By Tammy Scileppi
Israeli singer-songwriter Achinoam Nini is a popular global artist who spreads a message of peace and love wherever she performs.
Better known as Noa, Israel’s leading international superstar is an activist and pacifist who always speaks truth to power, and is known for her indefatigable, courageous work advocating for peace in Israel and the Middle East.
“My style and voice are eclectic, they reflect my soul,” said Noa, an exotic beauty of Yemeni/Israeli roots.
For 28 years, Noa has been sharing her enticing, heartfelt songs, original music, and much more with diverse audiences across North America and Europe. If you’ve never experienced her unique sound and magnetic presence, you will have the opportunity to see her perform right here in Queens when she takes the stage at a special concert celebrating the Free Synagogue of Flushing’s 100th anniversary this Sunday, Feb. 11 at 3:00 p.m.
“Angelic voice, beautiful soul, and a messenger of peace” is how the synagogue’s executive director Alan J. Brava describes her. “Our synagogue has served the Jewish community of Queens for 100 years and we couldn’t think of a better way of beginning our second 100 years than with a concert featuring Israel’s greatest vocal treasure.”
While Noa has been blessed with a successful career in Israel, having performed on all of its major and minor stages, she has also managed to touch the hearts of American audiences with the power of her voice and the deep humanity of her message. It’s no wonder she has enjoyed a growing fan base both here and abroad.
She’s performed at many famous city venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Colden Center in Queens, where she had her first U.S. concert. Noa, who plays almost-yearly shows in and around Gotham, has introduced people to music that many say is unlike anything they’ve ever heard before.
Sunday’s concert will consist of songs from throughout her career — sung in English, Hebrew, and Yemeni — and some new numbers from the project she and gutiarist/arranger/composer Dor are currently working on. Noa herself plays guitar and piano, but said “percussion is by far my strongest instrument.”
Her story began in New York City and she remains a New Yorker at heart. A fourth-generation Israeli, she said she feels “very much at home in the Big Apple.” She came to the U.S. with her parents of Yemeni descent at a young age, and grew up in Riverdale in the Bronx.
“When I was two, my parents moved to Rochester, N.Y., following my father’s education. Later, we moved to the Bronx as my father was completing his Ph.D. at Columbia University.”
At 16, she moved back to Israel alone, and completed high school in Jerusalem. Her parents stayed in the U.S. for 15 more years, and her siblings still live in the States. At 18, she began serving in the Israeli army and sang in a military-entertainment unit.
Looking back, Noa said she was inspired by the music she heard at home — Israeli, Yemeni, classical — and started composing songs at a very young age. Later, she was further inspired by the music she “discovered and adored” as a teen in New York, including popular artists like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Billy Joel, as well as musical theater and jazz.
The global performer has shared the stage with renowned artists such as Sting, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Andrea Bocelli, and has collaborated with symphony orchestras worldwide, even performing at the White House.
She has penned hundreds of tunes in English and Hebrew, including the theme song she co-wrote and recorded for Roberto Benigni’s Academy Award-winning film “La Vita e Bella” (“Life is Beautiful”).
Noa’s inspiration is sparked by “anything and everything,” she said. “Like many artists, I am an acute observer and very sensitive to everything around me … to nuance and subtlety, to changes in the wind and water, to tremors in the earth, to facial expressions, emotions, relationships, paradoxes and dilemmas. I am curious about everything. I care. I am especially sensitive to human beings in all their complexity, misery and beauty.”
Noa said she always integrates one song from the Yemeni Jewish tradition into her concerts, a song her beloved grandmother Rachel Nini — who is 94 and lives in Tel Aviv — taught her about child brides when she was a little girl.
“It is a tragic song, reflecting the hardships of a life devoid of freedom, the fate of too many women in Yemen and throughout the world, then and now,” she explains. “My grandmother is a strong and beautiful woman who taught me to always stand up for myself and be strong and independent, as she was and still is.”
Few people — even those who are famous — ever get the chance to meet the Pope, let alone three pontiffs, or have the opportunity to perform for them in St. Peter’s Square. Noa did, and she felt honored to become the first Israeli to perform at the Vatican when she sang her original version of “Ave Maria” for Pope John Paul II in 1994, before being invited back on eight other occasions, including to meet with Pope Francis last December.
“I was invited to sing in the Vatican for Pope John Paul II for the first time in 1994 and many times afterwards, and later for Pope Benedict XVI,” she said. “Francis is a pope I especially admire and adore. I have met him personally three times now. I am honored as a Jew to have been embraced by the Vatican and given the opportunity, through music, to break the walls that separate us and find common ground.”
As someone who has taken part in several awe-inspiring experiences, Noa has many interesting stories to tell.
With great sadness, she remembered a particularly tragic event. She was the only major Israeli artist to agree to perform at the historic peace rally on Nov. 4, 1995 in Tel Aviv, where former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — who took a historic step towards peace with the Palestinians — was assassinated by a right-wing nationalist.
Years later, she is still heartbroken by his passing and recalls what it was like to be at that rally minutes before he was killed.
“What started as a wonderful, glorious moment, where hundreds of thousands came out to celebrate peace, became a horrible nightmare; a bloody opened wound that became an ugly scar on the face of Israeli society that we are still reeling from.”
Noa said she knew both Rabin, as well as Israeli Labor Party veteran and former prime minister and president Shimon Peres, for years.
“I met Rabin in various events where I performed, and on a TV show we did together,” she said.
The singer lives in Israel with her pediatrician husband and three children on a kibbutz by the sea.
“It’s simple, beautiful, natural. I feel so fortunate to live in this wonderful place,” she said, “where my children grow up barefoot and free, where we are close to nature and where the education is focused on community and volunteering.”
As a symbol of Israel to the world, Noa’s message is a powerful one: “My light is my dedication to peace, humanism and human rights, and to the most beautiful concept conveyed to me as a child: ‘Love your brother as you love yourself.’ ” I promote these luminescent ideas with my words, my voice, and the inspiring, magical power of music, and I invite one and all to join me.”