Born to Iraqi and Yemenite parents, Inbar Bakal blasts stereotypes of what it means to be an Israeli-born Jew. Like all Israelis, she was drafted into the military. Inbar became the first female officer to serve in the Anti-Aircraft Combat Division. But when given the opportunity to make a career of the armed forces, Bakal dismayed family and friends by heading to America with two suitcases and a burning desire to sing. Bakal—now living in Los Angeles—finds herself in new surroundings exposed to conversations and influences she never heard back home in Israel. "I've spoken with more Palestinians here than I ever had the opportunity to talk to back in Israel," she says. "Here I found a whole new way of listening."
Bakal's debut album, Song of Songs, marks a turning point for the singer, whose musical epiphany came during an early meeting with producer Carmen Rizzo, known for his work with Seal, Jem, Coldplay, and Paul Oakenfold, and as co-founding member of global electronica band Niyaz. “Carmen asked me why I was making mainstream music. He said, ‘You have such a unique background, why not dig into it?’”
The result: Millennia-old Yemenite Jewish wedding songs transform into sparkling trans-Mediterranean electronica. Psalms sung on Shabbat echo with a very modern hope, a sound that leaps the daunting barriers between Jews and Muslims. “One of the musicians in my band grew up in a Muslim home. When we performed recently, his family came and they loved it,” Bakal smiles. “They were really touched, which touched me on so many levels. I didn’t know how they would be towards me, since I am Israeli and I served in the army. It was very cool to discover that people can leave politics aside.”
Bakal began singing as a child, growing up in the vibrantly musical community of her mother’s family–Yemenite Jews who had come to Israel in the late 1940s as part of the two-year mass emigration of Yemen’s Jews to Israel to escape pogroms and persecution. With a unique religious approach and culture that evolved due to their isolation from other groups, many Yemenite Jews were artists and craftspeople, silversmiths and singers. Though no one sang professionally or played an instrument in Bakal’s family, there were always Yemenite records spinning, raucous traditional dancing, the smell of certain spices, and passionate devotion to the Torah.
“Though Israel is very Western and a lot like Southern California in many ways, I was raised in a very traditional home. The Yemenite people are known for being very musical and very religious,” Bakal explains. “So I got those two things engraved in me. I wasn’t very religious, but I had this traditional sense of Judaism and the culture, of pride in my Yemenite heritage.”
In this lively world, Bakal gained a profound sense of the human drama intertwining with scripture, and it fascinated her. “I remember asking my grandfather why a sensual, erotic description like the Song of Songs is in the Bible. He said, ‘Well, a lot of people would say this is an allegory for the love between Man and God. But I think it is about love for a woman. It is truly divine.’” Her grandfather’s astute interpretation helped inspire Bakal’s version of the traditional psalm and the album’s title track, “Song of Songs.”
This same grandfather was a well-respected kabbalist. He was thought by some to be able to predict the future. He told Bakal their ancestors were lost descendants of the tribe of Judah. Bakal remembers that he pointed to the unique way the veins in his hands looked as evidence that he was different. While Inbar was not sure what to believe of many of her grandfather’s mystical claims, he left her with some spiritual books that are centuries old, and with a memory that particularly stands out and nourishes her to this day. “My grandfather never heard me sing,” she remembers. “But when I was sixteen, about a month before he died, he told me, ‘You have a big star in the sky that says you are going to be a singer.’”
Bakal’s other side of the family, the Iraqi side, had faced a similar fate as her Yemenite side—forced expulsion from their original homes to come to Israel. But Bakal was always struck by the distinct contrasts between her mother and father’s cultures. “My father’s relatives were always listening to very traditional Arabic music, to the most famous Arabic singers from Egypt and Lebanon and watching Arabic movies,” Bakal remembers. “It was like a different world.”
Yemenite traditions, different from those of other Jewish communities and launched onto the global music scene by singer Ofra Haza, take on new twists in Bakal’s songs. In “The Bride,” Bakal combines two songs in the common Yemenite dance rhythm of 6/8—one told from the perspective of a bride-to-be who detests the older man her family has bound her to marry, one sung during the seven-day wedding ceremony—to tell a new tale of a woman’s fate in arranged marriage. “In the first song, the girl is begging her parents not to sell her into marriage, and they respond, ‘Tough.’ Then bang, there’s the marriage. It’s horrible, but that’s what my grandmother’s generation faced. My grandmother was a rebel, though,” Bakal laughs. “She got divorced.”
Bakal found her own rebellious streak after serving in the Israeli Air Force, when her long-held dream of being a musician took her, bags in hand, to Los Angeles.
Starting at age six, Bakal performed with the esteemed Li-Ron Choir, including a performance on the Schindler’s List soundtrack. Bakal gained years of classical vocal training and international touring experience, guided by a firm yet inspirational conductor. Yet her coming of age and draft into the military changed all that, and Bakal pined for music and singing. “When I was in the military, I went to see a show by Israeli rocker Shalom Hanoch. I stood there in the audience and started to cry,” Bakal recalls. “And my friend was like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ I told her that that was what I needed to be doing. And she said, ‘So do it, stop crying!’ It was a very powerful realization. To this day, when I watch people perform, I have this ache in my body: I need to be singing.”
The longing that took Bakal to Los Angeles, a city where she knew not a soul, led her down new, more expansive musical paths, thanks in part to input from Rizzo. Together, they took Bakal’s original compositions, as well as traditional Yemenite songs, and added everything from piano to oud, saz, and bouzouki. Bakal’s band unites both the sounds of the entire Mediterranean world and its major faiths. This newfound openness has age-old roots in Bakal’s Yemenite upbringing: “Our idea of hospitality is a little more open. It’s a cultural thing. If you meet someone, you always invite them to Shabbat dinner. I feel like my house is always open. And that’s how I feel with this album.”