Raised in an Ashkenazi community in Tel Aviv, Israeli-Iranian singer Michal Elia Kamal realized her dark hair, brown eyes and Iranian background made her different from her peers. But that is what led her to grow an affinity toward singing and uniting different cultures.
Kamal, along with Light in Babylon musicians Metehan Cifci on Santour, guitarist Julien Demarque, percussionist Stuart Dickson and bassist Jack Butler, perform all over the world today, but come from humble beginnings, which Kamal recounted during a Skype interview.
After she decided to pursue music full-time, Kamal left her job and university studies in Israel to embark on musical journey around the world. Her travels took her to countries across Europe and India before she eventually settled in Istanbul, Turkey.
“When I discovered Istanbul, it was like a child discovering Disneyland and as a musician it meant a great deal of potential,” she said.
Not long after Kamal and Demarque, who today is her husband, met Cifci. The pair had been searching for a santourist for a while, but because few people know how to play the instrument, they had a hard time.
“The santour was constantly in the back of my mind and something I really wanted before I met Metehan. I cannot see my band without it because there is more than just liking it; it touches me personally,” Kamal said.
The couple eventually discovered Cifci while walking up and down one of Istanbul’s avenues. “He didn’t speak English and we didn’t know Turkish but we just communicated and said, ‘Let’s play together.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ We performed one song after another and everything just clicked. You don’t always make a connection, but with Metehan it just felt right.”
There are countless bands today that compose different fusions of music such as jazz funk performed by Yemen Blues and A-WA, but what makes Light in Babylon different is their authentic tunes familiar to most Middle Easterners.
“WE ARE not just sharing traditional folk music; we are sharing a piece of our soul and what we are doing is very personal and honest,” Kamal said. “People who come to our concerts aren’t just saying, ‘Wow, it was a great concert, we had so much fun;’ people are overwhelmed and I think it’s because they experience something deep inside.”
Another reason Kamal believes people are drawn to her music is because they can connect with her personal experiences, which is also where she draws her inspiration from.
“People always ask me what my lyrics are about and they actually talk about my identity. I grew up in a Persian home. My mother is from Esfhan and my father is from Tehran. My family is very happy living in Israel but they also are Persian, which is a strong culture and something they can’t disconnect from,” she said.
For example, Kamal’s grandmother lived in Israel for 30 years but only spoke Farsi, which Kamal believes is because she maintained an emotional attachment to her country of origin.
“My grandmother was happy to live in Israel and to be near her kids, who got good jobs and have a better life than they probably would have had in Iran. But I think she was grieving for Iran and knew when they moved to Israel there was no turning back,” said Kamal.
It’s those stories, combined with her passion for singing, that have led countless people across the globe to connect with Kamal’s music and lyrics.
“I remember when I performed in Istanbul, the crowd was predominately Muslim and were all wearing hijabs, but they knew the words to all the songs. After the concert, they came backstage with flowers and expressed how much they loved my music, which put me in tears,” Kamal said.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Hey, I’m this Jewish, Israeli girl singing in Hebrew, I’m not singing in Arabic like Yemen Blues or in French; I am singing the language in Israel and its allowing different nationalities to unite. This was shattering for me and it made me think who or what can unite people like this? And the only thing I could think of was music, authentic, honest music.”
In addition to composing songs in Hebrew, Kamal also has written two Persian songs titled “Gole man” (My Flower) and “The Women of Tehran,” which she dedicates to women living in Iran.
“I have a lot of good Iranian friends in Istanbul and one day we began talking about life in Tehran and how women are forbidden to sing there. So the song is really about my wish to sing with all the women in Tehran. I don’t know if this will ever happen, but I can’t stop dreaming about it.”
After growing up in a predominantly Ashkenazi neighborhood as an Iranian-Israeli, Kamal knows what it’s like to face discrimination.
“In kindergarten the kids always used to ask me, ‘How is it that you are Israeli and your parents are Iranian? Your parents are your enemy?’ I was five-years-old when a child asked me that and I was so confused,” Kamal said.
“But also helped me grow and understand that there is beauty in many cultures, colors and sizes and to accept that everyone is composed of complex beauty. When we make music today, not only do Iranians and Israelis love it, but also people from the United States, Turkey, Germany, Switzerland and Finland.”
IT’S BEEN nearly nine years since Light in Babylon began performing on the streets of Turkey to booking some of the biggest concert halls today across Asia and Europe.
“It’s been a long journey, but this is not a reality show. This is real life. It’s not enough to be a musician and a dreamer; you need to be down-to-earth and plan your way step by step to see how you can become a professional. You have to see your potential. Because what do some people do now? They play in the streets, get a crowd, get a drink and have some fun and the money is gone. But we decided early on we would save and invest,” said Kamal.
The band expects to get busier year by year and hopes to eventually perform in the United States. In the meantime, Kamal said the group is taking it one step at a time and is working with agencies to book some concerts, but is mostly managing everything themselves. The band also is currently working on a new album that will include some Farsi songs and is in the midst of planning spring and summer tours.
Yet the road to success was not always easy for Kamal, who felt her parent’s disappointment after she announced she would pursue music full time.
“In the beginning it was a bit painful and I think they were devastated. They couldn’t understand it because they have never witnessed something like this and they’ve never been there,” Kamal said.
“But after a few years, they saw that I was becoming successful, receiving greater recognition, earning my own money and living in a respectful way and they began to accept it. I would even say today they are a bit proud.”
Part of Kamal’s success is related to Light in Babylon’s ability and Kamal’s voice to unite different cultures.
“I am Israeli and come from Jewish origins; Julien is French and has a Christian background; and Metehan is from Turkey, which is predominantly Muslim. We are all very different, but in reality, we’re not. We may not speak the same language, but we can come together and represent a generation that wants to reconnect,” Kamal said.
“And when we perform in the streets, we are actually creating light in all this darkness. We make people stop and gather and allow them to forget all their troubles. They start to smile and you guide them through all these emotions. I think that’s what constitutes Light in Babylon.”
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