Despite the number of Georgian Jews who have made aliya over the last 30 or 40 years, the idea of a strong cultural bond between Georgia and Israel seems highly unlikely. We are, after all, a cultural melting pot in the Middle East, while Georgia, with its long Soviet past, is all the way over there on the cusp of Europe and Asia, bounded by the Black Sea, Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan.
But Sofia Nizharadze thinks otherwise.
The 24-year-old Nizharadze represented Georgia at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo, where she sang “Shine” in English and achieved a highly creditable ninth position – five places above our own Harel Skaat. Next week she will be a major draw at the Hutzot Hayotzer Craft Fair in Jerusalem.
“This will be my first trip to Israel,” said Nizharadze in a telephone interview from Tbilisi, Georgia. “I am very excited about that, and especially about performing in Jerusalem.”
The singer says she expects to feel at home when she gets here. “There are lots of cultural similarities between our two countries. We have similar national issues, and I just feel close to Israel and Israelis. I don’t think it is by chance that Georgian Jews feel at home in Israel.”
She said she got an inkling of a strong bilateral common denominator in Oslo. “When Harel [Skaat] was singing, I thought to myself, ‘That sounds like Georgian. I wonder if I can understand the words of the song.’ Of course, I couldn’t really understand the lyrics, but the Hebrew really did sound familiar.”
Apparently, Nizharadze is not the only Israelphile artist in her country. “There are quite a few Georgian singers who perform material in Hebrew,” says Itzik Moshe, who initiated Nizharadze’s visit here and serves as head of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. “Sofia is really looking forward to performing in Jerusalem at the foot of the City of David. It’s going to be something special for everyone.”
Meanwhile, Nizharadze is busy honing her Hebrew so she can understand what she’ll be singing about here. “I know a couple of words in Hebrew,” she says. “‘Shine’ has been translated as ‘or’ (light) in the Hebrew part of the song. I like that word.” Nizharadze has been working on her vocal skills almost all her life. “I started singing when I was three,” she recalls. “My first stage performance was when I was six, so I have lots of experience. I performed at the most famous children’s music studio in Georgia, Bastibubu, and then I got some leading roles in various big shows, like Disney shows.”
She also got a small foot in the door of the movie business at a young age, although it took quite a while for the followup to materialize. “When I was seven years old, I sang on the soundtrack of a very famous Georgian movie called Lullaby [Lavnana in Georgian]. And now I am about to take the leading role in a new movie. We’re starting filming in September.”
It looks like a budding acting career is in the offing for the singer. “I hope so. This is a fun film – a sort of modern-day Cinderella story. It starts out sad, but there’s a happy ending.”
THE RECENT incremental leap in Nizharadze’s career has not come overnight. She got down to brass tacks as a teenager and relocated from Georgia to Moscow at 15 to attend the Gnessin State Musical College. Not content with just improving her singing, she decided she needed to tend to the visual side of her craft, too. Subsequently, she continued on to studies at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts. “I had dreamt of going to Gnessin since I was small, but I have also always been drawn to the world of theater,” she says. “It will be interesting to start movie acting now because, until now, all my acting work has been on stage – in the theater, in musicals.”
Although she sticks strictly to the pop confines of the musical field, Nizharadze says she draws on other genres as well. “I love all kinds of high-quality music – rock, pop, club music, jazz and our own folk music, too. We recently had a big jazz festival at Batumi. [Seventy-one-year-old South African trumpeter] Hugh Masekela was there. He was amazing. I really like jazz, but my angle on that is more in the direction of someone like Celine Dion, in a sort of classic pop style.”
Judging by her dramatic Eurovision showing, some of Nizharadze’s theatrical training comes through in her singing, too. “My favorite singers are people like Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys. I love powerful singers.”
Her admiration for the Streisands of this world notwithstanding, Nizharadze says she is a Georgian through and through, and takes a lot of her nation’s culture and history into her daytime job. “Georgia is a very musical country. Everyone sings here, and they all understand and appreciate high-quality music. There are lots of male bands. When I was 12, I performed songs in Georgian with a Georgian band. It was half traditional and half pop.”
She started diversifying when she made the transition to Moscow. “After I moved to Russia, I did more musicals and English-language songs, so it was hard to keep up with Georgian music. In 2008, when I was still in Russia, I released an album of songs in English called Where Are You?
and I write songs in English.”
Nizharadze returned to Georgia a couple of years ago and says she has been rediscovering her cultural roots since then. “I am back home now, working on old traditional styles and using traditional instruments. Some of that will be on my new album, which I am working on right now.”
In fact, the singer returned to fertile and durable musical and cultural pastures. “Georgia always held on to its culture and traditions, even during the Soviet era, and it has blossomed since independence in 1991. The music has also developed since then. Georgia was always culturally part of Europe, like the Baltic countries. It’s always had its own cultural language and traditions, which are very different from Soviet culture.”
She was also pleasantly surprised with the strides her mother country made in her absence. “While I was living in Russia and came home for a visit [in 2003], I was amazed by the progress that had been made. Living standards were much higher, and the economy had developed a lot. I was really happy about that.”
Naturally, the improved financial situation also meant there were more
opportunities for artists. “Cultural life was much better, and I think
in two years from now things will improve even more. I am very
optimistic about the situation in Georgia.”
For now she is keen to make the most of her post- Eurovision Song
Contest momentum and will kick off the current tour in Jerusalem. “I am
very glad that my European tour is starting in Israel. This is my first
time abroad since Eurovision. I’ll also be performing in places like
Greece, Azerbaijan, Russia and Lithuania.”
While she’s here, Nizharadze is hoping she can further plans to strike
up a profitable professional Israeli- Georgian synergy with one of her
rivals at Oslo. “Harel Skaat was one of my favorites in the competition.
I think he is the best male vocalist ever in Eurovision, and I think we
will work together one day. We started talking about that at
Eurovision. He has a big future. He is a great singer.”
Whether than pans out remains to be seen, but for now Nizharadze is just
happy to have the opportunity to do her thing near the Old City.