While Ayala Ingedashet is cognizant that her star is rising as the 'first Ethiopian singer,' she is hopeful that one day her ethnicity will be merely incidental.
By NATHAN BURSTEIN
Without hearing her voice or seeing her face, music fans know there's something different about Ayala just by glancing at her last name. It isn't just that the name isn't a typical Ashkenazi or Mizrahi one - her record company writes it "Ingedashet" in English - it's how the name is spelled out in Hebrew-language materials about the 28-year-old singer. In a language characterized - maddeningly, to some - by the fact that it's written form typically neglects to include vowels, Ingedashet's name appears on promotional materials and in places on-line with its vowel symbols intact, not something likely to be done for performers with more traditionally Israeli last names. It's analogous, in some ways, to explicitly clarifying that the Gs in George Harrison are pronounced like a J, or that the J in Bjork is said as a Y.
Except, of course, that it's still more or less necessary. Most Israelis need extra help reading the name Ingedashet - the G is pronounced as it would be in Ringo, not George - because the singer is the first of her kind in the country: the first Ethiopian-born solo artist backed in a serious way by a major record label. (More debatable is the claim by the company, Hed Arzi, that Ingedashet is "the first soul and R & B singer in Israel.")
The album, self-titled and stylishly packaged, deserves the support. Though the title of its first track means "To Move," most of the album serves as the auditory equivalent of a warm bath, broken up here and there, perhaps, with the soothing rhythms of a massage. The collection's lead single, "Memaheret" (Rushing), evokes a Hebrew-speaking Erykah Badu, while other songs on the disc put the listener in mind of India Arie or even gospel. (The singer's voice is higher and sweeter than Badu's, but she smiles appreciatively at the comparison.)
At the same time, however, and for reasons having nothing to do with its Hebrew lyrics, the album is distinctively Ethiopian-Israeli, gently looping in vocal inspiration and melodies from Ingedashet's homeland. "Bacharti B'cha" (I Chose You) and "Ayo" (a nickname the singer acquired in the army) feature wordless humming that sets the rhythm and tone that follow, while the title of "Jetah-ny" is the name of an uncle whose life has proven harder than he's deserved. Writing out that name, too, requires manipulations of spelling not required by regular Hebrew words.
NOW A RESIDENT of northern Tel Aviv, Ingedashet began her life in what sometimes seems a distant universe, an impoverished village not far from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. She came here with her parents as a two-year-old in 1981, years before airlifts organized by the government would bring tens of thousands of additional Ethiopian Jews. Her family's "independent aliya," as she calls it, came during a period when the Ethiopian government forbade the learning of Hebrew and the observance of Jewish ritual, but Ingedashet says her parents' decision ultimately stemmed from generations of yearning to live in the Holy Land rather than temporary hardship.
Her own transition has been an a remarkably thorough one. Perhaps because of her family's head start on other Ethiopian immigrants, perhaps because of her own individual personality, the singer is a rarity among adult Ethiopians, with two parents who speak fluent Hebrew and little sense of the cultural displacement afflicting so many of their lives.
Not only does Ingedashet speak and sing Hebrew with the accent of a native, she occasionally does the unthinkable for most Ethiopian-Israelis: She makes fun of the accents of others. At a late-night concert recently at the Goldstar Zappa Club - one of Tel Aviv's most important music venues - the singer thanked the mostly Ashkenazi and Mizrahi crowd with the standard proclamations of gratitude, then proceeded to do an impression of two bubbly older Ethiopian women. The imitation was hardly mean-spirited, but the public fun-poking still would have been something of a risk if not for the clear admiration expressed by Ingedashet's audience earlier that evening. (Previously in the show, a laughing but slightly embarrassed Ingedashet told audience members to behave themselves, after one had shouted, "Ayala, have my baby!" between numbers. Her parents, she pointed out, were in the crowd.)
Though the singer says she was overtaken at 16 by an "uncontrollable" urge to sing, her post-IDF career - she performed in a band in the navy - began in the theater, where a director with a well-honed sense of humor cast her as a Russian immigrant in Tel Aviv Haktana (Little Tel Aviv), a nostalgic musical celebrating the city's formation and history. The role also highlighted a notable idiosyncrasy of Ingedashet's adopted society - its seemingly bottomless enjoyment of hearing immigrants' accents lampooned on TV, and the equally powerful impulse to express its discomfort with silence when one of those immigrants performs such a parody herself. The audience, Ingedashet recalls, suddenly "became afraid to laugh, [too] politically correct" to enjoy the irony she was playfully acting out on stage.
"For me, sometimes, it was hard not to giggle," she says, singing a soft sample of Russian-accented Hebrew.
That early role led to what she calls "more serious" work at the Cameri Theater, which in turn helped her earn hosting duties on a Breeza channel music program that featured mostly Mizrahi singers and concluded its run after one season.
Around the same time, she married Moti, a hi-tech worker she'd met while the two shared a hallway in her Tel Aviv apartment building. His family's Moroccan background has blended more or less effortlessly with hers, she says, making their marriage, a union between Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian partners, something that's still a novelty here.
With Moti's encouragement, Ingedashet gave up the waitressing work that had previously helped her make ends meet, focusing full-time on collecting music for her first album. (In Israel, even regular TV work isn't always enough to pay the bills.) There were several false starts along the way, but she soon began to establish herself through work with different producers, and by singing back-up on "Elohim," a hit 2005 single by rapper Mook E.
AND SO SHE arrived last month for that performance at the Zappa, the first in a series of shows she'll perform across the country in support of her new album. Wearing a fashionably torn-up purple dress, leggings and big hoop earrings - she was almost a dead ringer for Madonna, circa 1985 - Ingedashet was the one receiving back-up. The faith her professional peers have in her was in evidence in the form of her supporting singers, who included reggae-influenced hitmaker Mosh Ben-Ari - the owner of one of last year's top-selling Israeli albums - and veteran rock artist Ehud Banai, with whom she performed at the Ahava Festival over Pessah at the Dead Sea.
Ingedashet says the music industry put up little resistance to her efforts at a solo career, and that, if anything, producers saw great commercial potential in the arrival of the country's first Ethiopian-born star.
She's more reserved, initially, talking about the experiences of other Ethiopians, noting simply that, as a general rule, their "situation isn't the best. I'm aware of what isn't good."
Her own family, she says, quickly adopted the clothing style and even the eating habits of other Israelis, helping smooth their transition to life in a new country. (The family moved to Ashdod after nearly seven years in Kiryat Arba, a period Ingedashet describes as "a good period of my life, without all the craziness of today." Asked how newly arrived immigrants from Ethiopia wound up living deep in the West Bank, she adds, "Let's not get into politics.")
Her hesitation to talk about Ethiopians' lives eases when she's asked about her musical influences, who in addition to Badu and Arie include Macy Gray, Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott. When it's pointed out that each of those singers is a non-Israeli black woman, she adds that she's an admirer of anyone who performs with strength and soul, adding to her list artists such as Pink, Amy Winehouse and Norah Jones. Among Israelis - her "sisters," she calls them - she listens to relative old-timers like Etti Ankri and Riki Gal, as well as to Din Din Aviv, a long-haired 33-year-old who can sound downright Enya-esque.
Their music, she says, is more real than the violent US rap that's become popular among alienated young Ethiopian-Israelis, many of whom find it hard to connect with stars like Ivri Lider and Ninet Tayeb.
"Harlem, guns - that's nonsense," she says. "It's singers like Lauryn Hill who speak to me."
Consequently, she's been pleased to get recognized on the street recently by young Ethiopians, hoping to offer them an alternative to bloody imagery and a sense of helpless victimhood, regardless of the obstacles they face.
"Problems aren't missing," she says, "but the challenge is believing in yourself, about not [just] complaining about how you're not being helped."
"It's natural," she continues, that questions about her tend to focus at this stage on her Ethiopian background. But she's glad her audience extends beyond just one section of music enthusiasts, expressing confidence that the issue will fade over time.
"I look at my heritage, at people like me, who are going out [and excelling] in different places," she says. "I hope our youth will want to see themselves as inseparable from Israel, that we'll get to a point where it's no longer 'the first Ethiopian this' or 'the first Ethiopian that.'"
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