Saturday, May 3, 2008

Israeli singer is a ‘Bronx girl’

Israelis are stereotypically thick-skinned, pushy, and direct. New Yorkers — especially from the Bronx — experience the same typecasting. So what do you get when an Israeli grows up in the Bronx and then returns to her native land, without her family, at 17?

Someone who isn’t particularly concerned with non-receptive crowds.

For Noa, known in Israel by her proper name, Achinoam Nini, borderline insouciance is a way of life, molded from experience: Moving to New York at 2. Moving back to join the Israeli military. Selling more than a million and a half records with Gil Dor, her longtime songwriting partner.

Noa’s current tour, in support of her new album "Genes and Jeans," will make two stops in this area. The first will be at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood at 8 p.m. Thursday night as part of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s community celebration honoring Israel’s 60th birthday.

On May 15, Noa will appear at the Skirball Performing Arts Center at New York University (

Some artists blanch at coming overseas to play two shows in front of New York’s chilly crowds. Noa’s constitution, however, allows for no such trepidation.

"Yeah, New York is tough. I’m a Bronx girl myself so I know all about that," said Noa. "But if you love and believe in what you’re doing, you just have to get up there and do your thing the best way you can. The rest will follow. I am very much against bending over backwards to please an audience, no matter where they come from."

"Genes and Jeans," meanwhile, comes from three places. The album primarily derives from Noa’s exposure to American songwriting. However, with obvious ties to Israel and a strong homage to her Yemenite roots, the album also has a Middle Eastern sass.

Noa’s multilingualism (English, Hebrew, Yemenite Arabic) and multi-instrumentalism round out "Genes and Jeans," which is equal parts electronica and Yemenite folk-song redux.

"My strongest influences were and remain the American and Canadian singer-songwriters of the ’60s — Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and that milieu," said Noa, whose Website,, contains tour dates and more information.

"Hebrew and Yemenite are in second and third place. Listening to the album, you can clearly feel that hierarchy."

Noa comes from a long line of sojourners, a lineage that began with her family’s emigration from Yemen to Israel. Her grandfather traveled through Africa before moving the family once again, this time to America. By the time Noa came back to Israel, where she served in a military entertainment unit before studying music at the Rimon School, she was ready to settle down.

She met Dor while studying at at Rimon, and the two immediately began collaborating. In 1994 they released "Noa," produced by Grammy-winning guitarist Pat Metheny. The duo worked together on "Calling," "Blue Touches Blue," and "Now." Noa also released a live album with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded Neapolitan numbers with the Solis String Quartet, and set Leah Goldberg’s poetry to music.

Noa also settled down at home, where she has two children, Ayehli and Enea, with her husband, Dr. Asher Barak (she lists her hobbies as "hugging my kids, reading, nature, [and] swimming"). On "Genes and Jeans," especially, the family influence is everywhere.

"This album was born from my wish to seek and revive the Yemenite songs I heard from my grandmother as a child," said Noa. "I listened to endless amazing singers, from Aharon Amram, Zion Golan, Shoshana Damari, Shlomo Dachyani, and Miriam Tzafri to Avner Gadasi and Ofra Chaza.

"The beautiful melodies and wonderful voices touched me deeply and humbled me greatly, though none as much as Grandma Rachel’s…. She is No. 1, all 4 feet of her."

Noa and Dor recorded the album in Noa’s home in Shefayim, a small kibbutz about 10 miles north of Tel Aviv.

"We worked on this album for 18 months," said Noa. "We made demos with my voice and Gil laying down guitar, bass, and rhythm programs. Then we had a bunch of wonderful musicians come in and play."

The result is a stylistic mish-mash, with ornate pop, à capella, and a number of daasas — traditional odd-rhythm songs with dark harmonies.

Said Noa, "We simply strove to create a sonic environment that would best serve the lyrics and music, highlighting the voice and the unique rhythmic patterns and arrangements. We did what we always do in all of our albums: we followed our heart."

Noa will be on tour until February of 2009, whereupon she will re-enter the studio. For now, though, she is "so full, emotionally and physically, of this album that I can’t think of anything else."

With such a complicated biography, she also doesn’t mind that "Genes and Jeans" helps explain some of her depth.

"If my jeans are the canvas of my life," she said, "my genes are the colors with which I paint my portrait."

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