Last Friday saw the release of Yoni Battat’s debut solo album Fragments. It’s a collection of Iraqi-Jewish-inspired original music and an ode to some traditional classics. Even before this album, Yoni had made a name for himself as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, and (he humbly disagrees) a Broadway actor, all at just 30 years of age. He met up with The Jewish Press to talk about his album, his past projects, and what he has planned for his ever-growing fan base in the future.
The Jewish Press: What’s the story behind the creation of Fragments? Why was it important for you to take on this challenging project and to whom do we owe thanks for making it possible?
Yoni Battat: So the album was made possible by a fellowship that was sponsored by CJP (the Federation of Greater Boston) and the Jewish Arts Collaborative – an initiative that creates space for artists to create dialogue with the community. A lot of the work I did was with the Boston Jewish community in mind.
At first I didn’t feel like I was authorized to write this as someone who wasn’t brought up in the culture. I asked myself who was I to be the spokesperson for this genre of music when I myself am still learning? That question threatened to become a roadblock for me at the beginning of the process, but eventually I began to embrace the process and this became the theme of the album itself. So instead of preventing me from saying anything, it helped me to be able to say my most honest truth about my experience.
You have performed in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Israel, Portugal, and Italy, and with a variety of artists: Earth, Wind and Fire, Yair Dalal, Shai Tsabari, Nava Tehila, VSNY, and Di Gasn Trio. Thats a pretty diverse group. So how do we define Yoni Battat? Do you identify most closely as Israeli or American?
Israel is a part of my story – I have family and I have a strong connection there. But the context of the album is that I grew up here in Connecticut and that’s the experience I want to talk about in my album: what it’s like to be so far removed from any Iraqi Jewish ancestry and culture. So, I think the best answer to your question is: I’m an Iraqi Jewish Musician.
I grew up outside New Haven, Connecticut with an Israeli-Iraqi Jewish father and Ashkenazi mother. I attended a Solomon Schechter school and I had a proper Jewish education, but I didn’t feel much community around my Iraqi heritage outside of my home. In my home, I heard Arabic spoken by my grandparents and I ate Iraqi food and heard Mizrahi pop music from Israel. I went to synagogue in a Chabad shul which was a wonderful community, but it wasn’t an opportunity to connect with my Iraqi roots.
Is it safe to say you didn’t back your parents in a corner and demand they let you learn violin at the age of four? Where did they get the insight to have you train so young?
Turns out they went to a conference on how to raise babies and they learned that as young as three or four you can start your kids on violin. Violins come in fractional sizes, so there are tiny, tiny violins for tiny humans. I studied in the Suzuki method, which, they were told, would be good for my brain development.
Learning classical violin was an important part of my life and it was important to have musical outlets for my Jewish expression. So, I played in my local intergenerational klezmer band, and I also formed my own klezmer band when I was 16. This was the Jewish culture that was available to me. I cherished it very much and it became an important part of my musical voice, but it was distinctly not the Arab music of my Iraqi ancestors.
Indeed, in 2015 you founded the Yiddish jazz band Two Shekel Swing and released the album Pocket Change. I love the song “Seven Shekel Swing” in which you sing and play the violin. So what’s up with the band – is it still around? I’m sure your fans would like to know.
To my fans I say I’m on a bit of a hiatus because of this album. It takes a lot of work to connect with your ancestry. For me, I’ve been making a concerted effort to study Arabic language and Arab music – it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me, so I’ve had to turn my focus momentarily away from klezmer, to devote myself to this personal development. In the U.S., its very easy to learn Yiddish and klezmer – there are so many organizations teaching it. Not so with Middle Eastern Jewish languages and culture. I still feel like I have a lot to say in the klezmer style and I’m sure Two Shekel Swing will swing again.
You’re writing traditional Iraqi music in an ever-changing modern world. Who is your audience for Fragments?
I’m hoping listeners who are open to something new will be drawn to my music. More importantly, I know that there are many Jews in America that have ancestry in the Middle East but don’t have much connection to that part of their identity. I hope these people will feel seen and represented in ways that they haven’t been before. You can relate to this music intellectually, reading the liner notes and translations, but you can also relate from a heart perspective. I know [these are] not the pop songs that will appeal to broad audiences and that’s OK with me. My goal is to express myself in an authentic way and I think there are a lot of people this message will resonate with.
You had a significant role in the Tony Award-winning Broadway play The Band’s Visit. Was there a moment when you said “I always knew I could sing but, man, I didn’t know I was such a great actor too!”?
[Laughs.] No, that was a one-time thing! It was just a particular role that suited me perfectly me because I speak Arabic and play violin in the Arabic style and the role needed that. So, it was really a particular convergence of my exact skill set and they figured they can work with me on the acting part. I had a lot of fun and learned so much, but I don’t anticipate doing much more work in the theater. But who knows?
Is Iraqi music intersectional with other regions of Middle Eastern music?
First of all I’ll say that any Jew – Syrian, Moroccan, Iraqi – or any sort of Mizrahi Jew living in the U.S. will connect strongly with at least the message of this album because it’s a very particular experience of having a fragmented identity and having grown up where your culture wasn’t necessarily reflected if the community at large. I think that Arab music has had a lot of cross-germination especially in the 20th century. Famous Arab singers were beloved across the Arab world regardless of whether you are Egyptian, Yemenite, Moroccan, etc.
There are, of course, amazing, beautiful differences between all these regional musics. But the musical language will generally speak to people from any of those regions. I think Moroccan and Yemenite are particularly different from Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian, etc. And Persian is kind of its own thing. But I think that they all have aesthetics that anyone in that region can relate to, and more importantly that anyone anywhere can learn to listen to with a new lens.
How much of Fragments is original music and how much is traditional?
Of the nine songs, seven are original and two renderings (covers). There are two traditional songs each there for different reasons. There’s “Hatha Mou Insaf Minnak,” which is an Arabic song written in Iraq at the beginning of the 20th century by Saleh Al-Kuwaiti. His music was beloved across the Arab world. Jews or not thought him to be one of the most important composers and many don’t realize he was Jewish. But I sort of imagined the song in a different way. I wanted to render it more inward, calm, introverted. The words of the song are about losing a lover and I sort of reimagined it in the context of my project is about expressing the regret of not having access to my Iraqi ancestors. So that’s one of the two covers on the album.
The other one is often sung at bris milahs and havdalahs – it’s very well known in Iraqi melodies. It’s called “El Eliyahu,” and this one was special because I invited my great uncle Razi who is my last living close relative that was born in Baghdad. So I invited him to sing with me on that song.
Tell us the song your largest audience is going to love as soon as they hear it and why – [a song] loved by everyone.
The most easily lovable song is the final song “From The Fragments,” which is mostly in English, and not particularly Jewish – except for the fact that it’s about my identity as an Iraqi Jew. I think it’s just a heartfelt, touching song that [will resonate with] listeners.
And the one song you are most proud of?
There is one song that I really struggled with. I wanted to write a song about food because it has been an important link to my Iraqi identity. Cooking is such a sensory way of connecting with memory, so I’m always trying to imitate the dishes I remember from my grandparents. There is one dish I couldn’t seem to get right: kubeh. So I actually collaborated with some fellow Iraqi Jews in my community. We discussed the transmission of recipes and accessing memories through taste and smell and striving for that perfect bite that will bring you back to the memory of your loved ones. They really helped me find the right words for that experience, and I think it came out great in the end.
When will be able to experience your music live? Are there concert dates to be announced?
For right now I’m moving to Jerusalem for several months to study Arabic and play with some of the best musicians in the world. If you want to keep up with my music, listen to the album on BandCamp. If you want to catch me live, join my email list via my website. When I get [back] to the U.S., I’ll publicize appearances in concerts and festival using that list.