Israeli-Ethiopian grounded groove

Ethiopian-Israeli singer Hewan Meshesha and her band Ground Heights are ready to bring their eclectic mix of music to their debut album.

By ARIEL DOMINIQUE HENDELMAN
June 27, 2017 20:02
grounded groove

‘THE MOST important thing to us as a band is our cohesiveness... Music speaks to people. Music is music. I knew that if my band could connect to it, then everyone would,’ says Ground Heights vocalist Hewan Meshesha (second left) seen here with the rest of the band.. (photo credit: NOAM POPER)

 
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Ground Heights has that rare fusion of sound and energy that leaves a wake of joy on the dance floor wherever they go. The seven-member band consists of lead singer Hewan Meshesha, guitarist Yotam Cohen, saxophonist Lior Grayevsky, percussionist Shalev Ne’eman, bassist Roee Cohen, keyboardist Omer Kenan and drummer Micha Korkus. Hewan, an Ethiopian Israeli, incorporates her heritage into the sound, with robustly soulful results. Ground Heights will play with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra on June 29 at Heichel Hatarbut in Tel Aviv. They are also preparing to release their debut album in August, with more shows in the works. Hewan sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss singing in the army, having your parents help write lyrics, and the balance of keeping feet on the ground with eyes to the heights.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a singer?

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Growing up, music was always a part of my life. Knowing that I wanted to do something about it and actually become a musician didn’t come until later when I was serving in the army. I met this amazing person, who became one of my dearest friends. I was 19 or 20 and we were in the middle of a night shift. She encouraged me to sing, after I said no so many times.

Then when I finally did it, she told me that this is what I needed to do. It made me realize that singing was what I wanted to do. When I was growing up, I never knew that I wanted to become a singer.

Were you born in Israel?

Yes I was raised in Kiryat Yam near Haifa. It’s a small town, really cozy, simple people.

How did you go from singing for your friend to forming Ground Heights? After I finished the army, I ended up performing at an event. Someone came up to me and encouraged me to go and study music because he said I really had something. I hesitated, but decided to do it. I looked into [The] Rimon [School of Music] and decided that it was the time to check it out and see if this is really what I want to do. I went to an audition for Rimon, which went terribly... but they invited me to do the audition again. Everything evolved since then.

Did you meet your bandmates at Rimon?

I met Shalev [Ne’eman] there and we were in an Afro-Pop ensemble.

Later, we became Ground Heights.

Now we are seven musicians all together. We have percussion, drums, bass, electric guitar, bass, saxophone, keyboard and myself.

I can’t say that we always knew we wanted it to be seven and that these are the exact instruments we wanted to have, but it just evolved this way.

How did you choose the name Ground Heights?

The story of it is amazing. Shalev suggested a lot of names and Ground Heights was one of them.

It was such a natural fit because it refers to how we as a band are so many different people from different ethnic and musical backgrounds.

We came together to do this one important and holy thing.

It also refers to our inspiration, which is the ground where we came from and where we began.

The heights are where do we want to go; where do we see ourselves? Our goal is to be fulfilled. I think you can hear it in the music. We have so many styles combined together to create this one, pure thing. We hope that the audience feels that way too.


Yeah, I was feeling that way when trying to describe your sound because it is somewhat indescribable.

Exactly, we have reggae, soul, rock, progressive, dub, Ethiopian and African roots, all combined together in hopefully a good way.

Did you always know that you wanted to incorporate Ethiopian sounds into your music?

Actually I did. The moment that I realized that this is what I wanted to do, I knew that even if I tried to avoid it, I would never succeed.

This is who I am. I carry a long tradition and I couldn’t do it without this heritage and my ancestors who did so much so that I would finally be here. I have the history of the Ethiopian Jews in me and I couldn’t avoid it. I didn’t want to; it’s a part of me. I always knew that it would be in my music.

I love your Ethiopian songs because they allow me as a listener to connect in a way that transcends words.

That’s amazing. To me, when someone who was in the audience says that they didn’t understand the words, but they could feel the connection, this is the best compliment that we could ever ask for because the bottom line is that what flows from us to the audience is the language of music. That’s a language that everyone understands.

The most important thing to us as a band is our cohesiveness.

The first time that I brought an Ethiopian song to the band, it was by Mahmoud Ahmed, one of Ethiopia’s greatest artists. The band listened and enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure, but then I saw how they connected and it felt so good. Music speaks to people. Music is music. I knew that if my band could connect to it, then everyone would.

How do your parents feel about you being a musician?

They are happy, I have to say.

They are something; they never pushed me. I’m really lucky. They accept what I do and are proud of me. They actually helped us write lyrics to one of our songs. The title in English is “The Circle of Life.” We had the music already, Shalev wrote a chorus, but we got stuck. First it was in Hebrew and then English. Something wasn’t working. So our producer suggested that we try it in Amharic. We wanted the song to be about life. I came with it to my uncle, dad and mom, and they wrote wonderful lyrics.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from the Ethiopian community?

I was really nervous at first about that because I didn’t know how Ethiopian people would react, but they love it. They groove to it and really enjoy it. It’s a great feeling for me. If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t dance to it, but they do.

We passed that test! Where are you guys in the process of releasing your debut album? We finished the recording and it’s supposed to be out this summer.

It’s in the mastering process now. Then we have all the PR stuff to do. Sometime in the summer, we want to have a big performance to celebrate the birth of this wonderful album, which contains each and every one of the seven people in it who made it what it is.

For more information on Ground Heights, including upcoming shows and the debut album release, please visit: www.facebook.com/groundheights.

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