Music from the heart

Solomon Kehati and his Adyabo quintet will perform traditional Ethiopian music with ancient and unique Ethiopian instruments as part of the annual Hullegeb Festival.

December 13, 2016 20:32
ETHIOPIAN-BORN Solomon Kehati (left) together with the other member of the Adyabo quintet.

ETHIOPIAN-BORN Solomon Kehati (left) together with the other member of the Adyabo quintet.. (photo credit: ELIRAN TAKELE)


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Fortysomething Solomon Kehati is the right age to have imbibed an eclectic range of contemporary musical sounds as he made his way through his teenage years. In fact, however, the Ethiopian- born artist largely stuck to a strict diet of indigenous material. That will be duly conveyed at the forthcoming show by the Adyabo quintet, of which Kehati is a member, at Confederation House in Jerusalem on Monday (9:30 p.m.).

The concert is part of the lineup of the seventh annual Hullegeb Festival, which is devoted to Ethiopian-Israeli culture and was founded by the aforementioned cultural institution and its long-serving director Effi Bnaya. The program takes in a wide variety of musical, theatrical and dance works, which will take place at various venues in Jerusalem December 15-21.

Unlike, for example, singer Aveva Dese, whose show precedes the Adyabo slot on Monday, and for whom Kehati will provide sideman services, Kehati was born in Ethiopia. He made aliya on his own at the age of 13, as part of Operation Moses, which brought around 8,000 Jews to Israel in the early 1980s. As a youngster he heard his father’s cousins and others playing together at impromptu jam sessions and was suitably inspired.

And it was not just a case of grooving to the vibes, and possibly finding someone who could help him get a handle on the instrumental intricacies involved.

Kehati was clearly not only driven, he was determined to carve out his own way, on all levels.

“I built my own mesinko,” he declares, referring to the instrument he still plays today over 30 years on.

“The mesinko is an ancient Ethiopian instrument with one string and a bow which is also made with one string – actually hairs from a horse’s tail,” he explains.

The mesinko has parallels in other cultures, such as the rebab or rebaba, and the joza, in the Arab world, or the kamanche in places like Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

All the aforementioned instruments are sometimes generically known as spike fiddles.

“I liked the music my father’s relatives played, so I just made my own mesinko,” he says unassumingly. “I was around 10 or 10 and a half at the time. I just started to play it. I didn’t have any lessons or anyone to guide me.”

While classical instrumentalists and conductors pore over sheet music to try and figure out exactly what the composer intended with this or that bit of notation, older and non-Western music was generally conveyed across the generations by undocumented aural means.

Kehati followed the time-honored line of personal musical evolution.

“I just listened to the music being playing and started playing it myself, on my mesinko. Today people study the mesinko in schools, but I just learned by ear.”

Once the youngster was up and bowing there was no stopping him.

“I played folk tunes, and made up my own stuff too. I took anything I heard and played it,” he notes. By “anything” Kehati really means anything.

“I heard things on the radio – it could be, say, a Led Zeppelin song – and I’d play it on the mesinko.”

When Kehati’s turn came to leave his native country and make his way to the Promised Land there was, of course, no way he was going to set off without his mesinko, even if it meant making some adjustments.

“I built a collapsible version of the instrument, and I put it in a backpack, so I could carry out with me on the long walk to Sudan,” he recalls. “I played all along the way. That helped to keep our spirits up.”

Once here, there was the matter of the young land’s formal education. He was given accommodation in Pardess Hanna, and he attended a boarding school near Ra’anana. Initially there was little to inspire Kehati to get his musical wares out there, but he wasn’t going to give up on his artistic aspirations.

“There was no one to play with, but I’d play on my own, for fun and to keep myself in shape,” he says, adding that it was a good deed that eventually granted him an opportunity to play for an Israeli public. He’d also come across some likeminded peers.

“I met some other [Ethiopian] kids at the boarding school who played music and we went together to volunteer at Loewenstein Hospital [rehabilitation center] and we’d play for the people there and bring them some joy.”

However, there was still some way to go before Kehati could really hit the professional scene here. That eventually transpired while he was in the army.

“People knew about me and, one day, someone called me from Ashdod and said he was getting a band together.

We played quite a few gigs, although I could of course only manage to perform as my army timetable allowed.

But that was really the start of everything for me here.”

After he completed his army service Kehati hooked up with a traditional Ethiopian band called Netalla Shechora, or Black Cloak. The group initially operated under the aegis of Confederation House, making Monday’s show something of a homecoming for Kehati, and was subsequently supported by the Khan Theater. That was in the mid-Nineties and, it seems, the Israeli public at large was already cognizant of the fact that there were Ethiopian olim who played music.

“We performed all over the country,” Kehati recalls. “It was a bit like the format of a musical, with stories about our experiences on our way to Israel, rather than just straight music. People really liked it.”

Kehati eventually gravitated to an outfit called Elmaz – “diamond” in Amharic – and played with them for around eight years, before Adyabo got together in 2013.

Adyabo, which is named after a place in Ethiopia which had a large Jewish community, performs a range of traditional material based on more contemporary arrangements, taking in the sounds and sensibilities of various regions of Ethiopia, such as the eponymous location as well as Tigray, Amhara, Gurage, Wolayita and Oromia.

The band performs in various formats, generally ranging between a trio and a quintet, and often features a singer and a dancer.

On Monday Kehati will be joined by Ya’acov Lilay on the five-stringed krar and Ilan Mhret on wishent, a wooden flute, with Zenebe Begashaw providing drum support and Tsefaye Negatu on vocals. The Confederation House should enjoy a feast of sounds and rhythms from the core of Ethiopia.

For tickets and more information about this year’s Hullegeb Festival: (02) 623-7000, http://tickets.bimot., and (02) 624-5206 ext. 4.

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