When we listen to a song in a language we don’t understand and it immediately touches us, a marvelous and precious intimacy is created that can never be duplicated with songs whose words we do understand. The singer manages to convey an emotional story without us having any idea what he or she is actually singing about. This is accomplished solely with the power of the singer’s voice, combined with the power of the music, while the literal meaning of the text remains a mystery. After being initially enchanted with the song, one can search for a translation of the lyrics for a better understanding of what it is about, but that’s of less importance. The original, unmediated encounter with the song underscores the primacy of sensory understanding, which occurs on a deep level, over an intellectual understanding, which is more superficial.
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In the last few years, Israeli music has offered many examples of this, mostly with artists who sing in languages of the Arab Middle East. The two best known are Dudu Tassa’s acclaimed Kuwaitis project and the sister trio A-WA, whose debut album, sung in Yemenite Arabic, recently hit gold status. In both cases, the enthusiasm is wholly justified. But for me, the wonder of that intimate connection with songs I don’t understand occurred with two other singers known to a somewhat smaller audience: Amal Murkus (especially her penultimate album, “Baghani”), and Maureen Nehedar, whose last album, “Gole Gandom,” sung in Farsi, was a gorgeous artistic adaptation of her ethnic roots.
Lack of depth
A comparison of Nehedar’s album with Liraz Charhi’s new album “Naz” is practically unavoidable. Just six months ago I was so deeply moved by the album of an Israeli singer who sings in Farsi, and now here comes an album by another female Israeli singer, also entirely in Farsi, and it barely makes an emotional dent. Liraz (as she calls herself for this project) has said in interviews that she’s been getting excited reactions from Iranian listeners, which is certainly important. This is the home audience for her new songs. The needle on my own personal seismograph, however, registered hardly any movement at all, mainly due to the vocals. Liraz’s voice and singing seem to me to lack depth. They don’t convey any real emotional or cultural excitement, and leave me largely indifferent.
I can still appreciate not only Liraz’s determined plunge into the tricky business of singing in Farsi, as well as the elegant handling of the songs (most of which were written by Iranian songwriters) by her and her music producer, Rejoicer. Liraz and Rejoicer do not fall into the enticing electro-ethnic trap. Instead, they’ve created a livelier and wittier interplay among the beats and synths and Oriental instruments. But it’s not enough. The only song that really drew me in was “Nozi Nozi,” which sounds like a fully realized tale with interesting twists. A few other songs elicited a positive response to particular aspects (the cheerful melody of “Mahtab,” the delightful trombone in “Sal Sal,” the lovely minimalism of “Taxim”). Other songs are just bland, and the album as a whole ranks somewhere above “mediocre” but below “good.” How do you say “mildly pleasurable” in Farsi?