Growing up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, Victoria Hanna knew that words contained hidden power, and that sounds offered protection from unseen forces.
For the next three months, the Israeli avant-pop star is in residence in Berkeley, where she’s exploring the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life’s vast trove of amulets. Dating mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries and gathered from far-flung Jewish communities in Persia, Greece, Germany, India and beyond, these illuminated manuscripts and sacred objects were created to protect pregnant women, newborns and the infirm from evil spirits.
Deliciously exotic and charmingly Old World to North Americans raised in Judaism’s rationalist mainstream movements, these texts and the aural realms they conjure vibrated through Hanna’s youth. Her late father was an Egyptian-born rabbi and her mother hails from Iran’s ancient Jewish community, and Hanna “grew up with amulets. This is not something new to me,” she said at a recent interview at the Magnes, where she was joined by Francesco Spagnolo, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life curator and a faculty member in Cal’s Department of Music.
With her long, oval face dominated by luminous brown almond-shaped eyes, Hanna looks like a Modigliani portrait come to life. Earnest and unguarded, she has forged an international web of creative relationships, collaborating with New York’s Balkan Beat Box and improvising with fellow vocal explorer Bobby McFerrin. At the Magnes, she’s presenting “Magic Spells,” a weekly performance series featuring new works inspired by amulets in the Magnes Collection every Tuesday through Dec. 5.
In a wide-ranging conversation that touched on her preoccupation with sound, her love of language, and her unorthodox path as an artist, Hanna talked about the presence of numinous words in her upbringing.
“My father, of blessed memory, was a rabbi, a very modest man who dealt with mysticism, but didn’t want to show it off,” she said. “Our house was full of ancient books. A lot of times as a little girl I opened books and find a lot of names of angels that he added, names I was not allowed to read. I found myself waking up in the morning and under my pillow I found combination of letters, names of angels, to help heal me. When I was ill or sick, he’d sit next to me and chant chapters form the Psalms. The action wasn’t just to pray. The presence of these sentences should have a healing effect on me. I see the presence of ancient texts not only as way to transmit information but more as a way to provoke the environment.”
Hanna is the third artist-in-residence at the Magnes, Spagnolo said, part of an ongoing project supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Curated by Spagnolo, “Magic Spells” is presented in conjunction with his UC Berkeley course, “Jewish Nightlife,” and during Hanna’s fall residency she’s also participating in academic and community settings across the San Francisco Bay Area (including a Nov. 29 performance at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall Student Cabaret).
Like so many other fans of her work, Spagnolo discovered Hanna’s music through her breathtaking videos on YouTube and quickly realized he had an ideal proposal for a collaboration. “The Magnes has one of the largest collections of interesting Jewish manuscripts, amulets and magical objects created to project small children, pregnant women, sick people, and households,” he said. “I approached Victoria with the basic concept of working with the amulets as musical scores. So for seven weeks, the music lab becomes a performance open to the public, with Victoria presenting new repertoire. It’s a chance to see how a new project is created, to follow the creative process of one artist.”
To say that Hanna is an unlikely pop star is more than an understatement. As a child, she found speech difficult because of a persistent stutter that still sometimes surfaces when she speaks. Singing however, she felt free and could express herself without impediment. As a girl, her love of performing wasn’t much of a problem, but as she got older she ran directly into the strictures of her cloistered and rigorously observant community. As Spagnolo said at the first “Magic Spells” session on Tuesday, “her voice wasn’t supposed to be heard.”
“I remember singing a lot to myself alone under the blanket, recording myself with a little recorder” Hanna said. “It ended up creating a situation that was not really acceptable. This is one of the conflicts that created who I am. There was something inside me that really wanted with no control, to explore itself. It felt almost as if I’m doing something wrong. My brothers are in a completely different world. My family will never go to see my concerts. My mother is very proud of me, but the rest of my family hope I will only sing in private.”
Any chances that Hanna’s work would go unnoticed evaporated with the release of her striking 2015 video “Aleph Bet,” which has been viewed more than one million times on YouTube. Her second video, “22 Letters,” also went viral. Drawn from the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation), an early mystical Jewish text, the video further illustrated her obsession with the power of sound and symbolism. Her journey from the fringes to the mainstream seemed complete in July when she performed as part of the opening ceremonies of the 2017 Maccabiah Games.
Largely self-taught, she’s studied the North Indian classical Dhrupad vocal tradition, a discipline that fit neatly with her acute sensitivity to the nature of sound. Often in the position of performing for people who don’t speak Hebrew, she wants to emphasize the way sound itself can express and evoke the ineffable.
“In our minds, we’re used to treating the sound as information,” she said. “But it’s not only information. It’s a physical being. I try to seek for it every time I sing live. I try to seek for the purity of the sound. It’s like a secret, almost as if I’m revealing a secret. Speech is much more concrete. The sound and the voice is much more universal.”
Living in Berkeley for three months with her husband and three children, Hanna feels she’s landed in a locale rife with inspiration. Within a few days of arriving she found herself at Lake Anza, channeling music conjured by the landscape. Like her path as an artist, her music doesn’t emerge as a conscious choice. It’s a calling that she couldn’t resist.
“I couldn’t do anything else,” she said. “My father really wanted me to be a doctor, and I loved anatomy. I remember walking in the streets in Jerusalem, and feeling a lot of vocal energy in my body. For me composing is something very intimate. When I sing to myself, the melodies come through my voice, through my action.”
Recommended gigs: Beth Custer / Jenna and the Charmers
Beth Custer, who’s probably best known as a composer responsible for brilliantly kinetic scores for silent films and theatrical productions, presents her quartet Clarinet Thing at the Hillside Club on Friday, Oct. 27. Featuring Harvey Wainapel, Sheldon Brown and Ben Goldberg, the all-clarinet ensemble has honed a spectacular repertoire ranging from Herbie Nichols, Carla Bley, Jimmy Giuffre, and Thelonious Monk to Eubie Blake, Abdullah Ibrahim, Duke Ellington and original pieces by band members. Clarinet Thing also performs at Maybeck Recital Hall on Dec. 6.
Jenna and the Charmers
Vocalist Jenna Mammina is known for putting her unmistakable stamp on a disparate array of material, from Abbey Lincoln to Steely Dan. She’s in particularly fine company in Jenna and the Charmers, who perform at Freight & Salvage on Wednesday, Nov. 1. Launched with drummer Jeremy Steinkoler, the band features bassist Ryan Lukas and guitarist Steve Bissinger.
New York trumepter David Weiss, who performed Sunday at Yoshi’s with the all-star band The Cookers, brings a quartet to the Back Room on Friday, Oct. 27 featuring veteran drummer Danny Spencer, pianist Glen Pearson and bassist Ron Belcher. The date serves as an introduction before a series of dates with his band Point of Departure, which recently released Wake Up Call (Ropeadope Records). Featuring tenor saxophonist Raffi Garabedian and guitarist Will Bernard (both Berkeley High Jazz Band alumni), guitarist Ben Eunson, bassist Matt Clohesy, and rising drummer Kush Abadey, Point of Departure plays the Black Cat in San Francisco on Nov. 2 and 3, and the Boom Boom Room on Nov. 4.