Ethiopian-Israeli Pop Music

Ethiopian-inspired music has hit the big time in Israel.

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Sample the Tunes

Click to listen to samples of the following music:

 

·        The Idan Raichel Project.

·        Ivri Lider

Raichel sings on only one of the tracks, "Hinekh Yafah" (Thou Art Fair). The other vocalists have their origins in Ethiopia, Curaçao and Israel. But he wrote the words and melodies to most of the songs.

A Smash Hit

So far, he seems to be taking his accomplishment in stride. He takes orders from his PR lady, he answers his own phone, and he seems unlikely to trash a hotel room, just because he can, anytime soon. He also still lives in the basement of his parents’ home. "It’s just music," he says of his recent success, between careful bites of his chicken sandwich in a Tel Aviv café. "It can come and it can go."

But the dreadlocked, lanky 25-year-old’s hit single, "Bo’ee" (Come), isn’t about to disappear. Its sweet melody invites you to sing along, and doesn’t let you stop; it’s already enough of a local icon that a cell-phone company offers it as an alternate ring.

Although many Israeli musicians have succeeded in blending the local pop beat with ethnic themes--mostly the East-West fusion of Sephardi rhythms and Israeli pop--the Ethiopian community, which has a longstanding musical and artistic tradition, has not even flirted with the phenomenon of stardom in Israel, certainly not on its own. In 1991, Shlomo Gronich, a fixture on the pop circuit who has experimented with an array of different sounds, went to a Haderah high school and picked 11 Ethiopian adolescents to sing along with him on a music show for educational television. The show matured into an album, but despite the chanting, the words were in Hebrew and the message was not the students’ own.

Raichel’s album is more authentic--it begins with a recording of traditional Ethiopian prayers for the New Year and it has four songs that are delivered solely in Amharic--but it is also a fusion. The majority of the tracks weave Amharic and Hebrew, traditional and pop. "For Israelis, it’s hard to listen to Ethiopian music. But when it comes in an Israeli wrapper, it’s much more accessible," he says, noting the similarity between his Project and Tea-Packs, the band, led by Kobi Oz, that successfully mixes Mizrahi rhythms and themes with Israeli pop.

But Raichel’s album is more diverse than just East meets West. Religious texts are read in Amharic with a quivering cello riff in the background; a traditional Amharic song is introduced by a Caribbean-inflected English blessing; and some of the Hebrew songs, which start out as straight-laced pop renditions, culminate in chanting that betrays Raichel’s affinity for the modern-classical Arabic singers Farid al-Atrash and Um Kulthum.

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Mitchell Ginsberg is a staff writer for the Jerusalem Post.