In politics, Iranian nuclear power is causing Israel concern, but for more than 20 years, an Iranian-born Israeli pop powerhouse has been causing Israelis nothing but pleasure.
Israel’s most successful and renowned female vocalist is known by all as Rita. Being known by her first name is only one of the reasons the sensual diva has been hailed as the “Israeli Madonna,” though she could just as easily be compared with a wide range of talented singers: some say Christina Aguilera, and others mention the shy tones of Sade. In a land of several million people, Rita’s warm and sultry voice has sold more than 1 million records, and she was even voted “Best Female Singer of All Time” by the Israeli public during the country’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
Despite her celebrity in Israel, Rita was little known in America until she released her single in English, “Love Has Begun.” The single has been heavily featured on American radio playlists, earning her the belated “Breakthrough Artist for 2009” title by New Music Weekly magazine. In the wave of interest after her American single topped the charts, Rita began her latest American tour March 13 at Town Hall in New York City.
From her home in Tel Aviv, Rita explained her own eclectic and personal and musical influences: “I can’t say that my music is one thing or the other. I was born in Iran, so I grew up with Middle Eastern music. Then at 8, I moved to Israel, which is really a cultural and musical melting pot. In my teens, I studied classical music and singing, operas, Puccini and the like, and later I married someone who was born in the U.S. [Rami Kleinstein, her longtime collaborator and a successful singer in his own right.] And then I was trained at Beit Tzvi [one of Israel’s leading acting schools], where I learned all about musicals. All of these styles and songs grew roots — I always try new genres. I did, however, learn that what truly guides me is the written word, the text. I learned that if the words mean something and come from deep inside, they always touch others. It’s never tiring, even after many, many shows.”
For a singer who didn’t shy away from extravagant tours featuring hosts of dancers and gaudy spectacles, many of Rita’s songs, especially the more recent ones, are profoundly intimate and soulful. “I thought that the new album, ‘ Remazim’ [“Clues,” released in 2008], will be more subversive, different and quieter,” Rita said. “Then we found out it was our most successful record. There is always this intimacy. My songs always come from the deepest place inside me, but there are different genres and styles. This time, it was important for me to feel like my audience was sitting here in my living room and that I was singing to them, not in a concert hall. Immediate. Real.”
Rita spoke about the success of “Love Has Begun”:
“A friend kept trying to persuade me to do something in English for years. Kept calling and calling. In the end, he set everything up; the studio, the people, and I came over and sang for a few hours, and all of a sudden I hear we’re on charts and 40 radio stations have been playing it and the breakthrough performance of the year — it was strange. I’m still very surprised.”
When it was pointed out that she is an Iranian-born Israeli singer on her way to America, Rita laughed and said: “Oh my! Sounds scary!” But then she continued:
“I have so many thoughts on this issue, but mostly this: I was an immigrant from Iran. I was 8 years old. It was such a terrible feeling of powerlessness and dislocation, especially watching my parents go through it all. So, the fact that I have walked this distance, that I ended up participating in some of Israel’s most important ceremonies, is astonishing to me. I always return to that helpless 8-year-old. I see her standing next to me, and I smile at her, and she smiles back.”
After 11 albums, and years of topping the charts, Rita is still going strong. “I’m always motivated by my love of singing, of song, but with it, intertwined, is my love of people and the need to make real connections,” she said. Which leads one to think that if only Iranian, Israeli and American exchanges were based on the same sentiment, we might be able to start beating centrifuges into plowshares.
For Rita’s tour information, go to www.teev.com/rita/
Zohar Tirosh-Polk is a playwright, translator and freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.