»it suddenly hit me: the Yemenite songs my grandma used to sing are actually… Baroque!«
Interview with Tehila Nini Goldstein


Singer Tehila Nini Goldstein’s double-barrelled surname is a product of her parents’ marriage, rather than her own: Nini is the surname of her mother, whose father made his way from Yemen to the Land of Israel in 1927 as a 2.5 year old toddler, in a donkey train. Goldstein is the surname of her father, a Jewish American of Eastern European descent. Add in the fair share of wandering that Tehila herself has clocked in during her 35 years, and some of the background behind Baroque from Yemen, the show she is set to perform in the festival with her co-musicians in the ensemble of Sferraina, transpires.

Born in New York, Nini Goldstein spent most of her childhood in Tzur Hadassah, outside Jerusalem. Singing has been a major part in the family’s life for as long as she can remember: »Whenever we’d get together, we’d sit around and sing. My grandma, a miniature 94-year-old woman, who still rules the family with a firm hand, sang her way through whatever she did. Whether it was washing up or seeing my grandfather to his final place of rest, she did it all singing.«

Another significant source of inspiration was her famous cousin, Achinoam Nini, known outside of Israel as Noa. »She started her career when I was about 10, and I would join her to her shows whenever I could. I’ve always been impressed by her candour as an artist, the way she stands on stage, telling a story.«

Tehila Nini Goldstein © Ran Dank

Tehila Nini Goldstein © Ran Dank

There was this one problem though: Nini Goldstein’s passion for singing was countered by her deep timidity.

»I was a real wall flower, but it was such a passion, that it left me no choice but to sing.«

It was actually her military service that helped her shake free of her shyness:

»Suddenly I was appointed to command soldiers, and had no other choice. I found my voice, the impact of my utterance. And it gave me the confidence to ask what it was I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, and so I realised I just had to make music.«

Following her military service, she went on to attend Tel Aviv’s Academy of Music, but just as her career as an opera singer started to emerge, she felt she had to leave.

»In Israel, they see you’ve got potential and take you on, but I felt there was still much more for me to learn.« She went back to her native town, New York, and started taking lessons with renowned Vocal mentor, Trish McCaffrey: »She is cruel and horrible, but she was the first person not to tell me, ›you’ve got such a beautiful voice, you’re so musical, what a potential…› Rather, she told me, ›You sound like crap, you’re pulling an ugly face, stop making this disgusting noise.‹ She’d put the fear of God into me, this woman, she broke something inside of me, but it’s probably part of her approach. You’re in such a state of shock, that you let go of habits, seeking a new solution as a mere survival tactic. And then one day, after two years in New York, she told me, ›Go to Berlin, there’s still some hunger left there. In New York everyone is too satiated, come back here when you’ve got a career.‹ So I got up and left. Even though I’m from New York and have family back there, it wasn’t a source of great joy for me. The first things people look for is how much you’ve got in the bank, who you know, and what you can already show for.«

And indeed, although choosing to be on stage, and despite the baggage that comes with her first name (Hebrew for ›glory‹), the Berlin atmosphere is far more in tune with her approach:

»My career in Berlin started very quickly, a month into my arrival. And until I had my firstborn, less than a year ago, I enjoyed several blessed years of simultaneous commissions across Europe, the US and Israel. But ›success‹ is not a word I actually believe in. Success is an illusion, a notion that can hold true one moment, and blow up the next. I do like this sense of productive work and satisfaction, knowing I create beauty in this world, bringing joy. When I sing well, when I’m in good health, when my boy is happy, when I have amazing colleagues, when someone wants to hear the music I make… for me success means happiness.«

She also prefers, for the most part, to perform less familiar pieces (»discover a forgotten piece, rather than recycle the same opera 20 times over«), and so, along with one of her Austrian co-musicians in the ensemble, David Bergmüller, she started reading forgotten 17th-century score sheets.

»We just read stuff from the sheet, dwelling every time on anything that sounded good.« Alongside the Italian pieces they uncovered, and some less obscure works, in the ID festival they are also set to perform materials from Nini Goldstein’s origins. »I discovered the marvelous songs by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, a 17th-century Yemenite Jewish poet, and it suddenly hit me – I work with 17th century materials all the time, when in fact the stuff my grandma used to sing me is 17th-century as well, and it’s actually… Baroque! I never thought of it this way. So we started getting together to work and figure out what common grounds could be found that would be compelling. It’s important for me not to fall into this fusion cliché.«


Interview with Tehila Nini Goldstein (Sferraina), prepared by Tal Alon (Editor of the Spitz Magazine Berlin)
You can also find the Hebrew version here: spitzmag.de



Baroque from Yemen
Saturday 22 Oct 2016, 14:30 — 15:30, Saal
duration: 60 min.

Tehila Nini Goldstein, voice
Tobias Steinberger, percussion
David Bergmüller, lute

Alon Sariel, mandolin
Walter Singer, violone

Tickets: 14/10 EUR