Israeli Arab singer ‘honored’ to perform at Memorial Day ceremony
Nasreen Qadri has been touring America with Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis as Radiohead’s opening act, but she is even more excited about singing at official events commemorating Israel’s fallen soldiers and celebrating the state’s independence. ‘I am part of this country, and being on stage in this ceremony is feeling like I belong,’ she says.
“Dudu (Israeli musician Dudu Tassa) told me to come see the hall, but I told him I would rather not,” she says. “I heard the instrumentalists talk about how enormous it was, but I just didn’t want to see it. I preferred to wait. Only when Dudu called me up on stage, I went up and saw all those heads in front of me. Heads, heads, heads. A huge stage, massive illumination. I began trembling. I didn’t know what to do. I was stressed out because I didn’t know if we would succeed and how we would be accepted.”
And then you opened your mouth and all your fears were gone?
“No, I wish. In the tour’s first concert, in Miami, I couldn’t get over it. Only when I got off the stage and heard the applause, how much they support us and love our music, which they find a bit strange, only then I relaxed. You are applauded by 20,000 people and you say to yourself, ‘Wow, music actually talks here. They don’t care about anything else.’ I got off the stage, and it suddenly hit me. I gave a huge scream, with all my heart.”
‘Breaking the fence’
Less than a year ago, Qadri said in an interview that her dream was to become the first Arab singer to perform at the Caesarea Amphitheater. At the time, she was willing to settle for the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv or for Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem.
In the past few weeks, Qadri has pushed Caesarea aside. She is saving it for later. In the meantime, she is hanging out on the biggest stages in the United States together with Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis, Radiohead’s opening act in their US concert tour. “I can’t summarize this period for you, because it was insane,” she says.
Qadri gave us this interview from her hotel in Los Angeles, a moment before the last US concert with the English rock band. A day after the interview, she performed with Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis at the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Southern California. On Monday, she landed in Israel, about to break another record: Qadri, a Muslim Arab, will perform on Sunday evening at the Memorial Day ceremony in Jerusalem. In addition, she has received an emotionally moving request from the organizers of the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl to perform at the event which will kick off Israel’s 69th Independence Day celebrations.
A wise man once said that you get used to everything in the end, but in this case he was slightly wrong. The word “insane” is repeated again and again in the interview with Qadri, who is still enjoying every second. “It’s an insane experience,” she says. “Our bags move from one hotel to another, we sleep for a few hours and get on the next flight. After Miami we were in Atlanta, then in Seattle, Kansas, New Orleans, Portland… I no longer have any control over where we were and what we did.”
So what are Radiohead like?
“Thom Yorke, the lead singer, keeps his distance, but guitar player Jonny Greenwood, who is married to an Israeli woman, comes to talk to us and is very supportive. He keeps praising me for my voice. Thom Yorke’s bodyguard came over too and told me that he downloaded our songs and listens to them on his phone.”
The dressing room is very different from what Qadri got used to in Israel. “It’s like the best champagne, the greatest indulgence,” she says enthusiastically. “Wine, all types of alcohol, crazy food. But I miss Israel, my audience and my stage. You can’t imagine how much I miss it.”
You moved from performing at the clubs of Kiryat Gat and Netanya to Miami and Berkley, and you still miss Israel?
“I have wanted this all my life. I wanted to reach the biggest stages, no matter where and how, just to be there. I still can’t believe that it’s happening. But in the end, you can take Nasreen out of the block, but you can’t take the block out of Nasreen.”
The person who took Nasreen out of the block is singer Eyal Golan. Qadri was born 30 years ago to a Muslim Arab family in Haifa and grew up in Lod. She spent years in the margins of the local music scene, fighting with club owners over NIS 300 she was entitled to for a performance of several hours. In 2012, she won the first place in the second season of musical reality show "Eyal Golan Kore Lach" ("Eyal Golan is Calling You") and became a household name.
Since then, Qadri has been moving up. Her self-titled debut album which included the hit single "Hayati," was a success. Her second album, "Benedik," was released half a year ago and she is already working on a third album. Its first single, "Bati Lehachzir Lecha," was released only a month ago and has already reached one million views on YouTube. Meanwhile, Qadri has become the first Israeli Arab to participate in Tel Aviv’s Piano Festival and performed in front of 50,000 people in the rally marking the 20th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murder.
The next stage in her journey to the heart of the Israeli mainstream will take place on the eve of Memorial Day, when Qadri will perform at the Jerusalem Municipality’s main rally at Safra Square, the site of the city hall. The next day, barring any last-minute changes, she will participate in the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl, where she will perform a mix of songs dedicated to Jerusalem together with singer Avner Gadassi.
During the US tour, Qadri was busty rehearsing for these two ceremonies in her hotel rooms in the West Coast. “It’s a great occasion,” she says. “I am part of this country, and it’s an honor for me to be invited to take part in the Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies. Even when I perform with Radiohead abroad, I represent my state. I’m not interested in getting into politics. I’m doing what I know how to do, which is music.”
Still, it can’t be easy for a Muslim Arab to sing on the memorial day for Israel’s fallen soldiers.
“Don’t take me into these corners. We were born into a difficult, abnormal and crazy reality. I come from a place of making it simpler, more positive. For me, being on stage in the ceremony is feeling like I belong. It’s another seal of approval that I feel I have. My message is one of peace and harmony, against racism and against violence. Music can bring people together, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Haven’t you encountered any racism from the audience?
“The people who listen to my music are secular and religious, Jews and Arabs, Russians and Ethiopians. So I don’t feel it, and even if there are talkbacks, I just don’t care.”
Aren’t you afraid of the reactions from the Arab population?
“No, because I make them feel like they belong. I am sure that if I perform at the torch-lighting ceremony, they will say: ‘Look, our Nasreen in singing.’”
Do you have anything to say to other Arab singers who want to succeed in Israel?
“Don’t think twice. Break the fence and go for it without being afraid. I’m willing to help. I am approached by many Arab singers, and I always try to promote them. They consult me and I help them with it as much as I can.”
‘Radiohead? Who are they?’
After breaking into the Israeli mainstream with songs in Hebrew, Qadri got involved in romantic relationships with a Jew and moved to Rishon LeZion. Now she is single again after a short relationship. In general, her love life has been very eventful: Several months ago, she filed a complaint with the police against a man she had been involved with for a long time, claiming that he was harassing her since their relationship ended.
“I don’t feel like talking about the breakup,” she says. “But yes, I am single, as single as I can be. At the moment, I’m focusing on music. Love will come later. I’m in no rush at the moment.”
The secret of Qadri’s charm is in her unpretentious authenticity, her singing which bounces straight from her heart into the listener’s ear, over the walls of the Arab-Jewish rift. One of the people enchanted by her voice was Dudu Tassa, who contacted her two years ago and asked her to sing in his album, Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis, in which he revives the music of his grandfather and great-uncle, Daud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti, who were very successful musicians in Iraq.
Qadri quickly adapted to the Iraqi music. “We managed to create a connection,” she says. “His tribute to his family is not something that can be taken for granted. I immediately felt a connection to this style.”
Tassa’s style suited Radiohead too, and the English band enlisted him to open its US tour. He didn’t think twice before deciding to being Qadri along. When she heard about it from her manager, Hagai Uzan, she wasn’t very excited, as she had never heard of Radiohead before.
“Hagai called me and asked if I was sitting down. I said of course, because I was in the car and I don’t usually drive standing up. And then he told me that we were going to open for Radiohead. I asked him, ‘Who are they?’ And he told me that it was one of the greatest bands in the world. I said, ‘Okay, whatever.’”
You didn’t know anything about them?
“I was raised on classical music and Umm Kulthum. 'Creep' wasn’t on my playlist. Today I already know that being their warm-up act is like being Umm Kulthum’s warm-up act.”
Has success gone to Dudu Tassa’s head?
“Dudu is the simplest person I have ever known. A modest human being and a talented singer, who knows what he’s doing on stage and is so proud of being able to introduce his grandfather’s music to the next generations.”
(Translated and edited by Sandy Livak-Furmanski)