“For a creative artist at the beginning of the road, [it’s natural] to reveal his or her own voice, but as maturity comes, you realize that you’re just a link in a chain, in a dynasty, and you try and connect to your roots,” says singer Ahinoam Nini.
And on this quest of discovery, Nini, who was born in Israel and grew up in New York, is promoting her new international album Genes and Jeans. On her current Israeli tour, the stunningly beautiful Yemenite artist is mixing Yemenite-flavored songs from the album with some of her older material.
Starting out with the idea of reviving Yemenite songs she had heard from her grandmother as a child, Nini “meditated on the old Hebrew/Yemenite lyrics, full of love and longing, of dreams unfulfilled, of pain, heat, dust and wind… and wrote new English lyrics and music, and wrapped them around the old songs like a long coat in winter,” she writes in the album’s liner notes.
Despite the specific cultural roots of Genes and Jeans, the album has been wildly successful internationally. Nini says: “I think that my songs find such a huge resonance because in the world of today, there are more and more people who are multicultural and who have roots in many places – I call them ‘new world citizens,’ which also connects to the virtual world… the need for self-identity has become even more crucial.”
That said, she admits that she really does not know why people like her music. “Maybe because I have never done anything to be liked. Probably they feel that everything I do comes from a very deep place – as we say in Hebrew, ‘I make my art for the name of Heaven.’ This is my religion – and I am not a religious person. So this is a combination of artistic diversity, a lot of legwork – I have appeared in a lot of little places of which not many have ever heard – and yes, a bit of luck.”
Nini has dedicated the album to her late grandfather, who, as she admits, has influenced her immensely. “He was a real dreamer, an adventurer, a self-made man. A diamond cutter, he established his family in Israel and embarked on a journey through the world. He did not have even a basic knowledge of English, but he had intuition, a huge smile, charisma, a great belief in people and the ability to communicate. And even if some of those things did not work and his trust in people has betrayed him, he was optimistic to his last day. I hope I have inherited something from him.”
NINI BELIEVES that her peace activism, in which she has been involved for years, was also inherited from her grandfather. “The belief in peace, to believe that there are people on the other side – there’s no reason for not stretching out a hand,” says the artist, who has sung for the pope and has collaborated with many Palestinian colleagues. “This is all in [my grandfather’s] spirit – putting your heart on a platter and believing that what comes back will be good.”
Returning to the present tour, Nini can’t say enough about her great fortune to work with a team of “talented and tasteful people, such as director Daniela Michaeli, lighting designer Bambi and stage designer Neta Hacker, among others. This is a beautiful show, with many things happening onstage.”
And onstage, Nini projects her identity proudly. As an international artist, Nini has never tried to hide her Israeli roots. “For many people throughout the world, I am their only contact with Israel – except for CNN – and people receive a totally different image of Israel when they see me onstage. And also my peace message – I do it not because it is popular, but because I believe it is possible and I do what I can.”
THE JERUSALEM POST Jun. 8, 2008