Sax crossings

The Song and Prayer program brings Abate into a new sphere of artistic endeavor.

Abate Barihon - known professionally and socially simply as Abate - has, to date, crossed several boundaries in his life. When he came here from Ethiopia in 1999 the saxophonist traversed much of his native country, and then Sudan, before finally arriving here. On an artistic level he came out of western pop and rock and Ethiopian roots music to find his place in the global jazz firmament - albeit with a wealth of Jewish and non-Jewish ethnic Ethiopian music in his impressive artistic baggage. This Saturday, 40-year-old Abate will unveil a new component in his ever-expanding oeuvre when he leads the Teteza Quartet in a program of works based on medieval Spanish poems, called Song and Prayer, at Jerusalem's Confederation House. In fact, Abate has been exploring a wide range of cultural areas for quite sometime now. Initially feeding off the strident rhythms of the marching bands that wafted into his Addis Ababa home from the nearby military base, Abate decided he wanted to be a musician when still a teenager. One day he informed his mother he was enrolling at a local music school and it was there that he first heard LPs by jazz saxophone icons such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Stan Getz. After his own stint in an army band was cut short when opponents of then head of state Mengistu Haile Mariam attacked (four of the band members were killed), Abate began performing at the Hilton Hotel in the Ethiopian capital. Over the next eight years Abate collaborated with numerous visiting jazz luminaries and regularly toured Europe. All that changed dramatically when he moved to Israel. Having survived a perilous journey from Ethiopia he found himself grappling with tough existential challenges in his new country. With almost no knowledge of Hebrew, and having to adapt to a very different cultural mindset, he initially found it impossible to break into the local music community. Before long he was just about making ends meet by doing security work and washing dishes. "The dishwashing was really bad. The soap was ruining my hands," Abate recalls. "I could hardly move my fingers to play the saxophone." Thankfully, help arrived courtesy of Moshe Bar-Yudai, former chairman of the National Arts Council and the then driving force behind a project to establish an Ethiopian Jewry Heritage Center in Rehovot. "Moshe helped a lot," says Abate, "He arranged for me to get a stipend and that really helped me get back into music." Abate has also been supported by the Immigrant Artists Center. Before long, members of the Israeli music fraternity started sitting up and taking notice. Voice of Israel presenter Shlomo Yisraeli introduced Abate to then Jerusalemite pianist-composer Yitzhak Yedid and the two set off on a meandering odyssey through various areas of jazz, blues and liturgical Ethiopian music that produced the Ras Deshen album and show. "Working with Itzik [Yedid] helped me to branch out into other kinds of music," says Abate. By this point Abate was in high demand by all kinds of musicians. "The Hidden Spirituals - Kabbala Music project with the East-West Ensemble, and working with [Afro-pop ensemble] Kuluma is good too. I enjoy exploring different areas of music, and there are so many kinds of music here in Israel." The Song and Prayer program certainly brings Abate into a new sphere of artistic endeavor, although he says he feels a natural bond with the subject matter. "Teteza is a scale in Ethiopian music that is used to express longing," he explains. "The poems by people like Ibn Gvirol, Yehudah Halevi and Moshe Ibn Ezra express longing for the Holy Land and for Jerusalem. I felt that when I was in Ethiopia, too." Besides Abate, the Teteza Quartet includes vocalist Mulukam Yaakov Fatago, veteran bass player Ora Boasson-Horev and pianist Oleg Bogod, the latter two having also contributed compositions to the program. "I bring jazz and blues to the Song and Prayer project, but all of us bring our own cultural and personal baggage into it," adds Abate. "This is an improvisational effort by all of us. I'm excited by the possibilities it gives us." Showtime is 9 p.m. with tickets at NIS 65. For more information visit or call (02) 624-5206.