Poetry at the double

The texts for the songs Chani Dinur will sing at the Israel Festival are all written by poets.

Chani Dinur. ‘I trust my voice and I can do anything I want with it.’ (photo credit: ILAN BESOR)
Chani Dinur. ‘I trust my voice and I can do anything I want with it.’
(photo credit: ILAN BESOR)
With tongue placed just inside the cheek, one might say that Chani Dinur is a bit of an impostor. By all rights, in a formal sense, she shouldn’t be singing the numbers she will present in her “Poetry Duets” show, which will take place at the Jerusalem Theater on May 30 as part of this year’s Israel Festival.
But the plain fact is that she does a totally bang-up job on all the songs which, as the name of the program implies, are all based on texts written by poets.
There is something endearingly refreshing about Dinur’s vocal work. It is as if she never learned the rules of the accepted singing world, or simply decided not to abide by them. Her delivery, while alluring and definitively sweet, bears no signs of polished technique, but she manages to convey bucketloads of emotion and, seemingly, each poet’s intent in the truest manner possible.
For the occasion, Dinur will team up with an eclectic sweep of musicians in an individual twosome format – which, considering the variety of poetry she went for, makes perfect sense. Nonetheless, to find such a generous comfort zone with such a disparate bunch as harp player Sunita Staneslow, ethnic- minded mandolin player Shmuel Elbaz, jazz-oriented bass clarinet player Peter Wertheimer, jazzy recorder player Tali Rubinstein, and folk-inclined accordionist Yossi Grushka, you have to have both feet well-grounded, and really know what you’re on about.
The texts Dinur and her instrumentalists tackle come from an equally varied lineup of poets. Iraqi-born writer Ronny Someck is on the list, as is late internationally renowned poet Natan Yonatan, Bahraini writer Mai Muzaffar and Syrian- born Israeli poet Peretz-Dror Banai.
While Dinur’s singing bio is not at all conventional, she has a strong grounding in straight-ahead musical education.
“I studied classical piano for 10 years but I never really did anything formal in singing,” she says. “I went to a couple of voice training lessons, but that was that.” Dinur has absolutely no regrets about not following the vocal straight and narrow. “I have this gift of being able to play around with my voice,” she notes.
“I trust my voice and I can do anything I want with it.”
That, says the singer, allows her to go with the fertile flow, and to see where the creative current takes her and her partner in art of choice. “We did the recordings [the Israel Festival concert is based on Dinur’s Poetry Duets CD, which came out last year – her ninth release to date] like a live performance,” she adds.
“Each recording is the first take. We went into the studio – the instrumentalist and I – and we just recorded. That really suits me. There are places where I improvise, where I felt something and just went for it, on the spur of the moment.”
That also extended to the preliminaries, or lack thereof. “I did one rehearsal with some of the musicians,” explains Dinur. “The whole idea was to leave the music a bit rough and ready, and not too polished. Peter Wertheimer didn’t want to do any rehearsals before we went into the studio. We mostly chatted.”
Mind you, the singer’s collaborators did have some general idea of the way Dinur wanted them to go. “I played each piece for them on the piano, in the way I thought I wanted the end result to sound,” she explains. “But I was blessed with such gifted players, and I knew I could trust them.”
The whole project sounds like a daring venture. Yes, Dinur laid down some sort of ground rules on piano and yes, she chose instrumentalists whose work she knew, and she trusted their ability to follow her mind-set lead, but on the day, in the studio, she could not have known exactly how the concept would take on sonic form.
Dinur agrees that the project smacks of pioneering spirit. “I have been told that no one has ever done something like this before, anywhere in the world – marrying vocals with a single instrument that is not necessarily a harmonic instrument. Friends of mine joked about the project, and said I had an Israeli start-up!” Poetry Duets has been something of a fun learning curve for all concerned.
“Shmuel Elbaz is one of the world’s top mandolin players, and he conducts the [Israeli] Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod,” says Dinur. “When we left the studio he said to me he didn’t know his mandolin could sound like that. That really moved me.”
The singer says she had a previous track record with some of the instrumentalists, although her confluence with Rubinstein, who is about to graduate from Berklee College of Music in Boston, was down to pure serendipity. “I was at an outdoor musical event, where they have all sorts of shows and people can move from one to the other,” Dinur recalls. “I was hurrying to catch some band and, on the way, I passed by a spot by [pop group] Shalna Alecha and I heard Tali playing recorder – and I was mesmerized. I stopped, sat down, and stayed for the whole show. At the time I said to myself that, some day, I would work with the recorder player.”
Interestingly, Dinur also allowed herself plenty of room for artistic maneuver by opting for poems, rather than lyrics written specifically to be put to music.
The poetry element, she says, is hereditary.
“I grew up in a home full of poetry.
My mother loves poetry, so it was natural for me to gravitate towards that.”
Even so, Poetry Duets was not premeditated.
“I just collected poems I like over time. I came across Mai Muzaffar’s work because of a poetry evening based on the work of Arab poets, that was due to happen at Tzavta [Theater in Tel Aviv]. So this project just evolved over time.”
Dinur also believes there is considerable added value to be had from putting poems to music. “On the one hand, it is a bit unnatural, because poems are written to be read – not sung. But when you compose music for poetry, it gives the poems an additional lease of life. People will hear the words on the radio, and you enable the poems to spread out beyond the confines of the book.”
That spirit of freedom is prevalent throughout the album, like a delightful spring breeze, and there is no reason to believe that will not be the case at next Friday’s show at the Jerusalem Theater.
For tickets and more information: *6226, (02) 623-7000 and israel-festival.org/English/