“When I was in Cuba, studying folklore, I heard what is called a ‘diana’”, says Nuriya, then proceeding to beautifully vocalize an example of the prayerful chanting with which many musicians initiate their sets, adding that she was startled by the recognition: “Hello! OK, I´m in Temple!” By phone from her New York City home, the lovely songstress is explaining to me the connections between the many sources of her compositions. Born in Mexico City, she is the great-granddaughter of Mizrahim, or Middle Eastern Jews, who fled from Iraq and Syria to Mexico to escape from religious persecution. Although she undertook formal studies in opera and jazz, it’s the Arabic and Middle Eastern music, as well as Pismonim ( traditional Jewish songs song on joyous occasions) and melodies that cantors sing in Temple, that all came to be part of the varied textures that she lays out in a Flamenco-tinged tapestry upon which her vocals glide and soar.
It’s a musical journey that started in Mexico City, Nuriya explains, with a music major mother who exposed her to sounds from Mexico and other parts of Latin America as she was growing up. Nuriya began by taking on several instruments, but quickly came to the realization that her voice was her primary instrument, and initiated opera studies. But something was missing, she says: “I was taking opera lessons, but it wasn’t where my soul wanted to go. The more I started to express what I needed to express, the more it finally became embodied, and lo and behold it was the same music I grew up with.” All these connections, including her travel to study in Cuba, glimmer through in her compositions. (If you think a fusion like this is impossibly complex, check the video of Nuriya’s spirited vocal riffing on “La Bamba,” which she performs barefoot, in traditional mariachi pants).
Although many of Nuriya’s tunes are upbeat, many also have a bit of an inherent melancholy, and a smoldering intensity. She describes that her music is also part of manifesting a spiritual connection: “It’s not something that’s conscious, but at a core, primal level, I am a spiritual being before being a human, woman, Jew, daughter. I want to be able to share my whole self with my music, and that includes the dark part, to be able to walk through it and understand it.” But it’s also about using music to touch all the parts of her audience, too, she concludes: “With its elements of rhythm and melody that we are born with – our hearts beat, we express melody in speaking – these are the two most immediate ways that human beings are touched easily, because it´s already in our body. And nothing brings people together like music. It’s the only positive unifying force that has the power to make people come together.”
Nuriya will perform at the World Music Festival Sept. 18