By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Yoni Z. is on a mission. Intent on upping the game, he hopes to change the landscape of Jewish music forever. Personable, polished, and possessed of a gorgeous voice and charismatic stage presence, the 26-year-old singing sensation has been performing professionally for the past 15 years. Chances are you have experienced the musical magic of a Yoni Z. concert firsthand; if so, you will certainly understand how he garnered acclaim as well as an ever-expanding following throughout the global Jewish community long before the release of his much-awaited album.
Produced by Yanky Katina, the album is a world-class production, setting standards of excellence in Jewish music. Just listen to any of the musical gems and you will understand the unprecedented response it elicited. After selling out soon after release, the album immediately went into its second production. Featuring an introduction and 13 tracks — each a stand-out in its own right — as well as custom curated cutting-edge videos, the album is truly representative of this gifted artist. Reaching across the rich spectrum of genres, it includes such beloved classical ballads as “Hoshanah” as well as the infectious, get-up-and-dance hit “Tam Va’reiach” with megastar Gad Elbaz.
“My ultimate goal has always been to release an album and not just perform at weddings,” said Yoni. “I realized I had to ‘pay my dues.’”
Recalling his early years as a solo performer, Yoni described his first job. Scheduled to perform at a wedding in August 2007, he viewed the approaching event with mixed feelings. Although he was excited about performing in front of an audience, Yoni, who was 15 years old at the time, was terrified about performing on stage. Prior to the upcoming wedding for which he had been booked, he had never performed; understandably, he felt a sense of trepidation. “As a child, I had never been a member of a famous choir. I had never even held a microphone!” Still, what Yoni lacked in experience, he more than compensated for in talent and bitachon. Determined to succeed, he headed to Toronto via Greyhound bus, completed the job “and got paid $50 — in Canadian currency!” he quiped.
Intent upon gaining experience, Yoni spent the next two years performing locally at the only slightly higher rate of $100 a night. Judiciously, he invested much of his earnings into musical and vocal training, thereby honing his talents.
Although the journey to success was long and challenging, the congenial Crown Heights resident, who is a member of the Chabad community, remained undeterred. Demonstrating patience and perseverance, talent and tenacity, he performed all the while — composing, co-writing, and creating an international following with his high-energy performances and emotional connection to his audiences.
“Even as a teenager performing on stage, I could feel the adrenaline,” he said. “I’ve always been inspired by my audiences. You have to connect to your audience and give them what they want. Often, I will see people walking into a concert or at a wedding looking bored. I try to connect to them — it’s not just about performing, but rather inspiring them, getting them involved and excited so they are laughing and impacted when the concert or wedding is over.”
It’s not surprising that Yoni’s talent, personality, and charisma captured the attention of Yanky Katina. With his finger on the pulse of impeccable music, Yanky is peerless in recognizing true talent. From their first meeting, he realized Yoni was not merely a performer; despite his youth, Yoni possessed the qualities of a true artist. In the ensuing years since their initial meeting, the dynamic duo has worked on several outstanding musical projects, culminating in Yoni’s incredible debut album.
Orchestrated to perfection, it is well worth the wait, the result of an arduous process that involved painstakingly perusing “hundreds and hundreds of songs” prior to selecting the tracks that met Yoni’s impeccable standards. In the quest to elevate Jewish music, Yoni and Yanky have presented us with a production that truly raises the bar in every aspect. As the market is often inundated with a profusion of albums that tend to be forgotten within months of their release, their objective was to shatter industry norms by introducing a fresh and innovative approach, daring to tread where no one had before.
“I want to bring a sense of pride back into the (music) industry. We’ve stepped up our game in other areas — the culinary arts, for example. What I am trying to do is to provide a wholesome and appropriate outlet for our youth to express their creativity. If you want to bring about change, it isn’t about you; it’s about your audience. You have to anticipate and deliver what they want.”
For Yoni, music is much more than performing. It is a way of inspiring his audiences, of touching their hearts and connecting with them. “I want to instill our youth with a sense of pride in themselves, in our identity, and I want to do it through my music. Music is a universal language — it makes the world go ‘round. It is a uniting force that brings people together. I want to encourage young people to express themselves through pure, quality music. So many kids leave the yeshiva system early because they have no way of expressing themselves.
Encouraged by his rosh yeshiva to “make your own box” and pursue his dream of expressing himself musically, Yoni recalls working many day jobs before his music bloomed.
“When I started out in the music business years ago, it was like a dream. I encourage everyone to follow their dream and never give up. Chanoch es ha’naar al pi darko — music is such a wonderful means of self-expression.”
During the course of our interview, Yoni discussed the diverse cultural, religious, and ethnic categories, each an industry in and of itself, represented at the annual Grammy Awards and within the music business at large, and opined that it was time for Jewish music to be represented in its purest form, undiluted and devoid of secular influences. “Shouldn’t we have something of our own, that emanates from within, that speaks from our hearts?”
Available wherever music is sold and on digital platforms, “Yoni” is an example of Jewish music at its finest for us to proudly call our own.
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative media consultant, lecturer, and educator, and writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. She welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com