Israel’s Soon-to-be Famous Songstress Turns Heads at Britain’s Limmud

The cousin of Israel’s most renowned oud player could soon be Israel’s answer to Shakira or Rihanna.

COVENTRY, ENGLAND – There’s only one thing better than realizing that one of your favorite musicians is sitting at the table next to you at dinner, having been lured to a corner of semi-rural England to perform in an intimate concert for which you’ll have a front-row seat: that you’re also about to watch his stunning young cousin nearly steal the show.

Nuriya, the cousin of Yair Dalal, Israel’s most renowned oud player, could soon be Israel’s answer to Shakira or Rihanna, though her style is more likely to appeal to lovers of Middle Eastern, Latino, Gypsy Flamenco and World Music.

She has that rare combination of devastating beauty, diva presence, and a deeply moving voice that can only leave you in awe at how so much talent winds up in one woman’s body. And when she moves effortlessly and soulfully as she does between Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic, she literally transports the audience on a journey across the world, or more specifically, from “From Baghdad to Andalusia,” as her two performances with Dalal here were called.

The two were enticed to come for the annual Limmud Conference, an almost week-long gathering of Jewish culture and learning that was first held in 1980 and this year attracted a record 2,600 participants. Initially a cross-denominational conference of Jewish educators and lay leaders, Limmud has grown into something so compelling and creative that the model is being emulated around the globe. But no Limmud is quite as developed and diverse as Limmud U.K’.s winter conference, attracting both top-notch lecturers as well as artists and entertainers.

Nadia Levene, a Limmud volunteer and co-chair of Limmud Jerusalem, invited Dalal to come to the conference this year. He accepted, and suggested they also invite a vocalist Dalal has performed with once before, during the Hot Jazz series last year.

It was only towards the end of their concert that Nuriya explained the story of how they came to perform together: Their grandfathers were cousins who grew up together in Baghdad. But Dalal and Nuriya only met for the first time 13 years ago. While Dalal was born in Israel, Nuriya was born in Mexico to a family with roots in both Iraq and Syria. When Nuriya was four, her parents divorced and her mother took her to Los Angeles, occasionally making journeys back to Mexico to visit the extended family there. Nuriya’s grandparents and even some of her great-grandparents came to America as well, the combination of which meant that she grew up hearing Arabic and speaking Spanish. Though she spent her formative years in the U.S., Middle Eastern and Latino culture permeated her upbringing and informed her tastes in music.

“My grandfather was a small man with a huge personality. He left me with a strong sense of Iraqi identity. For years it was in my head that Iraq is a cradle of so much of civilization. And so I realized that many of the tunes I feel drawn to come from Baghdad,” explains Nuriya, a waif of a woman who has eyes that seem to have emerged straight out of Mesopotamia, with irises that are a mix of tiger eye and jade.

Having shown a flair for music from an early age, Nuriya moved to New York at the age of 17 to study at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. For a while, her passion was Cuban music, and so she studied and performed in Havana. Afterwards, she toured around France with a group that played what she describes as gypsy-reggae. At some point, she connected with Dalal on a visit to Israel and studied with him, learning more about the Iraqi musical tradition under his tutelage.

More recently, in 2011, she spent almost a year in Andalusia learning Flamenco music. She admits that it sounds strange, but while walking there one day she felt a strange chill and then had a sense of hearing cries, and soon realized she was at near the dungeons and torture chambers of the Inquisition.

“Andalusia is a beautiful place, but there’s a deep fracture in the soul of this land, and I know that it’s because of the Inquisition,” she says. The experience pushed her one step closer to fulfilling a dream she’d been mulling over for a long time. A year ago this week, she packed her bags and decided to make aliyah.

“I feel that Israel is the place where it’s coming together for me– all the parts of myself can exist in Israel,” she explains over a cup of a chamomile tea the morning after one of her performances. “I waited until I felt like I had enough experience under my belt to do it. I don’t feel like I’m giving up anything at all by living in Israel – except maybe the Cuban percussionists in New York,” she jokes. “There are more musicians in Israel that have the same sonoric aesthetic as I do. Also Europe is closer, and that’s a place where I very much have an audience.” She pauses. “My soul is happier there. I feel more supported there than anywhere else.”