Achinoam Nini takes on Bach

Veteran Israeli singer and peace activist talks to the ‘Post’ about working with Quincy Jones, who she will vote for and anticipating the Eurovision in Tel Aviv.

By
March 22, 2019 10:08
Achinoam Nini

Achinoam Nini. (photo credit: RONEN ACKERMAN)

 
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Achinoam Nini has grown very close recently with a world-famous composer. He just happened to die more than 250 years ago.

The Israeli musician and singer’s latest album, Letters to Bach, is wholly dedicated to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s an unexpected choice for any popular artist in 2019, but Nini – who is known as Noa abroad – found herself intensely drawn to the project. This latest record – her 11th studio album – was produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, and features Nini’s lyrics set to 12 short instrumental works by Bach.



“I started writing lyrics to all these works, and things started coming in my head, and I was thinking about them morning to night,” said Nini in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post. “It really became a passion for me.... Even though it was not something [Gil Dor and I] were really planning to do career-wise at the moment, it became all that i was interested in.”

It all began a few years ago, Nini said, when musician Astrit Baltsan asked her and her longtime musical accompanist Dor to take part in a concert lecture series on Bach. They agreed, and Nini learned to vocalize some of his pieces – singing along to the instrumental works.

“I enjoyed them, but I became quickly uninterested in just performing them without words,” she said. “I started writing words, and that sort of opened up a dam. The dam was broken, and I was overwhelmed by this thing. It had overtaken me, and it became sort of an obsession.”

Nini performed some of the newly lyricized works abroad, and “people were blown away everywhere in the world,” she said. That gave her and Dor the final kick to turn them into a album – one that legendary music producer and Nini’s longtime friend Quincy Jones was eager to board.

“He was totally blown away by it,” she said. “I thought he would like it, but I didn’t think he would flip out. But he was really excited about it... he gave it absolutely his full support.”

Jones said he was thrilled to finally collaborate with Nini and Dor on a musical work.

“Ever since we met in 2002, I knew that we’d eventually find a project to collaborate on at one point,” said Jones in a video message of support for the album. “So it’s absolutely beautiful to see that Letters to Bach is finally here – 17 years in the making. It’s my absolute pleasure to be the executive producer of Letters to Bach, and lend my full support for this dynamically dynamic duo, my little bro and sis, Gil and Noa!”

NINI’S NEW album is a decidedly unconventional choice for a modern artist, but she’s never been one to strive to fit in. Born in Tel Aviv to a Yemenite family, she grew up in New York and attended the religious SAR and Ramaz schools, before returning to Israel as a teenager. Her musical career has taken her around the globe, and built her a solid fan base in Italy, Spain and France, as well as made her a regular guest at the Vatican. 

“I’m not going to be Cardi B anyway, I can’t fit into whatever the pop machine is chugging out, that’s not my world,” Nini said. “So I might as well do what I want, what I love, because I have nothing to lose... music made without interest and without passion is a complete waste of time.”

Though Nini is a very well-known Israeli musician, she’s never been one to chase commercial success.


“I only make albums when I have something interesting to say,” she said. “So much music has already been made – why does the world need me to slap on more of the same? It’s just boring and unnecessary.”

Most of the 12 tracks on Letters to Bach – which are almost entirely in English – are imbued with Nini’s signature optimism. The single, “No, Baby,” features upbeat lyrics set to Bach’s Badinerie: “Bach was smiling when he wrote this little song,” sings Nini. “So I’ll smile and again I will say, every single day/ Will you stay? Aw, baby are you’re stayin’...?” The song “Mars,” she said, is dedicated to Elon Musk, and his “approach, even his craziness and his chutzpa.”



But a couple of songs take a more serious, melancholy and political approach. “Look At Me,” set to Bach’s Largo in F minor, depicts a darker world.

“Look at me, across the border,” Nini sings. “Beyond the wall/ Look at me/ The way you would observe yourself/ In life’s broken mirror.”    

“It’s much more influenced by the political situation, not only here in Israel, but everywhere,” she said. “By walls, and by people trying to see beyond the walls despite the obstacles... the Palestinian-Israeli wall, maybe the wall in Mexico that Trump wants to build,” she added. “Also the invisible walls that people construct just not to see each other.”

Nini has never been one to shy away from speaking her mind on politics in Israel or around the world. And she was therefore particularly enthused when actress Rotem Sela spoke out last week about the campaign rhetoric surrounding Israeli Arabs, and garnered backlash from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

“I was very happy that she said what she said, and that others joined her, like Gal Gadot and Assi Azar,” Nini said. “There seems to be an atmosphere of fear – people are afraid and I think that’s a horrible way to live.... aggression and violence and incitement have led people to just not want to deal with the aftermath of presenting an opinion which is not exactly keeping with the governmental consensus,” she continued. “I think that’s a very, very unhealthy thing within democracy.” 

As she watches the ongoing election, Nini, a prominent left-wing voice and peace activist, said she has yet to decide who she will vote for. “All of us are still milling around the major issues, as I think many people in our camp are,” she said. “There’s a very vibrant and interesting conversation going on, and I’m hopeful that we’re going to a better place.”

And 10 years since she performed at the Eurovision alongside Mira Awad, with the peace anthem “There Must Be Another Way,” Nini is happy to see the contest return home, and happier still that it’s in Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem.

“I’m very happy that the Eurovision is here in Israel,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that it’s in Tel Aviv, I think it’ll be a celebration of life and joy, which we need here very much.”

Achinoam Nini will be performing two concerts in Israel this month accompanied by the Italian Solis String Quartet, at Kibbutz Yifat on March 28, and at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on March 29. Ticket information is available at noasmusic.com.

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