The standing ovation for international Israeli singer-songwriter Noa was as much of an endorsement for her political activism as it was for her musicianship.
Noa, aka Achinoam Nini, performed at the Toronto Reference Library on Oct. 20 with her longtime artistic collaborator and co-writer, Gil Dor, an Israeli guitarist, producer and music arranger.
The evening, which included both music and conversation with Noa was the program for the eighth annual Shira Herzog Symposium. Organized by the New Israel Fund(NIF) of Canada it drew some 350 people, many of them fans of the feisty singer.
Toronto-based writer and curator Evelyn Tauben conducted the interview with Noa by interspersing questions between her and Dor’s musical interludes.
The Israeli pair have released 15 albums in six languages worldwide. They have performed with Sting, Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli and other international stars.
Noa was asked about her family background. She is the descendant of a Yemeni family that traces its roots in Israel to 1901. “They came by foot through the Arabian dessert,” she said. “They were very Zionistic.”
But Noa’s first language is English. When she was a year old her father, a chemical engineer, went to graduate school in the United States and so she spent her formative years there. She excelled in the arts and academia.
“I was the valedictorian of my class,” she later told The CJN.” I wanted to study English literature.”
But those plans changed on a summer visit to Israel when she was 16. “I met a gorgeous soldier.” The two married and now have three children ages 17, 14 and eight.
After completing her military service, Noa enrolled at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. She began her collaboration – it’s been almost 30 years – with Dor, who was on faculty there.
Their first release was a hit, she said. “My career in Israel took off.”
She was the only well-known artist in the country who sang at the 1994 Tel Aviv peace rally, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, she said.
The concert, which was in support of the Oslo Accords, started out as a “happy night,” she recalled. “The crowd was singing and celebrating. Rabin was thrilled.
“To say I was traumatized [by the assassination] is an understatement…I was shattered.”
Noa said Rabin’s death spurred her to become involved in the peace movement. “Someone had to pick up the torch… I started becoming very outspoken…
“I am in a unique position as an artist and public figure,” she said. “The role of the artist is to raise awareness. I use my music not just to entertain, but to enrich the mind.”
She said she identifies with music icons from the ‘60s like Paul Simon, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. They championed causes like human and civil rights.
Noa is on the board of the NIF. She said she is also a big supporter of the Parents Circle Families Forum (PCFF) a grassroots organization of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost immediate family members due to the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“They have paid the highest price. But they choose to mourn together to bring peace and end war,” Noa said, noting that she’s been called a traitor for singing at their Memorial Day ceremony.
“Leonard Cohen dedicated $1 million to the Parents Circle. I don’t have $1 million, but I’ll give them my voice and my heart any day.”
But she has paid a price for her activism. Her performance at a Yom-ha’Atzmaut concert in Vancouver in 2016 was nearly cancelled, because the organization backing the event pulled its funding to censure her. The Israeli Embassy in Ottawa and its Vancouver consulate ended up stepping in to support her concert.
Noa spoke about her experience representing Israel in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest with Arab-Israeli actress and singer Mira Awad. They sang There must be Another Way in three languages – English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Noa sang that song on this night in Toronto. (She and Awad will actually be performing together in Toronto at Koerner Hall on March 2).
It was the first time Israel was represented at Eurovision by the Arab language, she said. “Mira and myself came under great attack”
NOA said she was denounced for performing with an Arab, while Awad was also criticized by other Arabs for singing with an Israeli Jew. “What we were representing here is not a situation that exists, but what can be possible to generate hope.”