Like any wave of immigrants, the members of the Ethiopian community have had their fair share of challenges and all kinds of trials and tribulations connected to finding their place in Israeli society.
However, over the last decade or so, some things have taken a turn for the better, part of which is due to the fact some of the younger members of the community have found ways to express their creative gifts.
The annual Hullegeb Festival, which will take place for the seventh time in Jerusalem from December 15 to 21, features a wide swathe of acts, including several star turns from outside the Ethiopian community.
The festival takes place under the auspices of Confederation House in Jerusalem and its artistic director and general manager Effi Bnaya, who has endeavored to present the Israeli populace with some of the brightest stars in the Ethiopian-Israeli artistic firmament over the years.
“The festival exposes the enormous riches of Ethiopian culture in Israel, the many talents of members of the first and second generations of the Ethiopian aliya,” Bnaya notes. “They are making their unique voice heard in the areas of music, dance and theater, and drawing audiences that are not necessarily from the Ethiopian community.”
As we well know, there is a period of identity searching after olim come to Israel which may, in fact, continue throughout our lives. We tend to mix our native sensibilities with our adopted culture, and hopefully arrive at some kind of comfortable identity equilibrium. Bnaya says that artistically inclined members of the Ethiopian community also feed off their domestic cultural origins.
“The creative work of the younger generation is fueled by their home roots but is also bona fide contemporary art, with a new multifaceted artistic language,” he says.
This year’s offshore attraction is veteran Ethiopian vocalist Aster Aweke, who will perform at the Jerusalem Theater on December 15 (9 p.m.). The 50something singer will make the relatively short trip over here from northeast Africa, although she has been largely based in the US for the past three decades. Aweke, who hails from Gondar, where many Ethiopian olim used to live, discovered her musical aspirations early on.
“I was about seven years old when I started to have a great interest in music,” she recalls.
That infant ambition was fired by titans of the trade from across various genres and cultures.
“I loved great singers from home, like the late Tilahun Gessesse and Bizunesh Bekele, and many more Western singers, such as Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday,” she says.
In fact, more than a few music critics and fans have compared Aweke’s on stage delivery to that of soul and R&B First Lady Franklin.
Aweke says she eagerly imbibed a rich and varied diet of sounds as a youngster, which included “songs from home, traditional and modern, and from the West, like R&B, jazz, opera. If it’s music, I love it!” she laughs.
Since she first entered a recording studio as the leader of the musical pack in the late 1908s, Aweke has released 10 albums of her own and contributed to many more. To date, all her vocal work has been in her native language of Amharic. Considering her lengthy US sojourn, that is a little surprising; but Aweke says she prefers to go with the natural flow, her interest in other genres notwithstanding.
“I like listening to songs in English, and I think about singing in English too. But it is just a passing thought. I am not sure if I can be good at it,” she says.
Although she sticks to the homegrown vocal side, there is some cross-cultural side to the non-vocal output.
“I rarely use African instruments in my gigs, but I do mix it with Western instruments in the recording sessions – whenever there’s an opportunity,” she says.
There is also an on-the-fly aspect to her work, fueled by her interest in jazz.
“I like jazz,” she notes. “We might improvise some jazzy style in the performance in Jerusalem.”
Aweke likes addressing various topics in her work but says there is a central warm theme to her offerings.
“I love singing about love,” she declares. “Most of the time, that is what I do best.”
She is also looking forward to seeing some familiar faces in the Jerusalem Theater audience. This will not be her debut in Israel, and she says she always enjoys working here.
“I have good friends and fans in Israel. “I have been coming here for years and have been greeted with love and great hospitality, for which I am always grateful,” she smiles.
Aweke says she is planning to reward her faithful fans with a memorable experience.
“We are going to perform great tunes, popular songs. I am rehearsing with a five-piece band – keyboards, drums, bass, guitar, and sax. It’s going to be an amazing concert. I hope to see you all there!” she says.
The Hullegeb Festival takes place December 15 to 21 in Jerusalem. For tickets and more information: (02) 623- 7000, http://tickets.bimot.co.il/; and (02) 624-5206 ext. 4