An Israeli Singer Returns to Her Yemeni Roots

There’s quite a contrast between the persona of S H I R A N, who owns the stage with confidence and wows the audience, and Shiran Avraham, a bashful 31-year-old singer from Ramat Hasharon who was astonished when she was accepted by the Israeli army's entertainment troupe as a teen. “I’ve always been shy,” she says, “but when I sing I become this character who has tremendous strength, I explode and don’t feel embarrassed to be here.” This contrast keeps Avraham grounded and gives her a maturity that enables her to cast a critical eye on her work, improving and developing it.

When someone posted the clip of her song “Ya Banat” on the “Yemen’s Got Talent” Facebook page, it proved so popular that many Yemeni fans are urging her to come perform in Sana’a. Her songs have been played on a popular radio program in Morocco (without mentioning that she is Israeli), and another video of hers, “Yatim,” filmed in Sinai, was shown on an Egyptian comedy show.

From the first listen, it’s clear that this singer, who just launched her second album, “S H I R A N” (Bakal Productions), on July 5 with a show at the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv, is something different – her voice, her charisma, her look, her original texts in Yemeni Arabic sung with an African and Afro-American groove. Avraham and her musicians create a unique sound that looks to her roots while offering something fresh and interesting. 

Avraham first realized she might be able to sing when she took part in ceremonies for various events in high school. “I felt like here was something worth looking into. Something I might really be good at,” she says. She then decided to try out for the army entertainment troupe "on the spur of the moment," and was accepted. “I was in the army when I first met [the late singer] Ahuva Ozeri. I went to her for voice lessons because I wanted to meet her, I wanted her to hear me. She listened to me and said, ‘You don’t need voice lessons, you just need to let your voice come out.’"

A decade later Avraham went back to the legendary singer, this time with songs she had written. Ozeri loved the material and even made a guest appearance at one of Avraham’s shows. And following this second encounter, the two worked together for years, and Avraham joined Ozeri’s band as a singer when the latter was no longer able to sing. Ozeri passed away in 2016.

“I sang her songs,” says Avraham. “All her tools of expression as a singer had been taken away, but she went right on creating music. Whenever I came to her home, she had a new song for me to hear. She would sing – the sounds barely coming out but still very clear, and presented very precisely. It was incredible. When I recorded the songs with her, I had to sing according to her voice, to try to become one with her to understand how she wanted it to be. She taught me how to bring the song to life, and when to use trills. She would go over it with me word by word, explain to me how to respect each word, insist that I look at the audience, that I speak to them with my eyes. I promised myself that I would keep singing her songs at my shows too.”

 

After her military service, Avraham began studying at the Rimon School of Music, where she also met her husband, Ron Bakal, who is now her musical producer. “Toward the end of my time there, when we were already a couple, I played my music for Ron and he gave me a sense of confidence. We worked together on adapting the songs and we were on the same wavelength. We both love soul and R&B and we have the Arabic scales and the influence of Indie music from the Arab world.” These songs formed the basis for Avraham’s first album, recorded in 2015 at the studio of Moshe Daaboul (who also worked with Ahuva Ozeri and Din Din Aviv, among others) and was comprised mainly of songs in Hebrew.

“Rimon is a jazz music school, so they only taught the history of Western music and there was nothing about Mediterranean or Arabic music,” she says. “There was a Michael [Jackson] ensemble but no Zohar [Argov] ensemble. Once I brought in a Zohar song for a class when everyone else had brought songs in English, and they were all baffled.

“When I read about the Yemenite aliyah and the treatment of the Yemenite olim and Mizrahim in general, of my grandparents, it infuriated me and then it all came together for me. My grandmother hadn’t told me very much. You always had to speak very loudly to her in her right ear, and there wasn’t a lot of communication. Suddenly, when I began performing, she started telling me all about her life in Yemen, and that inspired me to write the song ‘Na’ara Yehefa’ (Barefoot Girl) and it made me realize there was something new here that I wanted to explore.”

Her song “Zehere” was inspired by her grandmother’s sister, who would escape at night from the tent at the Ein Shemer transit camp to go see the new land to which she’d come. “For me, it has been a journey of going to different people, both in the family as well as people I met along the way,” she says. “And I want to tell their stories not from a sad and apologetic place, but by making a strong and clear statement that also contains life’s joy, which is music.

“For me, it all came together as a very female-centered concept, being aware of all the female powers, as something feminist and strong,” she adds. “There’s a lot of power in the styling, too, and it really helped me to stand there feeling strong and secure. Yemenites are perceived as small and weak, and I wanted to stand on stage in bright colors.”

Avraham did not learn to speak Yemeni Arabic at home. She didn’t hear it growing up either. Still, she decided to translate her songs into Yemeni Arabic. “I’m drawn to this kind of singing, and I wanted to sing it in the Yemenite dialect, not the Jewish one that we’re familiar with here.”

S H I R A N’s new show and album also include Iraqi and Arabic music. “My father, who is Iraqi, listened to a lot of Arab music when I was little – Umm Kulthum, Farid al-Atrash. We were looked at a bit askance – we lived in Ramat Hasharon, after all. I ran away from this music that was played at home, I suppressed this style. Now in my music I have a mix of my roots and origins with everything I grew up on and loved, like groove and soul. I get up on stage and I enjoy it because it feels right, and then I don’t think about how I’m singing or about how many people are in the audience. This is why I wanted to do music, to enjoy what I’ve chosen to do. All the surrounding stuff is worth it for that hour of freedom when I am totally in it.”

 

Eness Elias

Haaretz Contributor

 

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