Jewish Journal

Miri Mesika: Mother of Israeli pop

by Orit Arfa

Posted on Oct. 6, 2010 at 9:35 am

Miri Mesika

Miri Mesika

Stepping into Miri Mesika’s Tel Aviv apartment, it’s hard to tell she’s one of Israel’s most beloved singers. The design isn’t particularly modern or glamorous, especially by Hollywood standards, and it’s got the usual household clutter: appliances, books, furniture. Only a home studio decorated with album plaques in one corner gives away Mesika’s stature.

Her three albums are among the highest selling for any female artist in Israel. She has received Singer of the Year awards numerous times from Israel’s equivalent of the Grammys and from local radio stations. In Tel Aviv, a pop star could very well be the girl next door.

As she walks out of the kitchen where she’s just put food in the oven, Mesika apologizes for wearing no makeup. She says she’s used to having makeup artists dress her face — not that she needs much. She’s a natural Israeli beauty, with long, black, curly ringlets and a signature mole on her left cheek. Her complexion is darker than it looks in pictures, a testament to her half-Tunisian, half-Iraqi roots.

In the living room, Tamar, her 2-month-old daughter, is asleep in a carriage. Mesika’s record producer and husband of five years, Ori Zakh, is also at home. Tamar is the reason we’re conducting the interview in the family’s living room.

Next month, Mesika will leave her daughter and husband behind for four days as she makes her official American debut, at two events in Los Angeles. The first will be a landmark event: On Friday, Oct. 8, she will perform as the Consulate General of Israel and the Office of the Mayor of Los Angeles host a reception welcoming the Egyptian Consul to Los Angeles. It will be a historic moment, as Consul General of Israel Jacob Dayan and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa officially welcome Consul General of Egypt Ambassador Dr. Hesham Elnakib, the first time in 20 years that the Israeli and Egyptian governments have “come together for a cultural showcase of unity and solidarity in peace,” according to a statement released by Israel’s Consulate General in Los Angeles.

She will also be a headliner of the Jerusalem Soul concert, Oct. 9 at the Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood. She’ll perform alongside the L.A.-based Israeli American Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble, the Israeli pop star and composer Rami Kleinstein and the multiethnic, interfaith Agape International Choir in a concert designed to build cultural and communal bridges through love of Jerusalem. Mesika will perform several songs, including her rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold.”

“I didn’t know it would be so hard to leave her,” Mesika said, looking toward the carriage. As Tamar wakes up, Mesika continues the interview in between cooing and breastfeeding. Being a new mother may have put a damper on some travel plans, but she says any fears of motherhood conflicting with her career have been unfounded.

“Something happens. Something opens. You get deeper and stronger. You get another perspective on life. Since she was born, only good things have happened to me. I had this fear, but I was sure if it’s my destiny to sing, I will sing.” She holds up Tamar and directs the next question to her: “Nachon?” (Right?).

Story continues after the break.

There’s some poetic justice in the fact that Mesika will perform with Kleinstein. When she auditioned for a spot in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) performance troupes some years ago, Kleinstein was on the selection committee that rejected her.

“I wasn’t as good as I am now,” she said. “The people who came there already performed and were very put together. I was clueless.”

But last year, when Mesika visited Manhattan for the first time, Kleinstein invited her to join him onstage at a performance in Times Square. The crowd loved it, and Kleinstein asked her to perform with him again in Los Angeles.

Mesika describes her success as the ugly duckling turning into a swan. Growing up in Herzliya, a straight-A student, she expected to one day become a lawyer, maybe even prime minister.

“I wanted to say something, to make a change. I always loved singing, but people didn’t want to hear me sing, because I was very hoarse.” As a child, she suffered from respiratory problems, which resulted in a natural hoarseness that now adds a rich texture to her singing voice.

After serving in the IDF infantry at the Lebanon border, she enrolled in the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat HaSharon. Her first album, a combination of pop melodies, Arabic sounds and folksy storytelling was a home-studio project made with Zakh and fellow classmate, songwriter Keren Peles.

When the Anana record label picked up the album, Mesika crashed an audition for the award-winning Israeli musical “Shlomo Ha Melech Ve Shelmay Ha Sandlar” at HaBima National Theater. She begged the casting directors to let her sing the song she’d prepared, “Mama” from the musical “Chicago.” As she remembered the scene, Mesika, holding her baby daughter, belted out “When you’re good to Mama ...”

It’s no wonder they cast her on the spot.

Her first single, “November,” hit the radio waves at the same time the musical opened, instantly turning Mesika and her musical collaborators into Israel’s hottest rising pop stars. Today, Zakh produces albums for the country’s “American Idol” equivalent, and Peles is a popular singer in her own right.

Mesika, who is fluent in both French and Arabic, is poised to cross over into Europe. Sony France has expressed interest, but she says she’s not cut out to be an international star because she doesn’t want to be far away from family. She proudly shows off pictures captured on her cell phone of her parents’ new home in the Galilee.

“I love singing in Hebrew, this ancient language. It’s almost a miracle we speak and sing and create things in Hebrew.”

She and her husband are already beginning work on her fourth album.

“The only reason people want to be successful abroad is to be millionaires, but I feel like a millionaire.” She looks her daughter in the eye. “I have everything I want.”

Miri Mesika perfoms Saturday, October 9 at 8:30 pm; “Jerusalem Soul” at the Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East (off the 101 fwy), Hollywood, CA 90068. $12-$80.  Contact: (323) GO 1-FORD (461-3673) or www.FordTheatres.org. Dress warmly for outdoor seating.

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