Ethiopian-Israeli singer tells his personal story and that of a culture

Ethiopian-Israeli musician Gili Yalo sings about Operation Moses, the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan during the 1984 famine to the 'Promised Land.'

Musician Gili Yalo says: ‘Even if Israelis don’t understand the Amharic language, the melodies and grooves reel them in.’ (photo credit: GAYA SA’ADON)
Musician Gili Yalo says: ‘Even if Israelis don’t understand the Amharic language, the melodies and grooves reel them in.’
(photo credit: GAYA SA’ADON)
Many musicians share fond memories of a first piano recital – coiffed, quiffed and ready for one part charm, two parts humiliation. Others smile while remembering the first Arik Einstein song they clunked out on their brother’s hand-me-down guitar. Gili Yalo’s first performance took place atop his father’s shoulders in the middle of the desert.
His repertoire: the familiar village songs with which his mother lulled him to sleep.
His audience: a group of Ethiopian wanderers losing hope by the minute.
“The trek from Ethiopia to Sudan was long, especially for a four-year old.”
Yalo was recounting Operation Moses, the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan during the 1984 famine to the “Promised Land.”
“We had no electricity in our village,” Yalo explained. “So I never heard the music of the world back then, only the live music my mother sang to me.”
Yalo’s mother was not a musician by trade, rather a musician by necessity.
“In Ethiopia, especially in the smaller villages, music was a way of life. While the men went to war, the women sang and drummed to uplift their spirits,” he said.
Boxed off from the world in a Sudanese refugee camp, Yalo, too, sought to uplift the spirits of his suffering beloved ones. After finally reaching Israel and settling in Safed, his horizon was broadened, and an affinity for Natan Yonatan – paired with a class trip, a crowded school bus and a crappy microphone – landed him an audition with Pirchei Yerushalayim, The Jerusalem Boys Choir.
Yalo recalled, “I went to the audition, sang the same song and the manager asked me if I had a passport. I told him that sadly I did not, to which he responded, ‘Well, go get yourself one, because in two weeks you’re coming with us to Paris’.”
The choir toured everywhere – from Los Angeles to Germany and beyond – and with each new place Yalo visited, the nine-year-old choir boy gained greater insight into the world’s cultural vastness.
“[Touring] made me realize that the world is so much bigger than Israel.” He continued, “I also learned that you don’t have to limit yourself to one single mindset.
There are other cultures, other possibilities, and understanding that opens up your mind to the people who are different from you... the music you’re not used to hearing.”
While his cultural exposure grew, his pride for his own culture diminished.
“[The Ethiopian culture] wasn’t fashionable,” Yalo explained.
“Teachers would yell at me for speaking Amharic, classmates would call me names, telling me to ‘go back to the jungle.’ I was ashamed – of the food, the traditional clothing. I thought Ethiopians were primitive, while Israelis seemed so sophisticated.”
Why, then, is the fashionably flawless Yalo standing before me in a vibrant blue-and-orange button- down, laden with the geometric patterns of traditional Ethiopian garb? And why are “Selam” and “Africa” – the first two singles released off his debut self-titled solo album – teeming with Ethiopian motifs, grooves and landscapes?
“It’s in my DNA,” he shared without hesitation. The real turning point, however, stemmed from an incident that happened about 10 years ago in Kiryat Malachi, when the owners of an apartment building refused to rent or sell to Ethiopian Jews.
Yalo had experienced racism before, but never at this scale. “When it happens to an entire building, you suddenly understand that the problem is much larger than you thought. I started wondering where I belonged if not in [Israeli] society.”
It was at this point that Yalo read up on his Ethiopian culture and discovered just how rich it truly was, 2000 years in the making. He fell in love with the Ethiopian manners, politeness and “respect between human beings. It was something I was missing in Israel.”
Much to Yalo’s surprise, as he adopted the grooves and melodies of his native land, his career truly started to pick up, and the Israeli audiences were responsive.
“In most of my shows, the audience is usually only 15 to 20 percent Ethiopian. Even if Israelis don’t understand the Amharic language, the melodies and grooves reel them in.”
There is something very energetic about the brass elements, kerar – an Ethiopian string instrument resembling a guitar – and the pentatonic scales associated with Ethiopian music that makes you want to get up and dance.
For Yalo, this energy is essential: “In a live performance, there is this circle of energy that grows and grows as the show continues. I feed off of the audience and they feed off of me.”
Is any of that energy lost in the studio?
“Studio recordings are a very personal procedure,” Yalo said. “You sit down at two in the morning, just you and your guitar, then go into the studio and it’s just you and the producer until you bring the band in. I was really frightened because I had never seen myself as a recording artist before. I’m a performer through and through. That fear, particularly in the responsibility of recording my own lyrics, had taken up most of the studio room.
I’m proud that I finished the album because it allowed me to overcome that fear, which is my number one goal in life.”
While it took more than three years to come to fruition, the finished product is reflective of three years of dedication, perseverance and experience, both societal and personal, like his relationship with ex-wife Ester Rada, whose solo break encouraged Yalo to follow suit.
While Rada toted Different Eyes as a “breakup album,” Yalo bears no grudges. He respects her and feels that she deserves every ounce of success. “She is extremely talented, works hard, and I wish her all the luck on her solo path.”
He also respects Rada’s ability to shift gears from her first album. He believes that “part of being a human and an artist means changing things up and keeping the ground burning under your feet,” which is exactly what Yalo had to do when shooting the music video for his single, “Selam.”
At first, they had planned to shoot the video using a drone, starting with a close-up on Yalo and panning out to the market place in Ethiopia. “But we were running on Africa time... everyone there is late,” Yalo chuckled, “so the market was already closing down. The few shots that we did get felt too cold.”
His cameraman had also shot some footage that day just for fun – cuts of Yalo singing with dozens of children behind him – which evolved into the version seen today. A brilliant coincidence became a blessing in disguise.
In contrast, “Africa,” the second of the album’s singles released last month, was meticulously planned out. “The bright colors, the nightlife, the dancing, the talent, those horses, the skateboards... I wanted to bring the next generation of Ethiopia to center stage. Despite the assumption that Africa is always in trouble, there’s a bright future there, one that I truly believe in,” he stated, his voice strong and assured.
A confused young boy refusing to speak Amharic with his parents is now long gone. A confident man beaming with pride – for his culture, his roots, his belonging – stands in his place.
Gili Yalo will perform his album release show at Tel Aviv’s Barby on December 20. Doors open at 20:30.