Childhood was not easy for Victoria Hanna, something that she’s not only at peace with as an adult, but in some ways sees as a strange blessing.
Reached at home in Jerusalem, the singer, in-demand public speaker, self-described “voice artist”, and proud mother of three argues that, without the personal struggles of her youth, there’s no way she’d be where she is today.
“I believe that in every cliché there is a very deep truth,” Hanna notes via telephone. “There is this cliché that in order to make an important creation, you need to go deep into something that is not easy. Think about Vincent van Gogh, who is kind of a symbol. He had all these terrible struggles, but for you, for us, he was the greatest artist.”
For Hanna, born to an Egyptian father and a Persian mother, challenges started early. Her childhood was marked by an extreme stutter she didn’t overcome until adulthood. That made her an easy target for other children.
As she grew older, she learned that to follow one’s dreams often involves shattering those of the people who are closest to you. Her ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents (her dad was a rabbi) hoped that she’d marry and choose a career like medicine.
“They wanted me to be a good soldier, to devote my life to the Orthodox life,” Hanna says. “Which meant becoming a mother and having stable work. This is something many of us experience from our parents, even when we are not religious.”
Instead, from an early age she found solace in the arts, painting as a child and embracing acting while in school during her teen years.
“I was always in the main role—always—and no stuttering was there,” Hanna recounts. “With the stage it was like another dimension—almost as if the dimension of everyday life changed. I would say I’m an example of how art and music can be life-saving.”
Her transformation continued as she began singing and, eventually, researching ancient Hebrew texts to set them to music.
“I could have stayed a stuttering woman, very much traumatized or—I don’t know, suppressed,” Hanna says. “But I know now that things are not black-and-white. I can tell you that my childhood, which was filled with suppressed energy, also gave me a lot of gifts. Incredible gifts. Even now, I realize my stuttering was an incredible gift, because it allowed me to go deep into the roots of speech.”
That exploration of speech and its patterns would pay off handsomely with “The Aleph-bet Song (Hosha’ana)”, which became a viral hit on YouTube, piling up over half a million views after its release in early 2015. A crazily infectious mix of bass-bombed hip-hop and beat-boxed world music, the track has her singing the Hebrew alphabet, the accompanying video casting her in the role of both teacher and student.
“The way this teacher in the video clip is teaching is the way I developed my research in the voice, developed my own language,” she says. “ ‘The Aleph-bet Song’ is the song that I sung to myself—I created it 15 years ago.”
Hanna wasn’t new to the music industry when the world finally discovered her; career highlights have included playing for the Dalai Lama in 2003 and performing with the likes of jazz stalwart Bobby McFerrin. But “The Aleph-bet Song”, and its equally off-kilter, Bollywood-flavoured follow-up “22 Letters”, established the singer as a boundary-pusher in the mould of giants like Björk and Laurie Anderson.
Those singles—which will be followed with a full-length this spring—represented a big psychological step for the artist. Even as an adult, her upbringing still weighs on her in ways that are deeply tied in to her family and cultural dynamics. Her religious upbringing, she notes, frowns upon the idea of singing for mixed-gender audiences.
“Orthodox women are not allowed to sing in front of men—this is the issue,” Hanna says. “So, if I go very, very deep inside me subconsciously, I can see myself sometimes feeling that I am a sinner. And that’s very heavy.”
For years, she dealt with that guilt by concentrating on performing live—where there would be no official document of her performances.
“I’ve performed all over the world, but I’ve never had a CD out,” Hanna reveals. “It’s been like I was hiding from documentation. Orthodox women are not supposed to sing, especially when using holy text. Even yesterday, I was inviting people on my Facebook to come to my concert in Jerusalem, and one person wrote and said, ‘I want to come very much, but what you are doing is wrong. It’s a sin.’ So that voice is always there, telling me that I’m doing something wrong, and playing with something forbidden.
“People react like ‘The Aleph-bet Song’ is very new,” she continues. “It is new for them, but for me I’m allowing things to be explored in a documented way. I am forcing myself to do these things, and that’s making me very, very happy. I have all these things that I want to manifest, and they are coming like rain. Even in the years where everything was suppressed, I was still performing, still investigating things. There are all these levels inside me, and nothing got lost.”
Except, perhaps, the feeling there was no silver lining to the traumas of her childhood.
Victoria Hanna plays the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Tuesday (February 23) as part of the Chutzpah Festival.