Achinoam Nini: Still in a League of Her Own

After 15 albums and 24 years performing, Achinoam Nini (Noa) just keeps getting better, as her latest album and performance demonstrate.

Nachum Leder

I allow myself to deviate from my usual area of activity, and to devote today’s column to a musician, the singer-songwriter Achinoam Nini. Last week she launched her new album, “Love Medicine” — made with the help of the Headstarter crowd-funding site — with a performance at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. the last time I took the same liberty was 24 years ago, also for her. That was for her own launching as a performer, in February 1990, when she was still a student at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music.

I wrote at the time in Haaretz that she had “a beautiful vocal quality in a wide range, an amazing technical ability, recalling that of Cleo Laine in its lightness during difficult transitions; she possesses a fascinating improvisational ability when she places before herself and her musical partner, guitarist Gil Dor, difficult technical and musical challenges that she skips over with a little smile. She has rhythm, grace and talent and a power whose like I don’t think I have ever seen in a singer or actress in Israel, because these are the qualities you usually hear in a great jazz singer at the height of her powers, who has already made a name for herself.”

What I wrote then is even more true today, after 15 albums and great international success, and happens to be also an accurate description of my impressions from her last weeks performance which was alo a launching of her latest disc. Nini and her former teacher, her current partner in musical creation and performance, the guitarist Gil Dor, exceeded expectations 24 years ago, and today nearly everyone in Israel and abroad, where Nini is also known simply as Noa, recognizes their capabilities.

The sound overcame the boycott

I wrote “nearly” everyone, because in the past several months Nini’s name has been accompanied by a disturbing background noise. She declined an award from AKUM - the Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music in Israel, for her contribution to disseminating Israeli music, so as not to share the stage with the singer Ariel Zilber, who received a lifetime achievement award from the organization at the same ceremony. It was Nini and Dor’s way of protesting Zilber’s racist, bigoted and homophobic remarks in various public forums, a protest that to Nini and Dor was self-evident.

She was accused of having “boycotted” Zilber, and thereby deserving of being “boycotted” herself, which indeed was the de facto consequence, in the form of cancelled concerts, returned tickets, abusive Internet comments and even threats to her life. She did not infringe on Zilber’s right to free speech, slander him, boycott him or even reject his political opinions. Instead, she chose not to accept an award together with him, on account of his bigoted opinions toward entire communities within Israel — and was blacklisted for coming out against those opinions.

Fortunately, the musical and textual creativity, precisely in the minor tone characterizing the songs of the new album, which are indeed “love-medicine” for the soul, is strong enough to overpower this background noise. In the launch performance, Nini combined tracks from the new album with wonderful songs from her rich career. She dedicated “Uri,” with the words of the poet Rachel set to Nini’s own composition, to Michal and David Grossman, whose son Uri was killed at the end of the Second Lebanon War. It was very moving, even though I could not help wondering how Michal and David, who were in the audience, felt when the lovely song hit their ears without any warning.

Her own genre

Much of the performance and the new album is a musical record of the unique status of Nini the singer-songwriter in the world, not only to audiences but also among her colleagues, from among the leading lights in various musical worlds. The guitarist Pat Metheny, for example, who produced her first international album and played on the latest one as well, composed a melody, “Eternity and Beauty,” as a gift to her, and recorded it with her, and the lyrics she had written to his tune, about him.

Another high point (one of many) in the performance was a duet with the Spanish mega-star Joaquin Sabina, for whom Nini composed a song to which he added Spanish text. Sabina also came to Israel for the launch, and sang two duets with Nini on stage. Nini has an intoxicating melodic fluency that is slightly reminiscent of the lyric lieder of Sasha Argov, with the same surprising and enjoyable changes of key. The clarinet solo was played by bassist Adam Ben Ezer, a double-bass virtuoso on his own merits. My ears heard in that melody, despite the Spanish words, a sound characteristic of Italian jazz instrumentalists, who are proficient at introducing a mellifluous quality into the sounds of a song.

Nini is, in effect, a genre unto herself, gliding easily between jazz, pop, world music and classical music. Her and Dor’s musical texture in recent years has included string quartets. In her cover of The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” the strings played chords that recalled The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” and Nini’s riffs took on a Bach-Baroque coloration, that on the album also gained polyphony through the use of double-tracked vocals. On top of all this, she is a white-hot performer, truly a “stage animal,” wearing white in the first part of the two-hour-plus show and red in the second, living her music with her entire body, in fascinating contrast to the relaxed and relaxing presence of Gil Dor at her side. Nini celebrated her 45th birthday the day before the show, and her partners on stage celebrated it in the encore. I wish her many more years of doing what she does so well, and cannot imagine a lovelier present for all of us than her performance, and especially this album.

Nahum Leder
Michel Braunstein