SAN FRANCISCO — During her upbringing in Israel, Inbar Bakal learned to love traditional music from Yemen, where her mother’s family had lived for generations.
But when Bakal embarked on a professional singing career eight years ago, she never considered incorporating the tunes she learned from her childhood. Pop music was Bakal’s initial focus, but here’s what happens when an Israeli crooner moves to Los Angeles and meets an Italian-American producer who specializes in stylish beats: She reconsiders her assumptions, then makes an album — in Hebrew, Yemeni Arabic and English — that has her listeners swaying to songs about biblical texts and women from the ancient Middle East.
“I took the old,” Bakal says, “and dressed it in a new way.”
“Song of Songs” was released this month, and its circuitous backstory includes Bakal’s start in music with an Israeli choir featured on the soundtrack to the movie “Schindler’s List”; her four years in the Israeli military, two of them in an anti-aircraft unit whose schedule left Bakal no time for singing; her decision to move to L.A. “with two suitcases and a demo”; her chance meeting with producer Carmen Rizzo, who previously perfected the work of Coldplay, Alanis Morisette, and Seal; and — of course — Bakal’s familial connection to Yemen.
On her father’s side, Bakal is Iraqi, and because of his musical tastes, she grew up listening to Arabic records from Iraq and Egypt. But it was the Jewish Yemenite songs — with their intense musical compositions and their stories of women’s lives and laments — that had the most impact on Bakal. Though Bakal is secular, she found herself drawn to the mysticism of Jewish Yemenite culture, which says that lives are foretold.
“It sounds so corny,” says Bakal, 29, “but everything happens for a reason.”
Perhaps it was fate, then, that Bakal happened to meet Rizzo, who worked in the same L.A. building. At the time, in 2005, Bakal was experimenting with English-only pop songs. As she reflects back on that period, she admits that, for commercial reasons, “I was afraid to sing in a different language.” Rizzo disabused her of that idea. That same year, Rizzo had achieved success with co-founding the group Niyaz, which showcases Iranian singer Azam Ali, Persian lyrics, and atmospheric instrumentation that’s been described as “trance electronica.” Niyaz’s second album spotlights medieval Persian poetry. So when Rizzo discovered that Bakal had a passion for old Yemenite songs, this is what he told her: “Don’t waste your time trying to be another American girl.”
Like Niyaz’s stirring music, Bakal’s songs have a “global trance” quality to them. Oud, tabla, saz (a long-necked lute), bouzouki (another type of long-necked lute), and electronic keyboards filter throughout Bakal’s album. In the song called “The Bride,” Bakal yearns for a lost love on the eve of an arranged marriage.
On the album’s title track, Bakal uses passages from the Old Testament book of the same name, which describes physical love between a man and woman (“let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth ... ”).
Rabbis interpret the biblical book to mean the adoration between God and the Chosen People. Despite her album’s obvious Jewish imprint (the cover is lined with Hebrew words), Bakal wants her music to appeal to a wide audience of people who — like her — are interested in the melding of different cultures. Bakal performs with, among others, keyboardist Loren Khulusi, a Lebanese-American who grew up in a Muslim household. Khulusi’s family told Bakal they liked the album’s songs, which made her ecstatic.
“I want my music to be universal,” Bakal says. “That’s my goal.”
Bakal, who grew up in Herzliya, a Tel Aviv suburb, is traveling to Israel next month to promote “Song of Songs.” It will be a reunion of sorts — not just with her family and homeland, but with the memory of her maternal grandfather, Yosef Hazi, a Kabbalist who predicted in 1996 that Bakal would sing for a living. “You have a big star in the sky,” he told her, “that says you are going to be a singer.”
Back then, Bakal’s only public success was with the Li-Ron Choir, which contributed a song, “Ofy’n Pripetshok/Nacht Aktion,” to the “Schindler’s List” soundtrack. Bakal was 12 when it was recorded.
Her subsequent stint in the Israeli military, when she became the first female officer in the country’s Anti-Aircraft Combat Division, only confirmed that it was music — not a life in uniform — that most appealed to her.
The photos on Bakal’s new album show her on the verge of smiling. In one, she holds up her fingers, whose tips are covered in gold and bronze polish. The effect, Bakal says, turns each of her fingers into a kind of yad, the decorated pointer that religious Jews use in synagogues to read the Torah. It’s another way that Bakal reworked millennial-old themes for new audiences who may be unfamiliar with the traditions that enveloped Bakal from a very early age.
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