Music for the generations

Ground Heights will perform at the Hullegeb Festival

Ground Heights will perform at the Hullegeb Festival (photo credit: NOAM CHOJNOWSKI)
Ground Heights will perform at the Hullegeb Festival
(photo credit: NOAM CHOJNOWSKI)
Newton’s Third Law posits that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Sounds like a neat balancing act and one which, no doubt, is appreciated by Hewan Meshesha and Yotam Cohen.
Meshesha and Cohen hail from the Ethiopian community and form the backbone of the Ground Heights group, one of the star turns at the upcoming eighth annual Hullegeb Festival that will take place at various venues around Jerusalem on December 7 to 13, under the auspices of Confederation House.
Since its inception, the week-long event has served as a showcase for artistic endeavor across the community and takes in a wide range of disciplines and styles, including various musical genres, dance and theater.
If Meshesha and Cohen and the rest of the seven-piece band were looking to convey the message that the younger stratum of Ethiopian Israelis have some quality artistic fare to offer, the name of the show, Lemimetow Tuwled (“the next generation” in Amharic), gets that across in succinct fashion. Meanwhile, the title of the soon-to-be-released band’s eponymous debut album infers the expansive incorporated stylistic and cultural hinterland.
“We chose the name Ground Heights because that’s basically what we represent – old and new, olim and veteran Israelis, the place where we are now and where we want to get to,” Meshesha explains. “These contrasts define our lives in this crazy and beautiful country of ours.”
The vocalist of the group certainly seems to be well versed in a number of musical strands. That filters through their onstage repertoire which encompasses reggae, Israeli pop, soul R&B, funk and jazz, in addition to Ethiopian roots music.
“Because of the nature of the place in which I grew up, it was a neighborhood of olim, so what do you call Israeli?” says Meshesha, who was born in Israel and grew up in Kiryat Yam, home to various immigrant waves during the course of Israel’s history, including Moroccans who came here in the 1950s and 1960s, Russians who made aliya in the 1990s, and many more. Cohen, who is also a Sabra, says he brings very different formative baggage to his music.
“I grew up on a moshav, with all the old Israeli ethos of heroism, with traditional Israeli folk songs, Shavuot ritual, tractors and the whole agricultural way of life,” she says.
Although Meshesha imbibed a very different cultural demographic as a youngster, she says she feels she got the real deal.
“There was this mix of all sorts of olim, each with their own music, food, language and way of life. For me, that is the real Israel.”
All of this, and more, seeped into Meshesha’s evolving personal and musical consciousness.
“You’d go to parties and other events at friends’ houses, and you’d hear Russian music, Moroccan music and lots of other things. At home, of course, I’d hear Ethiopian music, lots of black music like R&B and soul, Motown and all the Israeli music I could access,” she recounts.
Cohen’s early musical education followed a somewhat similar trajectory.
“I mostly grew up on blues, R&B and rock and roll,” he recalls. “I began with Led Zeppelin, but I quickly moved on to old blues – BB King, Ray Charles and all those guys.”
Today, all of the above and much more comes through in the Ground Heights offering. At a recent gig in Jerusalem, with visiting veteran American R&B and blues keyboardist Daryl Davis, Meshesha and Cohen and a couple of other members of the group put in a highly convincing performance of a diverse sweep of styles, seamlessly flowing between reggae, rock, pop, blues, soul, R&B and Ethiopian numbers.
Above all, Meshesha and Cohen want to give their art form their own perspective. The path to that goal became clearer after the two attended an event at which Ethiopian-born actor Shai Fredo presented the story of his family’s aliya in a monologue. A penny clanked loud and clear.
“I suddenly realized there was something alive and kicking that can strengthen my own message, as a Jew and an Israeli,” Cohen says. “We came home, and we understood that we had to write our own songs, our own story.”
They got right down to it.
“The first song we wrote was called ‘Don’t Be Afraid,’” says Cohen. “We wrote about not being afraid to be Ethiopian, white, tall, short, black – just be yourself.”
That self-acceptance, says the guitarist, can help to achieve full acceptance by Israeli society.
“I think the next generation of Ethiopians should be proud of who they are and their heritage. I want Ethiopian teenagers to look at their parents with pride. Non-Ethiopian musicians today play Ethiopian music, too. We have a lot to be proud of,” he asserts.
The Hullegeb Festival takes place December 7 to 13 at various venues in Jerusalem. For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000;*6226; and