“Israeli singer songwriter Noam Vazana is a unique example of musical limberness while maintaining artistic integrity”
“Trombone, Sephardic songs and a tribute to Nina Simone”
“Israeli singer @Nani Noam Vazana is a unique example of what can be combined in music while maintaining artistic integrity. She was born in Jerusalem, where both her parents arrived as refugees from #Morocco in the 50’s, nowadays lives in the #Netherlands and played a series of sold-out concerts dedicated to Nina Simone’s legacy in Israel at the end of last year. Her latest album, Andalusian Brew, brings versions of traditional Sephardic songs sung in #Ladino, a Jewish dialect of medieval #Spanish that was once spoken by about half a million people. But Noam Vazana is mainly considered a singer-songwriter, so for her next album she plans to enrich the Sephardic tradition with her own new compositions. Which is a bold step into the unknown, given that Ladino is a dying language. Breaking the boundaries of the boundaries, Noam Vazana planned a DIY 100-concerts tour by herself, stretching even to include Morocco, the homeland of her ancestors, which brought some unexpected complications for a year and a half.”
Q: Not only artists – but even scientists traveling to professional congresses – are often targeted by the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), which seeks to isolate #Israel through hate campaigns. Their threats are most often directed to world-class celebrities who are planning to perform in Israel – but your case was the opposite: they chose to focus on an Israeli singer performing in Morocco. What actually happened?
“This happened in connection with my concert in Tangier, the Tanjazz festival. The Moroccan branch of the BDS had issued a false press release claiming that I murdered a thousand Palestinian children during military service. The release was accompanied by my photo, photoshopped in blood and with hurt people crying over their injuries. Of course I was in the army like any other citizen of Israel – but I served in the orchestra as a trombonist, which can hardly be considered a deadly weapon. But this case was also different on other angles. The BDS movement claims to pursue the freedom of speech, but this was a direct attack on an individual person. I find it curious that they target artists or scientists, because these people most often question the establishment and raise questions such as why today’s society is gradually becoming more intense and fundamentalist. To me, this behaviour is making me question their goals, whether they are to further enhance the separation, worsen the conflict, or actually to seek a solution? I often hear from other artists that they are targeted by BDS hate-emails and that demonstrations are being held outside their concerts.”
Q: So, if the Moroccan branch of BDS claimed you murdered a thousand Palestinian children, did it give any evidence to support their claim?
“No, they only published my fake photo, and misquoted from an earlier interview I gave for the America Israel Foundation, when I was awarded their scholarship for the 3rd time. In it I described how lucky I felt that I served in the army’s orchestra and didn’t have to hold a gun. They twisted my words, dropped the words “orchestra” and “didn’t”. If you then googled my name, you would find the results of that propaganda in 14 different languages.:
Q: Did you suffer any consequences?
“I don’t receive any more engagements from Arabic countries, who often responded that they would suffer threats from the BDS movement if they booked an Israeli artist to perform.”
Q: From a greater distance, it fits into a wide range of fake news, which now comes mainly from Russia.
“My case was a bubble that lasted five months, and then ended just as quickly. The pressure was on many levels: I received death threats in hate emails; when I arrived in Morocco, they kept me at the airport for 12 hours trying to prove that my visa wasn’t valid. Of course that was wrong; all the papers were in order. About 400 people were demonstrating at my concerts, shouting ‘Noam Go Home’. There was also a physical attack on one show: a man from the audience who ran to the stage, while pulling something from under his shirt. It was scary, cause we had no idea what he was holding, and when he was stopped, it turned out to be a Palestinian flag.”
Q: How did you respond? You were obviously singing, in a middle of a song?
“I smiled at him, there was eye contact, he smiled back, and I continued to sing. I knew that love and the ability to forgive will prevail against hatred. No matter how you look at this, I wouldn’t say it was an act of nonviolent protest.”
Q: Do you have a rule for similar situations?
“I have not responded to any of the thousands of hateful emails and social media attacks, I only released positive messages to the media as well as on my social media pages and responded to those who advocated for me. I was deeply touched to discover a group of fans from Morocco, who published a petition in support of my tour and collected more than a thousand signatures within 48 hours.”
Q: This question will sound naive, but did you receive any apology from the BDS movement after releasing a false press release about you? I ask because there are personalities behind BDS who, despite their stubbornness, try to preserve the decorum of seriousness. The most visible is Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. If it was proven to be a custom made lie, wasn’t there a single righteous person in the movement to distance himself from this action?
“I never received an apology. When big interviews with me were published in the Dutch newspaper “de Volkskrant” and also on the “Huffington Post”, the spoof was discovered and they exposed the real quotes from my AICF interview. The BDS released a statement that they didn’t understand how my opinions had changed and claimed that I went back and changed the text in the original interview(!). At this point I realised there is no point in trying to reason with such people, and that my initial gut feeling to only engage in positive conversation was the right choice and will continue to pave my communication path”
Q: What motivated you to travel to Morocco?
“Morocco is the land of my ancestors. My parents came to Israel as one-and two-year-old children with my grandparents in the 1950s; they were persecuted in Morocco, lived as refugees in tent camps for a year or two. My father’s family was from Fez, my mother’s family came from Casablanca. As a child, my father forbade us to talk Ladino, the mother tongue of my ancestors, as he wanted to bury away all these traumas he experienced.”
Q: But fortunately he did not bury the cultural memory of his family. Remember the moment you discovered it?
“A prior tour took me to play in #Tanjazz, the Jazz Festival in Tangier. It was my 1st visit to Morocco and I jumped at the opportunity to visit Fez, where my grandmother was born. Walking down the narrow streets in the medina, the old quarter, I heard people sing a familiar tune. The same one my grandmother used to sing for me when I was a little child. I was immediately transported to myself at the age of four. My grandmother didn’t speak Hebrew, her mother tongue was Ladino, the language of Jewish communities in medieval Spain before the ethnic cleansing of Queen Isabella in 1492. When my father, who wanted to speak only Hebrew, wasn’t at home, my grandmother used to sing Sephardic songs in Ladino. After returning from Morocco, I first released 2 Ladino songs on YouTube and another ensuing two years of research in the archives led me to release my first album in Ladino, Andalusian Brew.”
-Trombone and Piano. Why actually-
Q: You played a series of sold-out concerts dedicated to Nina Simon’s legacy in Tel Aviv at the end of last year, the second theme of which was Bach. How did you come to connect both such distant artists?
“One of the professors I studied with in the Jerusalem music academy is also the artistic director of the Bach Festival in Israel. So far the festival focused only on classical music and they wanted to add a jazz element. He asked me to propose a program that could crossover between J.S Bach & pop/jazz. Initially they suggested the Beatles, who I found only shared the same 1st letter of their name 🙂 I immediately sought to offer Nina Simone instead. She started as a classical pianist and often fuses quotes from classical music in her improvisations, especially with Bach-like themes. I mapped several occasions where she used that classical language and added a few Bach quotes of my own.”
Q: Is there an organ in the program?
“We perform this tribute with a piano quartet; I also sing and play trombone (spoiler: you can hear the Bach Arioso in G on ‘I Loves You Porgy’). We will go on tour with this program in the Netherlands and Germany next year.”
Q: Nina Simone was not just a great singer. Does she inspire you as an artist with a vision, who follows her principles despite the risks?
“For me, as well as for many other artists, we follow an ideological path, a pattern. Music is the ultimate language of freedom and I hold it dear to my heart. Simone’s songs also confront us with subjects that are hard to digest, but they can heal better while they’re exposed to the air, just like an open wound. Take for example her songs Four Women or Mississippi Goddamn.”
Q: You play trombone and piano at the same time, as Juan Carlos Caceres from Argentina was doing before you. He dealt with the demanding interplay of hands and instruments so that the trombone leaned against the knee, with the right hand moving the slide and the left playing the piano, while you improved the method and your is now trombone anchored on the stand. How did you do that?
“This wasn’t my idea, but my teacher’s request, prof @Galina Vracheva. I used to go to Germany for her masterclass, she told me that every time I came to her with a different talent: once it’s singing, once composition, once piano, once trombone. She said I should combine them altogether. At first, I perceived the connection of trombone and piano as a gimmick, almost like a circus act. So I refused, but she insisted and threatened to stop teaching me. I started to try different methods, as the trombone cannot be operated by one hand only. The first attempt was to balance the trombone on a music stand and tie it to my neck with a scarf. Later on I developed 3 different stands until I perfected the technique.”
Q: Moreover, the trombone with piano is a combination based on contrast, and also indicates that you are not looking for the easiest way, as if you were replacing two keys. They are instruments completely different in color, the way they play. Piano accentuates rhythm and trombone adds long melodies. Wasn’t the intention to link both counterparts?
“I started playing trombone at the age of nine. At that time I wanted to be an opera singer, but I still had a child’s voice. Willing to sing in a deeper range, I made up for this handicap by playing trombone. Now I use the instrument to represent certain aspects or characteristics of the song next to the piano. I’m a thematic composer so my songs are always based on stories or memories of past experiences. So the trombone could take on a partial role in the song that is hidden in the overall context, like a secret being revealed, a sweet surprise.”
Q: For some, Israel is a musical force, propelling jazzmen such as Avishai Cohen. The Netherlands, where you currently live, also offers musicians excellent conditions, including quality education. Can you compare both countries?
“I see one main common ground: both countries are small, and in order to succeed in such closed communities, you must be unique. Larger countries offer wider markets, so the percentage of people who might be interested in your music will still be the same but will consist of greater numbers. So in music, it leads you to originality. The competition is pushing you, there are not so many places to play, so musicians are then being forced to travel abroad and look for opportunities there. This also applies to the Israeli jazz scene. I guess I’m a slightly different case because I came to the Netherlands to study. I started out as a classical trombonist, and was invited for an internship with the Concertgebouw Orchestra – which according to some, is the best European ensemble in the genre. After a year I decided to quit the school and focus on a solo career as a singer-songwriter. But even though, I have a lot of concerts outside the Netherlands and Israel; in both countries I play about 20-30 concerts a year and the remaining 70-80 abroad.”
Q: You book your own tours yourself without a manager. Amongst the musicians this is called do-it-yourself, and at Womex you even hosted a panel on this topic. Do you have any recipe for how to make it? How do you book a 100 concerts per year without a manager?
“I do most of the tasks myself; I work with several agents, but they cover 15% of my concerts. Personally, that means I don’t have time for a normal life. Do-it-yourself is a sophisticated combination of different skills in music management, including social media, production, promotional materials and video. Though my husband is helping me with some visual aspects such as graphic design and video production.”
Q: Most artists decide to devote more time to composing and music at this stage, and hiring others to do this work. Are you currently approaching this turning point?
“I hope – but I haven’t found a suitable person yet. Whenever I tried working with someone before, my career has always slowed down a grade or two instead of accelerating. It wasn’t a momentary slump, but in reality, that other person(s) could and would not invest as much as you will ever in someone else’s art. Most professionals work with several artists and have other responsibilities such as family or even a day-job. I choose to totally immerse myself in my career because it’s the right choice for me. Not everybody is lucky enough to do the same.”
Q: When we met in Morocco at Visa For Music Festival before a local band concert that only played acoustic instruments, you pulled two small items out of a very futuristic-looking capsule, who turned out to be earplugs. Is this kind of protection a must?
“Ear protection is a must-have for any musician to retain the longevity of their hearing. I even wear earplugs sometimes on stage, even though my band is not so loud. However, when I visit other artist’s concerts, I will never leave the house without double protection: earplugs + construction site headphones. This is the ultimate effect of continuous increases in sound intensity, and not just in concerts. Our brain levels the sound after continuous exposure to loud noise, so the tendency would be to step up the volume to maintain an emotional response. But if you play softer to begin with, you wouldn’t need to stretch the DB limit at all.”
Q: And if this is the case, is there any logic behind it?
“It is connected with changes in everyday life, when we are exposed to noise, which is constantly increasing, and thus the perception threshold changes. Our attention span also decreases due to new media standards. You can see on youtube analytics that most people would click away if there is no dramatic cut within 30 seconds of the video. So to keep the listener’s attention, musicians feel the need to shout. Unfortunately, this is the most primitive method of achieving communication. The fact that the volume naturally increases during a concert is related to the fact that the songs with the highest energy are played towards the end. When you listen a whole evening and you have sensitive ears, it will make you tired and you end up just leaving the hall. If I were invited as a club programmer to a showcasing series, I would have left halfway in, even if I had hearing protectors on – and the remaining bands would have lost my attention. This is a cruel and vicious cycle.”
Q: You are already a diverse artist, singing Sephardic repertoire in Ladino and a tribute to Nina Simone. What’s this project of yours with the mysterious name Hebrew Groove choir?
“Hebrew Groove is a choir that sings Hebrew songs, especially pop, indie and rock. I write close harmony arrangements with blues, jazz and gospel influences. I founded the choir because I was surprised to discover that people don’t know that there are art and music coming out of Israel, as the media focuses mainly on news of conflict. I wanted to show the positive side of things, with a larger group, to create a communal project. Also since my jazz concerts are almost exclusively in English, I felt like I should do something in Hebrew as well. Many of the singers in the choir are amateurs, but they do undergo auditions and are obliged to stay for the whole season. Together we motivate each other to get better. Every year we have a season of ten months and give about six concerts. We perform in churches, cultural centres, festivals and museums.”
Q: Your new project, Ke Haber (which means ‘What’s New’ in Ladino), premiered at a sold-out concert in Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, with musicians from 8 countries. What was the role of the storyteller in the programme?
“He told the stories behind the songs I composed, because hardly anyone understands the Ladino language today. They are interesting probes into the past – we can find there even the oldest preserved transgender story and other topics that are still controversial today.”
-To understand this correctly: Sephardic Jews lived in the territory of present-day Spain until 1492, when they were forcibly displaced by the decree of Queen Isabella. Those who refused to convert to Catholicism mostly found refuge in Mediterranean countries, including Morocco, Italy Turkey and the Balkan. Thus, the Sephardic songs originated in medieval Spain, but then they continued their own lives in exiled communities, and there, depending on the final destination, they continued to develop and transcribe-
“Interestingly, most of these songs were written and composed by women, as Ladino was the language spoken at home, while Hebrew was used in scripture and in the synagogue. Most of the songs describe relationships between mothers and daughters, stories of unattained love (as marriage was always arranged in advance by the parents regardless of the preferences of the partners). There are also songs about food, for example the song that opens my new album Los Guisados De La Berendjena praises the eggplant and offers 7 recipes for various dishes.
According to ethnomusicologists, Sephardic songs have a temperament and themes that are fundamentally different from later European genres, censured by the oppression of the Inquisition. As a result, they are closer to our contemporary perception of the world than the music of the European Middle Ages.
The style of Sephardic songs can even be dramatic and theatrical, and many singers tend to focus on mannerism and vocal embellishments. Although I like dramatic moments, I know that they should come as peek moments, and that the emotions must not outweigh the content. In my approach, I want to stay true to the music while giving it a contemporary flavor – it would be a shame if those songs disappeared just because they were stuck in an old-fashioned language and archaic forms.
This is one of my goals with my project Ke Haber, including songs about untouched aspects of life: One of the songs I composed is about a ritual that is a landmark between middle age and old age. When people arrive retirement age in the Sephardic tradition, they throw a big party and invite their friends and families to sow a shroud of the dead. In the Sephardic tradition we call it La Mortaja. You lie on a big table, and your friends are sowing the shroud around you. It takes about two hours, and during this time you’re supposed to go into a meditative state and think about all the things you want to leave behind. When the ceremony ends, the shroud is placed in the closet and you start your new life without worries, guilt or grudge. It’s actually a celebration, a rebirth rather than a passing away ceremony. My song is called Una Segunda Piel, which means a second skin. The metaphor in the song is about shedding your old skin, getting ready to start a new path in life. Just like a rite of passage.”
Q: Earlier you mentioned writing about controversial topics – what did you mean?
“During my research with a Ladino scholar from Leiden, we discovered an ancient poem of the 11th-century philosopher Shmuel Hanagid, which has a homoerotic context. At that time, it amazes me that although it was probably a unique act in the high middle ages, but it is still raising strong reactions today. When I published the text it got attention from the media and a journalist called to interview my Ladino teacher. Unfortunately he denied ever showing me the text and suddenly backed out of our next collaboration. As we can see, Jewish culture has deep roots in all aspects, and insight and irony are essential to rediscovering them.”
Q: What are you planning next?
“I’m currently writing new songs in Ladino, develop the Ke Haber project into an entire album. When I rediscovered Ladino music on the streets of Morocco I had to reacquaint myself with this musical world. A natural move was then to record my album Andalusian Brew which consists entirely of traditional songs. However, I am a songwriter and my thirst won’t be quenched by only singing cover versions. In order to make this music a part of my personal and artistic world, I’m tempted to write and record my own songs and make this half-dead language relevant today. I guess the media is interested in my new work because nobody attempted to release an entirely original Ladino album before.”
Q: Ladino could be compared to another dead Jewish language, and that is Yiddish, which has produced a number of new singers, such as Chava Alberstein. But the fundamental difference is that there was a long tradition of literature, poetry and theater in Yiddish. Was there something like that in Ladino?
“There are a few exceptions, a revival attempt was made in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century; they translated Shakespeare into Ladino and a few other famous books like The Little Prince. There used to be a newspaper in Turkey written in Ladino. Nowadays there are several poets/songwriters who write in Ladino but not as a main/only language and then release a book or an album in another language with 1-2 Ladino works amongst them. Generally original works in Ladino were marginal and inconsistent throughout the generations.”
Q: Sephardic songs have evolved a sub-genre, with world-class stars like Savina Yannatou or Yasmin Levy; do you have any favourites?
“There is so much beautiful music in this area and it’s hard to choose one name, and I like artists who do it really well whether it’s a traditional concept or a fusion; everything is measured by quality. As I said, I prefer the original stuff. My personal experience is that when I hear an artist for the first time, he/she always appeals to me more when it is a singer songwriter rather than a mere performer. All my favorites are songwriters.”
“For example, when I first heard Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Björk or Nina Simone, they struck me a lot more than they would had they not been songwriters. In a way, it’s like the author or the songwriter have access to the source of the art. Even when I write a song, it’s like downloading something that is bigger than me. It’s easy to give yourself away to your ego and decide you’re the mere creator of your work. Then all responsibility is on you whether your work is successful or not. In ancient Greece they believed artists or scientists had a ‘Genius’, which is like a genie, an entity that was responsible to inspire the maker. If your work was lousy, you could blame it on the Genius. Nowadays we call people Geniuses and I think this distinction had made it very difficult for society, as people feel less worthy if they are unsuccessful.”