Achinoam Nini excused herself from a telephone interview to speak to her son, Ayehli. "Just a moment, mami," she told the 2-year-old, who had accompanied his mother to Spain for the last leg of a yearlong tour.
Moments of Nini’s time have been hard to get. The satin-voiced Israeli folksinger’s fourth international album, "Now," was released last fall, and since then Nini (known to her worldwide fans as Noa) has been hop-scotching Europe to promote the album with her longtime collaborator Gil Dor.
She briefly returned home to Tel Aviv this week before flying to New York for a one-night-only acoustic show planned for Oct. 30 at the 92nd Street Y. (See Arts Listing on page 60.) A coast-to-coast North American tour is being planned for 2004.
Last week, the Tel Aviv-born, Bronx-bred Nini took on a new travel assignment. She was named a celebrity ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
At 34, Nini is one of Israel’s most popular singers and has a devoted following in Europe. She has sung for the pope, for presidents and prime ministers, has opened for Sting and played Carnegie Hall.
Nini is also a vocal proponent for peace. So she was happy, if "not exactly sure why," she was chosen to represent the FAO, the 58-year-old international agency that works to alleviate poverty and hunger through agricultural development and improved nutrition.
Perhaps, she suggested, her frequent appearances in Rome, where the FAO is headquartered, prompted her appointment. (She sang in the first-ever concert at the Coliseum last year, and she wrote the theme song for the Oscar-winning Italian-language film "Life Is Beautiful.")
Or maybe it was her willingness to cross cultural borders in musical collaborations, including projects with Arab musicians like her fellow FAO ambassador, the Algerian singer Khaled.
Other FAO ambassadors include the singers Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Bridgewater of the United States, Magida Al Roumi of Lebanon and Miriam Makeba of South Africa; Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi Montalcini of Italy; actresses Gong Li of China and Gina Lollobrigida of Italy, Olympic gold medallist Debbie Ferguson of The Bahamas and Italian soccer player Roberto Baggio.
Both Israel and the United States are longstanding FAO members, but in 1990 the U.S. cut support to the agency after it voted to provide aid through the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Nini said she plans to use her ambassadorship as stage for advancing "communication and compassion."
The post "gives me more clout than I had before," Nini said from Madrid. That can help her "promote peace in Israel, which is what interests me most," she added, noting specifically the so-called Geneva accord, negotiated by Israeli doves and Palestinian moderates.
Peace is a big part of Nini’s repertoire.
During a 1994 visit to Rome, Nini caused a stir when she sang a rendition of "Ave Maria" at the Vatican for an audience of 100,000 people including Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, both of whom, coincidentally, were honored at the Vatican last week.
About that performance, her first of three before the Polish pontiff, Nini explained that her version was "not the [traditional Catholic] prayer," but "a prayer for peace" with original lyrics inspired by the 1991 Gulf War.
More recently, she released a Spanish compilation CD, "Noa Gold," that includes a new song, "Shalom, Shalom," which is getting plenty of radio airplay, she said.
Nini sang it at a recent concert for Mediterranean leaders meeting in Mallorca, Spain, and this summer at a festival in Nice, France, attended by some 10,000 people, many originally from North Africa. Their enthusiastic response to the Hebrew song moved her to sing the refrain in Arabic.
When she started to sing "salaam, salaam," the audience roared in approval. "For me that’s the most beautiful part of what we do," said Nini, whose family hails from Yemen.
On "Now" (Universal), Nini covers the Beatles’ "We Can Work It Out" in a duet with the Palestinian singer and actress Mira Awad.
And in what Nini calls "the best example of how things can be celebrated through dialogue and understanding," she has also collaborated with Nabil Salameh, the Lebanese founder of the Italian band Radio Darwish. "He was radically anti-Israel before we met, but we’ve become amazing friends," Nini said.
Proof of how communication can foster change: Salameh dedicated his group’s last album to Nini’s son.