Bassed in Ethiopia

Yankeleh Segal and Avi Vese perform as part of the Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival in Jerusalem.

YANKELEH SEGAL ‘We all bring something from our own baggage’ (photo credit: SHMULIK BALMAS)
YANKELEH SEGAL ‘We all bring something from our own baggage’
(photo credit: SHMULIK BALMAS)
It can take a while to settle into the Israeli swing of things, as anyone who has made aliyah will, no doubt, testify. But some have had it harder than most. The members of the Ethiopian community have certainly had all sorts of obstacles to overcome to work their way into the fabric of Israeli society.
If there’s one thing this country can proudly strut across the globe, it is our artistic endeavor, which is probably all the richer for the plethora of cultural and ethnic strands that inform it. For a few years now, that mix has been enriched by offerings from Israelis with Ethiopian roots. That cause has clearly been helped by the Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival, which is about to take place for the ninth year (December 20-26) under the auspices of Jerusalem’s Confederation House and its CEO and artistic director, Effie Benaya.
The forthcoming edition takes in a wide range of genres and styles, including dance, poetry, theater and a slew of musical shows, featuring jazz, blues, pop and liturgical material. Some of the shows feature stalwarts of the mainstream entertainment sector who have married their original art form with more ethnic-leaning efforts.
Yankeleh Segal is one of the most seasoned musicians around. The 55-year-old bass guitarist frequently pops up, on stages all over the country, playing with the likes of Chava Alberstein, Habreira Hativit and the phenomenally successful Idan Raichel Project. It was with the latter collective that Segal came across singer Wagderass Avi Vese, and the two will team up on the Confederation House stage on December 24 (8:30 p.m.) to present a program of sounds that owe a lot to Ethiopian roots music.
The show goes by the name of Hewan, “new beginning” in Amharic. “It’s also the name of Avi’s two-year-old daughter,” Segal notes. “We met about 15 years ago, when Idan Raichel wanted to start something up.”
That encounter, along with the rest of the cross-cultural gang Raichel put together at the time, produced “Bo’ee,” which became a smash hit and set Raichel on the path to global stardom.
Segal and Vese hit it off on a personal, as well as a musical, level.
“We both left the Raichel Project at some stage, and we decided to do something together,” the bassist recalls.
“Avi is very connected with Ethiopian music, and we went for that direction. The Ethiopian community is very tight-knit, and they listen to Ethiopian music a lot.”
While Segal had to cover some ground to get into the core of Ethiopian music, he has traversed numerous sonic domains over his long career to date.
“We are all faranji. ‘Faranji’ means ‘white’ in Amharic,” he explains, referring to other members of the Hullegeb lineup, including jazz-leaning saxophonist Nadav Haber.
In 2007 Haber brought out an album called Addis Mist (A Journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem), so he was clearly a natural choice for the current project.
“We all bring something from our own baggage,” says Segal. “Nadav brings something jazzy, and we bring a bit of rock, a bit of pop and even something Middle Eastern.”
Even so, the core remains very anchored in Vese’s country of birth.
“There is something very Ethiopian about this music,” Segal adds. “It is very African, but not at all like music from West Africa, or South Africa.”
It all came naturally to Segal, whose long and winding musical road to date has taken him through Brazilian music, jazz and Arabic music – to mention but a few genres. “There is a lot of groove in African music, and that is perfect for a bass player. It is challenging and great fun for bass. And the bass is important for Ethiopian music. There are great bass lines in every Ethiopian song.”
Segal says he was helped by the forgiving nature of the music. “We did gigs in the Ethiopian community, but I didn’t have to be too careful about making sure I played all the right things. Ethiopian music is more accommodating, not so strictly defined. It can oscillate from funk to reggae. Most Ethiopian music is based on a 6/8 tempo, but they have a strong connection with reggae music. That suits me.”
It clearly also suits Vese and the rest of the quintet that will turn out in Jerusalem, and should get the Confederation House audience grooving merrily along.
For tickets and more information: *6226, (02) 623-7000,, and (02) 624-5206 ext. 4.