she gets up to feed her baby daughter. "Life is beautiful."
Watch an exclusive ESRA interview of Achinoam Nini by Carol Novis by clicking here.