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Two for the Pride of One
Give peace a chance? How about giving it a musical backbeat?
Chances are that Noa and Mira Awad are aware of and in sync with the possibilities.
The two -- vocalist Noa, known to millions of Israelis as Achinoam Nini; and Arab-Israeli singer Awad -- awake each day to the steely soundtracks of combative and combustible backgrounds that is the political conflict in their homeland.
Surely, both attest to and harmonize with each other, there must be another way.
They have gone on the record with that very notion: "There Must Be Another Way" was their Israeli entry as a vocal duo performing in last year's Eurovision Song Contest, with Awad awarded the post as first Arab representing the land of milk and honey.
Sweet was their venture; bittersweet the outcome as the two finished a not-so-sweet 16th in the contest.
But after nearly 10 years as a twosome -- and decades as artists on their own -- only one number really means anything to them: Their No. 1 priority of a vision of peace through vocals.
They will lend their voice to that cause at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, performing at a benefit concert there on Sunday, May 2 www.tbibluebell.org.
Both have benefited career-wise from their dueling-banjoes banter and bonhomie, even while taking hits and hollers -- not exactly shout-outs -- from detractors who wonder why they don't pay more attention to "West Side Story" for their West Bank story and follow the lyrics to "Stick to Your Own Kind."
That's not the kind of life they've been pursuing, both note.
And Noa, like her colleague, wants a piece of the peace that will one day come, she contends.
Upbeat -- or just marching to a different beat?
"Music can make a difference," she notes, "and it always has, throughout history. But," she emphasizes, "it cannot work magic, and it cannot work alone. Only if all sections of society -- the political, financial, diplomatic and artistic -- work together, can we hope to see any sort of change occur."
To everything, change -- and it was quite a change in Mideast music tableaux to have witnessed these two forge one picture of one voice, one vision at last year's Eurovision competition.
We are the world -- but did fragmented Europe see it that way?
"I think," replies Noa, whose worldwide fame has spread to Philadelphia, notably with her star-spangled performance at Israel's 50th birthday gala celebrated at the Wachovia Center, "we did not place higher in Eurovision because our song was not a classic Eurovision song -- meaning, it was not a lighthearted, catchy, entertaining pop song."
No snap, crackle, pop of a bubble-gum gimmick? "We never had that intention," she says. "We were out to make waves, to say something, and to do it 'our way.' "
Awad weighs in: "I think the Eurovision brought us closer together; the intensity of the preparations for the contest, plus the trouble we faced before it made us realize more than ever that we are strong in our beliefs and committed to our message. And also, the time we spent together made us get to know each other more than ever. As for the result in the contest, the criteria for this kind of pop contest is a mystery to me."
Mideast mysteries are common ground for Israelis and Arabs. But walking in each other's sandals, does the sand feel differently? Are their friends surprised by the deepening friendship between the two? And are American Jews more surprised than their Middle Eastern friends?
No way, says Noa: "I don't hang out with the kinds of people who would be surprised by this kind of friendship. As for the American Jews ... well, I guess we'll find out on tour, won't we?"
Without question, Awad agrees: "People who would be surprised that I'm friends with Noa wouldn't be my friends to begin with."
And yet ... Mira recently canceled an appearance with Noa at London's Israel Independence Day celebration, citing reports of threats of violence and intimidation against her. Noa went on alone.
'Close Friends, Different Circumstances'
Peace and harmony, but hardly the same: Sabra Noa is of Yemenite heritage; Awad, born in the Galilee region, has an Arab Christian for a father and a Christian mom, with roots in Bulgaria.
Far apart but oh-so-close, more dunes than don'ts: "We remain very close friends, though the different circumstances of our life -- I have three children [including a 2-month-old] and live about 30 minutes from Tel Aviv; Mira is single and lives in the center of Tel Aviv -- make social meetings more difficult," says Noa, at age 40, six years younger than her cohort.
Co-existence is easy in their case, although: "We meet while rehearsing, recording and touring, and love being together."
Together and apart, the two have won countless awards and honors, and count big-name rock stars among their fave fans. Indeed, Noa -- who lived in the United States from age 2 to 17 -- has opened for such acts as Sheryl Crow, Carlos Santana and George Benson.
Rock of ages while rocking the vote; play it again ... politically: "Every citizen must take personal responsibility, utilizing whatever tools she or he have at their disposal, even if it is 'only' a vote, to reach a common goal: world peace," claims Noa.
Another country heard from ... well, actually the same. "Does song really have a role to play in" promoting world peace? chimes in Awad. "A song cannot bring peace to the Middle East, and we cannot single-handedly solve the dispute in the region, but I think it opens a window to the possibility of dialogue, and that's important enough."
After all, there are enough smashed windows and broken promises to appease naysayers on both sides. Do they dial up the anger in their own dialogue when bad things happen to good people? When Arab-Israeli tensions arise in the news, what kind of conversations do the two vocalists have with each other?
Says Noa: "We are both deeply depressed by the situation, and committed to presenting the alternative."
"I think we find a bit of comfort in each other, especially in crazy days [when] we remind ourselves that there are some sane people out there who want to reach out to the other side, and find solutions in order to stop the killing," contends Awad.
Is it not ironic then, that an early collaboration between the two, in 2002, was "We Can Work It Out"?
But will it be alone again ... naturally?
"We have already known each other and worked together for almost 10 years," says Noa of their long-term status. "I imagine we will continue to collaborate occasionally whenever the opportunity presents itself, while at the same time, each developing her own direction."
Directions point stateside as the two are scheduled for a series of concerts, including the big event at Tiferet Bet Israel. Want to bet they don't have big visions for their travels?
Hop aboard the peace train: "I once put together a personal peace plan, called 'Peace by Piece,' " reveals Noa of a project that projects a better world for both peoples, given that "each side must recognize the rights of the other to life, freedom, independence, identity, the right to flourish, the right to a peaceful existence."
One is not the loneliest number after all, says her opposite/simpatico number: Mideast leaders "can learn to put the value of life as No. 1 in their list of priorities, like we do. I think that kind of thinking can change the Middle East politics altogether."
And well sung.