Lady Rada takes on Holiday

Israel’s beloved star vocalist performs Lady Day in her own way.

ESTHER RADA: I am simply not trying to copy Billie Holiday. There’s no point in doing that. (photo credit: SHERBAN LUPU)
ESTHER RADA: I am simply not trying to copy Billie Holiday. There’s no point in doing that.
(photo credit: SHERBAN LUPU)
Over the past half dozen years or so, Ester Rada has emerged from doing the rounds of some of the second-tier music venues up and down the country to become a genuine world star. The Ethiopian-Israeli vocalist has performed to ecstatic jam-packed audiences all over the globe, while continuing to venture into new fields of artistic endeavor.
Her forthcoming local slot is, perhaps, a mark of just how high the 34-year-old singer has climbed up the public profile, and industry hierarchy. On December 12, Rada will take the stage at Hechal Hatarbut, in Tel Aviv, along with nine members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), to perform a tribute to legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, aka Lady Day. The concert will be based on a mini-album Rada is due to release, here and in Europe, called Lady.
Holiday’s is one of the most recognizable voices in the history of jazz. She occupies a unique position in the discipline’s pantheon. With that in mind, surely it takes some guts to take on her oeuvre and give it your own, very different reading.
“I suppose so,” comes the seemingly offhand response from Rada, not meaning to belittle the late great jazz artist. “I did a tribute to Nina Simone in the past. I am simply not trying to copy Billie Holiday. There’s no point in doing that. All these singers are amazing.”
It is, Rada says, a matter of saluting the iconic songstress in Rada’s singular way.
“I am trying to be myself, as much as I can. It comes out very different, so I am not competing with the original,” she adds with a laugh. The spirit of the source artist, or any artist whose material she refashions, is always there. “I preserve the spirit because I grew up on their music. They are my sources of inspiration, so that is there regardless. It is a sort of fusion, of them and me. I give them respect, but I still come to it with my own truth. I present the music through my own eyes. What the music means to me. What I want to say through that.”
Holiday had her own peerless style, and during her tragically brief lifetime – she died in 1959 at the age of 42 – she was praised by counterparts and music fans alike. So, if anyone is going to doing a cover version of a Holiday number, however personalized, they have to bring a degree of pathos to the fore. Rada gets that.
“We all experience pain,” Rada notes. “We all experience it in a different way. We all have a different story, and the way in which it is expressed in different too. We got there in the end.”
The latter was a reference to the process she and the rest of her band members underwent in the recording studio, under the seasoned guiding hand of producer and musician Yossi Fine.
“It was a joy to work with Yossi,” she says. “It was the first time I’d worked with him. Everything he said and did was spot on. It was great.”
Besides imbibing their music, Rada also shares basic personal common ground with her idols. She, too, is a black woman. I wondered whether that helped her identify with those great jazz divas of yesteryear.
“Absolutely,” she concurs. “When I was young and I heard their music on MTV, when I found out about MTV at the age of 12, I was automatically drawn to the black female singers. Then there were [singer-songwriters] Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. I don’t think it was by chance that they were all black women. Here, in Israel, I didn’t have a role model.  For me, they were something I could strive for – those divas who were larger than life, who were so impressive. Suddenly I had someone to point to and say, I want that too.”
Like many of her generation, and first-generation Israelis in general, Rada kicked out against the culture her parents brought with them from Ethiopia. “When I was six years old – up to the age of six I spoke Amharic – I told my mother that’s enough, don’t speak to me in that language,” she says. “Every time she spoke to me [in Amharic] I’d shout ‘nah nah nah, I can’t hear you, I don’t understand.’ Just like that.”
That may have seemingly settled things for her as a child for a while. She had decided to become part of the general society into which she was born, while eschewing her natural personal roots. But that was easier said than done. She lived a bifurcated life. Outside she felt Israeli, while at home all was at it had always been.
“There was this split,” Rada says. “At home there was this culture, language, food, music – everything was different from what was outside. That was really confusing for me. I thought I had to choose one or the other. I went with the majority.” It was a clinical break. “I erased all signs of the culture. I didn’t eat Ethiopian food, I didn’t speak the language or listen to the music. Nothing.”
But music was always there.
“When I was six, I used to arrange ‘singing contests’ for us kids in the neighborhood. I was the judge so I always won,” she laughs.
DENYING WHO you really are can work for a while, but reality will always bubble under until it breaks through, to remind you of where you really come from. As a budding artist, Rada was not going to make any progress until she made peace with herself, and took the complete personal picture on board.
“I got to a crisis point when I realized that I didn’t truly love myself,” Rada says. “I started to relate to all of that. I began to love all these parts that I’d pushed to the side. It was only then that I succeeded in creating the music. Ultimately, it was through the music that I began to express everything, the whole of me. I worked in Ethiopian music, Israeli music, jazz, soul, reggae, everything that I had in me – everything that is me. That is the magic.”
Rada duly made her way into an IDF band and went through something of a baptism of fire, on a personal and professional level.
“I met all sorts of people, from all sorts of backgrounds,” she says. “We performed almost every day, and sometimes for an audience that wasn’t really interested in listening to you. And we sang songs I wouldn’t really have chosen to do. That really toughened me up,” she chuckles.
That may have been challenging, but it was a lesson well learned, and it stood the young artist in good stead as she began to make her way in the world, and to put herself out there as a bona fide artist and entertainer, even though she initially took a disciplinary detour. It took a little longer before she could strut her stuff as an out and out vocalist.
“Straight after the army I went for auditions for a musical – The Band – at Habima [Theater],” she says. “I was accepted and I suddenly became an actress. There was one show after another. Then there was a TV series. Life drew me along a different path.”
Once again there was an identity conundrum to be sorted out.
“I didn’t think I was a good actress – I never learned acting – and I couldn’t enjoy it,” Rada says. It was hard graft. “It was an everyday thing, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., learning the texts for each day as I went along.” Things eventually came to a head. “I had a serious crisis. I felt really bad and I got diabetes,” she says. There was no getting away from her inner truth. “I realized I was doing something that wasn’t good for me, and I returned to my first love – music.”
Once she rediscovered her true calling, there was no stopping her. She soon put out a single called “Life Happens,” which did well in the charts and got plenty of airplay, including on the MTV and VH1 European television channels. That was followed by her full-blown self-titled debut album and she began touring the world. Before long, she was right in the thick of things, performing on some of the world’s most glittering stages, including at the prestigious Glastonbury Festival in England.
“That was a really intense period of my life,” Rada recalls. “Yes, I pinched myself a few times to make sure I was really there, but we were almost never in Israel. We were always traveling somewhere. There was no time to stop and take stock of what I was experiencing. I just enjoyed the moment and lived it. It is only now that I look and think, ‘Wow! That really happened.’”
A second album, Different Eyes, came out in 2017, and now she is turning her attention to the magic and troubled majesty of Billie Holiday’s legacy, but in her own inimitable way.
“It is going to be great,” Rada says. “There are only nine players from the IPO, but the arrangements are amazing. Yuval Shapira is the arranger. It sounds like a full orchestra. It is going to be great fun.”
The six-year-old girl, who arranged rigged singing contests for the kids on her block, has turned out well and truly good.
The Hechal Hatarbut concert will be followed by gigs with Rada’s own band at Zappa Haifa on December 25 (doors open 8 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.) and Zappa Jerusalem on January 15 (doors open 8 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.).
For tickets and more information: Tel Aviv – *3766 and, Haifa and Jerusalem – *9080 and