Ethiopian-Israeli Pop Music

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

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The Path to Diversity

The path to all of this diversity began with a waltz.

In the fiftth grade, Raichel, who now wears his dreads bundled in a black turban and leans toward the Far East in his fashion sense, was playing waltzes and Israeli folk tunes on his accordion, delighting his parents, both Sabras, and their like-minded Kfar Saba friends. "It didn’t make me the most popular kid in class," he says in a soft voice, heavy with understatement. "But it was the beginning of my interest in ethnic music." Before high school, he says, he wasn’t even familiar with Madonna, the Beatles, Neil Young or Pearl Jam, but by the time he’d graduated, with a concentration in music, he’d learned their songs and added jazz and the piano to his repertoire as well. Only after completing his compulsory army service in the Education Corps’ entertainment troupe, however, did he first encounter African roots music--the kind he today likes best.

At Hadasim, a boarding school north of Tel Aviv for 5th-12th graders, many of them new immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia, Raichel taught--"actually, mostly learned about"--music. "The kids there were into a lot of rap, reggae and traditional Amharic music," he says. "What really grabbed me was that in spite of the poor quality of the tapes they listened to, the singers’ rich voices sparkled through the static. You see, I hardly sing on my album because my voice is really not special. These musicians use their voices like instruments. In their society, somebody like Bob Dylan would never have made it."

After a year in the job, Raichel decided that he would, like his friend Ivri Lider--a musician who "discovered" Raichel playing piano in a Tel Aviv club over four years ago, and hired him to play in his band--begin to record music from home. He recorded a song by Ortal Afek, a friend from the army ( "Speaking Silently," the album’s second single, which by late February was also headed toward the top of the charts), and at the same time began to seek out the "roots" voices that he’d grown enchanted with. "I used to prowl around the old central bus station region in Tel Aviv"--an ethnically diverse, low-income area--"and look for flyers announcing the kind of ethnic shows that don’t make the entertainment guides," he says.

Some of the most compelling songs on the album were recorded by artists whom Raichel met completely by chance. Mimi Yosef, the 22-year-old Ethiopian-born woman who reads a letter, of her own composition, to a departed lover, on the hit song "Come," used to work at a gas station near Raichel’s home. After he befriended her, he asked whether she did any writing; she said no. But he was so impressed by her intelligence that he asked her to compose something for the album.

He made Zena Adchanani’s acquaintance in a crowd. "I was at the airport to meet a friend," he says. "Adchanani was waiting next to me for some friends to come in from Ethiopia. I told him about my project and asked whether he might know some people who’d be interested in recording music. Turns out, he’s the director of Natala, the Ethiopian Theater in Jerusalem, and he knows more than a few people."

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Mitchell Ginsberg is a staff writer for the Jerusalem Post.