Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Jun 9th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Six years living in the U.S., though, has brought some changes, she says. To her perspective on her identity. And to her music.
On the former, she returns with some deeper appreciation and a sense that maybe she needed to be outside Israeli life for a bit to realize how much a part of her it is.
"Being a Jewish person in Israel, I was taking it for granted," she says, even with coming from a mixed heritage of an Iraqi-born father and a Yemenite mother. "You're not really thinking about your identity. Holidays are holidays. You're with your family. Everyone around you is Jewish. Coming here it was very much, 'OK, I'm without my family, without my friends. How do I fit in my identity?' And finding that was important to me."
And that's where the music comes in. On this trip, she's taking with 'Song of Songs,' her debut release, which reflects that process of discovery with an approach that is at once draws heavily on her roots and has appeal that transcends cultural divides. But she has no idea how its mix of traditional Yemenite songs, Biblical sources and seductive electro-folk settings will go over with friends and family -- let alone potential CD buyers.
"I hope it's a positive reaction," she says. "But I don't know. On one day I think this is the greatest thing, then one day think no one will listen to it. But I believe they will like it, because it's different and in Hebrew."
Indeed it is, as is clear from the song 'The Bride':
Inbar Bakal, 'The Bride'
"It's a hybrid of two traditional songs," she says. "Yemenite songs that growing up were always at weddings. I remember my grandmother singing it, a song about lost love and longing -- just remember these songs very well."
First indications are quite encouraging. Even before she headed over, without any P.R. campaign in Israel, she got an e-mail from Galei Tzahal, one of the main radio stations there (operated by the Israeli Defense Force), asking if they could program some of her music.
"I have no idea how they heard about me," she says.
Ironically, music with an Israeli grounding was exactly what she originally intended not to do. In fact, when she moved to the U.S. -- first to Maryland, where her sister was living, and then Southern California, currently living in Orange County, where her husband works -- she was thinking of herself more of a singer-songwriter. Jewel, she notes, was one musical role model.
"Coming here, I thought I wanted to do more Western things -- for sure, an album in English," she says.
She started recording with a producer, trying various styles but never really finding something comfortable.
"My songs were all over the place," she admits.
Then she met Carmen Rizzo, who was recording in the same building. The producer-mixer (who's part of the Persian-electronic trio Niyaz and has worked with such stars as U2 and Seal) liked her voice but wasn't sold on her material. But after some discussion, she played him what she'd been trying with 'The Bride,' and he was inspired. Taking a stripped-down acoustic version, he went off and reworked it into more or less what we hear now. And then he encouraged her to dive deep into her roots with folk and Biblical material, and to sing in Hebrew. She was not so sure.
"I was very hesitant," she says. "I didn't know who would listen to it. I came to the U.S, and don't know anyone here who listens to Hebrew except Israelis. And if I was singing to Israelis, why not stay in Israel? But I can't compete with American singer-songwriters or be the next Britney Spears. That doesn't work."
And with that Rizzo convinced her: "I have something unique and have to stay in my natural zone."
Which brings further irony. "It is funny, as Carmen's not Jewish -- especially since I had started working with a producer who is Israeli," she says. "Sometimes you need someone from the outside to focus it."
And that opened the creative floodgates.
"There were a lot of different things," she says. "For example, 'Song of Songs,' which is in English. I always remember wanting to compose from those lyrics. I remember reading it as a child, thinking, 'This is fascinating!' Erotic, sexual and thinking, 'Oh, my God, this is in the Bible! It talks about breasts!' So I always wanted to do something with it."
Inbar Bakal, 'Song of Songs'
"Then there's 'Bad Old Jerusalem,' the first song on the record," she says. "I was in Israel at the time during the second Lebanon war [in 2006], and I remember going back to the U.S. and being deeply influenced about what happened there. My heart was broken and I wrote that song. In my mind I was literally imagining pilots sitting on the runway, something I'd seen all the time, them waiting for the command to take off and thinking that if they could play a song, what would they play to feel uplifted."
Through the process, Bakal brought a vast set of interests and influences to distill into an artistic vision. At the top of the list is the late Ofra Haza, a Jewish Yemenite singer who moved between traditional and pop styles (and whose "I'm Nin'Alu" was sampled in Eric B. and Rakim's 1987 hip-hop groundbreaker 'Paid in Full,' which was then recycled in M.A.R.R.S.' global, trend-setting club hit 'Pump Up the Volume').
"I don't recall the first time I heard her, she was always there in the background, when I was little she was already successful," she says. "I remember my mom being really proud -- 'Yemenite! An orthodox view and she's making it!' There were other Yemenite singers, very traditional singers that influenced me. Just grew up taking them for granted and dancing to the music at weddings. Later on realized, listening with a critical ear, this music is so awesome, the rhythm and what I could do with it. Didn't think about it growing up, but the 6/8 rhythm, what you can do with it is terrific.
"There is a very traditional Yemenite singer, Zion Golan, just a great singer, an older guy. I like how he uses his voice in certain ways that I don't do and maybe should, more traditional accents that he does. And I really like Idan Raichel, love how he took the Ethiopian music and uses it in different ways, Just great. I loved Rita, a Persian singer who doesn't do a lot of traditional Persian music but is a great performer. Loved that as a kid. Loved listening to Yehuda Poliker, who used Greek roots and a lot of bouzouki -- my first encounter with bouzouki and that's why we're using it a lot in my music."
And then there are artists from other parts of the world.
"So many!" she says. "Oh my God, where do I start? I grew up listening to David Bowie, the Beatles, everybody. I really like Jewel, love Portishead, Massive Attack, Enigma. But if you look in the car I have that and Requiem by Fauré and hip-hop. So many different things."
There's also her military experience that, perhaps surprisingly, has woven in to the search for a musical identity.
"I think I always consider myself a young ambassador of Israel," she says. "Growing up there and knowing the culture and history and everything, I love talking about it. In a way I feel what I'm doing is representing that. Even that song 'Bad Old Jerusalem,' even though it talks about a battle, maybe it's the last battle. And having Muslim people listen -- and one is my band member, and his family loved the music -- that is huge for me. Serving in the military as an officer, people think it's a different representation of what the army is. Here's a person who was an officer and doesn't have a problem saying I'm proud of it, but that doesn't mean we can't talk about peace or can't have a peaceful approach."
And one more thing: "Serving in the military you get a tough skin, and that always helps in the music business."