One in the family

Singer Sari Alfi fuses her cultures through music.

Sari Alfi. (photo credit: YANIV SOFER)
Sari Alfi.
(photo credit: YANIV SOFER)

"I joined the family business. Show business, that is.”

As the daughter of storyteller and poet Yossi Alfi and sister of renowned comedian Guri Alfi, performing runs in musician Sari Alfi’s blood. With a multicultural background, Alfi intertwines her ethnic roots to create her art.
“I once asked my daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up. She answered, ‘Iraqi,’” says Alfi. “Coming from my family, that does not surprise me. We are all artists who come from different places. My father is Iraqi, my mother is British, my husband is Australian, and we live in Israel. Let’s face it, we are mutts.”
In her new album, Yamim Hamim, produced by Roy Sela, Alfi blends authentic Babylonian melodies with contemporary Western music. She writes and composes all her own music and lyrics.
Her album includes guest performances by traditional Iraqi musicians, such as singers Ismail Fadel and Iman and violinist Yair Dalal. By using more traditional musicians, she gives Iraqi culture a modern twist with edgy electronic beats.
In her younger years, Alfi identified more with her mother’s British background. As she matured, she began to embrace her Iraqi roots. The turning point occurred at her wedding. She surprised her father by singing an Iraqi melody. That song ignited a lifelong love affair with Iraqi music.
“When I was a kid, I hated Iraqi music. I thought it just sounded like moaning,” says Alfi.
“The second I stepped on stage and started singing at my wedding, I had a movie moment. I sang ‘Fog El Nahal,’ one of the most traditional Iraqi songs. I realized the beauty and complexity of the music and wanted to learn more.”
By discovering Iraqi music, Alfi’s bond with her father increased immensely. As she began to study Iraqi musicians and styles, she delved into her family roots. In 1949, Alfi’s father escaped from Iraq as part of the Jewish exodus to Israel. He came as a three-year old, but he always stayed true to his Iraqi roots. As a storyteller, he incorporates stories from his family history into his show.
“The older I get, the more I learn about my family’s history,” says Alfi. “I’m named after my great-grandmother, Rima. I used to hate my middle name. I said, ‘The day I turn 18, I’m changing my name.’ Then I heard my father’s story about how she never learned to read or write. She used to sign her name with a handprint. When I got my bachelor’s degree, I wrote out my name as ‘Sari Rima Alfi.’ Now I’m proud to be named after Rima,” she asserts.
On February 17, Yossi and Sari Alfi will share the stage to mark the first international day commemorating the Jewish exodus from Arab countries.
Sponsored by HARIF, a UK organization promoting the heritage of Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, the concert will be held in their Central London venue.
“I can’t believe my dad and I will perform together in my mom’s country,” says Alfi. “My family comes full circle. My only wish is that my grandparents could be there. I want my Iraqi grandparents to see us embrace our culture. I want my British grandparents to see me perform in the middle of their home. Not having them here is bittersweet for me.”
As a parent herself, Alfi wants to pass down her Iraqi culture to her children. Her family observes many Iraqi-Jewish traditions. From singing Shabbat prayers with Arabic tunes to cooking traditional Iraqi dishes, Alfi wants to expose her two daughters, Liri and Yahli, to their Iraqi heritage.
“When my family originally came to Israel, many of them were embarrassed by their Iraqi roots,” says Alfi. “Now my father is sharing stories, my brother is telling jokes, and I am singing with traditional Iraqi rhythms. We share the stage together as one big Iraqi family. We have even performed for President Shimon Peres. We have proven that Iraqi culture should be celebrated, not hidden.”
In addition to bringing her own cultural roots into her music, Alfi enhances her sound by collaborating with different artists. She joins forces with Mizrahi singer Shlomo Bar for a number on her new album.
“I remember the first time I heard Shlomo Bar.
He is originally from Morocco, and his music possessed me. I went to a recording session with him, and I was in a trance. His music is so rebellious and has a free spirit. I knew I had to sing with him,” she says.
Alfi will perform with Iranian musician Sahand Sahebdivani in The Netherlands directly after her London show. The pair will perform in Delft on February 19 and Amsterdam on February 20-21.
“Every culture brings something new to the table,” says Alfi. “Persian and Arab come together so nicely. I have other numbers where I sing the verses in Hebrew and the chorus in Arabic. “ As a proponent of peace, Alfi has performed for both Palestinian and Israeli political leaders. She embraces her role as a Jewish-Arab performer and believes that intermingling the cultures is the strongest way to promote peace.
“Jews coming from Arab countries are the bridge to peace,” she says. “I am Jewish, and I am Arab. I am both and am proud of both cultures.
The more I cross cultures, the more I break boundaries in both the musical and the political world.”