Name: Odeya Nini 

Nationality: Israeli-American

Occupation: composer/vocalist

Current release: ODE on Populist Records

If you enjoyed this interview with Odeya Nini, visit www.odeyanini.com for news and info on her work.

Music can deal with life and death in many ways. What are examples you find particularly inspiring for you personally? Has one of them possibly changed your view on life and death?

I am extremely inspired by the tradition of wailing in the Yemenite Jewish tradition. My ancestors originated from Yemen, and women who were wailers were part of the culture. When a person passed, the wailer would be invited into the home of the mourning family and sing her deep, heart-breaking song of lament. Her voice was meant to pierce deep into the soul and make everyone cry while she herself embodied grief in her body and sounds. It’s a powerful tradition, and this practice is both a performance and not. Another example is the Famadihana tradition in Madagascar. It’s a ritual of removing the dead body from its tomb every seven years and celebrating its life with song and dance before returning it back. Although these two traditions have different sentiments to them I feel like they both acknowledge death, life lived and those who remain living. It makes death a part of our lives in acts that invite us to feel it very strongly and participate, therefore enhancing the feeling of the cycle of life, bringing it all closer to being one vast experience of being.

Unless it's too personal, what's your own view on life and what happens when it ends?

As time goes by I attach myself less and less to the idea of beginning and end, and try to feel it all as a cycle that has no end and no beginning. I remind myself that my human abilities are limited in sight, sound, and senses and trust that there is much I cannot even begin to comprehend with my human mind.

Music can express the unspeakable. What can it express about life and death which words alone may not?

I recently have been obsessed with the pump organ. I have played other drone instruments like the singing bowls and the shruti box, but the pump organ has really allowed me to feel the vibration most in my entire body. The full body experience of pedaling with my feet and moving my fingers while swaying my body to the music adds to the transcendent nature of the sound of air moving endlessly through the bellows. The lungs of the instrument continue until my feet stop, but the sound only stops in my ear, I can still feel the energy of the drone pulsing through me. The notes and chords that can seemingly be held for infinity, both controlled by me and not, feel like the unspeakable.

Many of us associate music with phases of life which are particularly vivid, intense and important. Do you, too –and if so, what are examples of this? What is it about music that makes it so particularly powerful as a celebration/intensifier/diarist of life?

I often have images, memories and flashbacks from moments in my life when I am sounding, especially when working with students in call and response. I am always amazed at what comes up for me, because so often they are random moments in my life, not something significant. I’ll have a vision of turning a corner to walk into a cafe, parallel parking before a performance, looking out the window on a drive from a road trip 8 years ago. One moment I keep returning to is approaching a stall in the central market in Tel Aviv’s, shuk ha’carmel.

I was very close to my beloved grandmother who passed away 3 years ago, and this location was a place she went to almost daily. The spot is always the same and I am on the road looking into the small shop selling home goods and basic groceries that she would frequent. I found it very odd, as there could be many other moments shared, places I went with her that could come up, but when I last visited Israel this past July for the first time since her death, it became more clear to me why this particular place keeps resonating. My grandmother had suffered a stoke in the shop at the age of 95, a year and a half before her death. She was totally independent and sharp until that point and suddenly her life had almost ended. The grocer saved her life by immediately calling an ambulance, but it was the beginning of her journey in letting go of this body and realm. I am the silent witness in this vision. Many of the random moments somehow feel both ordinary and extraordinary. I try to listen in deeply to the clues of why my mind and spirit bring me back to these scenes. I ultimately feel that it’s in the in-between moments of life, the space and transition from one moment to another that my lessons need to be learned.

Has music offered you concrete solace in the face of death or very difficult phases in your life? What made it so helpful in that situation?

 I can think of several situations, but most vivid is facing my grandmother’s death and burial. I sang to her a lot in the final days of her life when she was non-responsive. I sang Yemenite songs she taught me, childhood Hebrew songs she taught me, mantras, repetitive Oms with singing bowls and other songs from her life. At her funeral, my family and I sang an old Israeli song that has her name in the chorus, sung long and loud. I find that beyond being able to soothe and cry through these songs, they have marked a moment in time that I want to remember. I don’t want to remember the pain, but rather how I moved through grief with strength and connection, and how the songs allowed me to release and feel the depth of emotion. I regularly sing the song from her funeral to my daughter as a lullaby, making my grandmother ever present in that moment and in my everyday life.

In which way do topics of life and death play a role in your own music, would you say?

The voice is the sound of breath, breath is life. To sound a note fully we must empty our breath completely. The vacancy of our lungs, the lack of breath is akin to death. Just the act of using our voice is an expression life. The vibration that is created within my body and the vibration radiating from my body and bouncing off every surface really feels to me like a connection with something divine, something beyond my comprehension. Often times when I sound and improvise, feeling the flow of breath and the pulse of dynamics move through me, I feel a higher state of consciousness. Embodying the voice lifts me to that liminal space in between what is and a nothingness, at once losing myself and in a heightened state of awareness and presence. I am always in a state of surrender.

Can you talk about one of your works which deals with life and death in an open way? What were some of the motivations for writing it, how did you develop the piece and what were some of the responses? In which way was the act of working on the music cathartic/helpful for you?

 In a way, my piece “I See You” deals with life and death in the sense that to me, it is an expression of pure human connection and Love. The piece is a 5-minute performance, usually for only 1 person, where I play the shruti box and sing while eye gazing. The eye gazing is an invitation to be witnessed and become a witness. There is a loss of ego that happens. I feel that my intention to see so deeply and to give all the love to this person I face takes me out of my body and in a way, I become pure love.

I practice being so present and relaxing every muscle in my body that is not the powerful muscles needed to project my voice. I imagine wrapping my voice around this person, allowing sound to enter every pore in their body and move them on a cellular level. It was an incredibly powerful piece that I began performing in early 2021 and still continue. I found in this piece so much more than I expected, which was really an immediate opening to the soul. It seems so simple, and it actually is. That part that is so practiced is my ability to hold space and meet another person at the level of our energy, and from that level the voice makes its journey. There is a stripping, a nakedness that removes all past, experiences, a feeling that we have no name. We are complete strangers yet everything is so clear without words. Both emptiness and bliss. The last iteration of the piece was for elders 90 and above. I wanted to look people in the eye who were facing the final years maybe months of life. I wanted to be let in to their experiences and into their hearts. I wanted to know by looking into their eyes what it feels like to be at the end. I know that in some way I was also trying to see my grandmother again. I was incredibly humbled by how this piece was received. People felt very powerful openings in their heart almost immediately and tears flowed within seconds of my singing and our sharing. I was honored that “I See You” was mentioned as a notable performance of 2021 by a reputable publication.

A morbid question, perhaps, but would you like to listen to a particular piece of music shortly before death? Do you already know which piece of music you'd like to have played at your funeral?

 I was very clear on the piece of music I wanted to hear preparing for a home birth. Unmedicated laboring and childbirth is the closest thing I could image to facing death. Laaraji’s Essence “Universe” playing on repeat on our record player was All I wanted to hear. It was glorious. As for my own death, I can only imagine wanting the sound of my loved aones’ voices speaking and singing to me.