Music underscores social message at Israeli-Ethiopian arts festival

“It doesn’t make any difference whether we were born here, speak Hebrew fluently and unaccented, or do the army, we are always looked upon differently because of our skin color.”

SINGER-SONGWRITER Aveva Dese tells her life story as part of the first-generation Ethiopians born in Israel. (photo credit: ILYA MELNIKOV)
SINGER-SONGWRITER Aveva Dese tells her life story as part of the first-generation Ethiopians born in Israel.
(photo credit: ILYA MELNIKOV)
This country, if nothing else, is one helluva cultural melting pot. Ethnologists estimate the number of languages spoken here on a daily basis to be in the upper 30s, and there are even more ethnic groups.
That can be something of a double-edged sword. While the intermingling of varied cultural baggage generally enriches the end product, Israeli society has often tended to struggle with absorbing, and even accepting, incomers. In the early days of the state that was a given. That was partly down to the sheer quantities of Jews flocking here from all over the globe, each with their own customs and way of life, coming to a nascent small country with little in the way of physical infrastructure and financial means.
But there have also been events and patterns of behavior along the way that could be described as unsavory, if not downright deplorable. It is no secret that, for example, the culture of Jews of Sephardic origin was largely pushed to the margins of society and the media by the Ashkenazi establishment. Musicians such as the al-Kuwaiti brothers, Sallah and Daoud, who were megastars across the Arab world – particularly in Iraq where they were lauded by the king – fell victim to that lopsided view of cultural output.
It is said that with the creation of the State of Israel and the ensuing rise in Arab nationalism and wave of antisemitic acts in Arab countries, the king begged the brothers not to join the mass exodus to the young Jewish state. But the al-Kuwaitis did leave, forsaking a life of vast material riches for a ma’abara (transit camp) before finding more permanent housing in the down-market Hatikva neighborhood of southern Tel Aviv, where they performed in a local café. More prestigious stages and radio airtime opportunities were at a premium for them, as it was for Sephardic artists of all ilks with only a few exceptions, such as Yemenite-born songstress Shoshana Damari.
FAST FORWARD around four decades to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who jumped on the post-Berlin Wall collapse bandwagon to make aliyah from the former Soviet Union. Many of them, highly educated, often had to make do with menial jobs before eventually finding employment in their chosen professions, if that happened at all. Some, despairing at the lack of career channels open to them here, eventually jumped ship and relocated to the United States and elsewhere.
However, when it comes to the Ethiopian community here, things get even more complicated and murky. Over the years I have written about quite a number of Israeli artists with Ethiopian roots, generally as part of coverage of the Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival, which is due to take place for the 11th year running, under the auspices of Confederation House in Jerusalem, December 24 to 30. Naturally, and sadly, the upcoming edition will be an exclusively online-presented program and free of charge. In between discussing their creative road and work, almost all the interviewees talked about the barriers they faced to getting a fair bite of the Israeli cultural-media exposure cherry.
“It doesn’t make any difference whether we were born here, speak Hebrew fluently and unaccented, or do the army, we are always looked upon differently because of our skin color,” has been a constant observation.
Indeed, successes and general acceptance have been the lot of precious few Ethiopian Israeli artists. Singer Ester Rada draws large audiences – in non-coronavirus times – across the world and here, and saxophonist-vocalist Abatte Berihun is a bona-fide member of the Israeli jazz pantheon. Not that the latter exactly promises vast financial rewards, but at least it infers public and industry recognition. Both Rada and Berihun are on this year’s Hullegeb Festival roster.
Damari’s success, pronounced Yemenite accent notwithstanding, may have been due in part to the fact that she grew up here. She came here from Yemen with her family at the age of one and mostly performed mainstream Israeli fare. She gained success at age 25 with her 1948 release Kalaniyot (Anemones), a smash hit at the time and an enduring staple of the evolving Israeli musical treasure chest.
But even she faded from the public eye in the early 1980s, although her fortunes were briefly revived in the mid-’80s when she teamed up with crooner Boaz Sharabi, whose parents also made aliyah from Yemen, for a duet. In 1988 she was awarded the Israel Prize for her contributions to Hebrew song.
And that was more or less that for Damari, until one final curtain call, a few months before she died in 2006 at the age of 82, when she recorded two tracks for the Mimaamakim album by internationally acclaimed world music artist and producer Idan Raichel and participated in some of The Idan Raichel Project’s live performances. The Project comprised a slew of top artists from a wide range of cultural and stylistic backdrops, including singer Avi Wogderess-Wasa, who is in the Hullegeb lineup, alongside another Raichel veteran, seasoned bass player-producer Yankeleh Segal. Their Hewwan (“new beginning” in Amharic) program will be broadcast on December 29 at 9 p.m.
IN SPITE of his success in the international arena – Wasa’s bio includes a gig at the White House, with Raichel, for US president Barack Obama; and he was with Raichel in Dubai a couple of weeks ago together with another Project team singer, Nasrin Kadri, for an historic Israeli first there – Wasa says he has had his fair share of challenges on a basic quotidian level.
“I tried to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv a few years back and the landlady, quite blandly, told me she doesn’t take Ethiopian tenants. Can you believe that?”
Just trying to do his best as an artist while keeping the wolves at bay with his daytime job working with at-risk youth, Wasa notes that life is tough here for anyone in the creative sector but, perhaps, doubly so for members of the Ethiopian community.
“There has always been racism and discrimination here,” he says, echoing the experiences of the aforementioned olim, “but I try to look to the future and to convey in my art what I am trying to say to the world.”
That is a noble and praiseworthy goal, especially in a country that does little to provide a state-funded safety net for purveyors of cultural wares. But when deep-rooted prejudices rear their ugly head, the road to success becomes much rockier.
“Take, for example, the Independence Day ceremonies and the artists they ask to perform there. There should be artists there from the [Israeli-Ethiopian] community – and in big festivals, too,” says Wasa.
While noting that life isn’t that easy even when there is no pandemic around for artists across the board, regardless of their ethnicity or skin color, Wasa says there is no getting away from the fact he and his fellow Israeli-Ethiopians have a harder time than most.
“Look at Sigd,” he posits, referencing the religious festival celebrated by Ethiopian Jews annually 50 days after Yom Kippur. The event also incorporates cultural and artistic slots, including concerts. Wasa has been a staple of the Sigd entertainment program for some years.
‘PERFORMING FOR a pittance’: Sigd prayers in Jerusalem on November 16. (Photo credit: Olivier Fittousi/Flash90)
‘PERFORMING FOR a pittance’: Sigd prayers in Jerusalem on November 16. (Photo credit: Olivier Fittousi/Flash90)
“You are told to perform at the festival for a pittance. I have been offered NIS 1,000. If I have a band of seven or eight musicians, and I ask for NIS 15,000, they say it is too expensive. That is an insult to the artist. It is depressing. You work hard all year round to perform, and then you are made such a poor offer. I sold my car to be able to fund my first record. That’s a great shame.”
Even so, Wasa says the challenging facts on the ground won’t break him.
“I will keep on with my work, creating music. That’s my life.”
BELAYNESH ZEVADIA is another shining example of success against all the odds. Zevadia made aliyah from Ethiopia in 1984 as part of Operation Moses at the age of 17. She quickly settled into her new home, entering the diplomatic service – the first Ethiopian-born Israeli to do so – and, after serving in consulate positions in Houston and Chicago, she was appointed ambassador to Ethiopia in 2012, the first Ethiopian-born Israeli to secure that lofty posting. That was followed by an
ambassadorial berth in Rwanda.
 Zevadia tends to gravitate to the sunny side of the street. Besides the personal kudos, she says the Addis Ababa posting was a shot in the arm for the community as a whole.
“It was very significant for everyone, and it was one of the most moving moments of my life.”
Like all Ethiopian Jews, Zevadia was brought up on an idyllic and somewhat naïve notion of Jerusalem, the holy city. In general, olim from Ethiopia were rudely disabused of that biblical-leaning image on arrival. The secure walls of the community largely came crumbling down here, with the patriarchal way of life dissipating as the formerly all-authoritative menfolk largely lost status and face as they struggled to wend their way in a new, more westernized society that accords less importance and respect to senior citizens. The slap in the face led to incidents of domestic violence, the collapse of the hitherto rigid family structures and upheaval of the generational hierarchy.
 Zevadia was flown here in 1984 and was spared the hardships suffered by the likes of her siblings who endured trying, and even life-threatening, conditions as they made their way to Sudan on foot, often falling prey to opportunists looking to make a quick buck or two.
“When I told my father I didn’t want to wait to make aliyah with the whole family, he felt that was fine even though he had never been here. After all, I was going to Jerusalem. What could possibly be wrong with that?”
The reality proved to be far more challenging.
“It was tough when I got here,” says Zevadia. “I am the youngest of eight siblings. The family was never the same. I left my aging parents behind in Ethiopia and all my siblings made aliyah in different ways. We never rediscovered the joy of being together. By the time three of my brothers got here my father was no longer alive.”
Zevadia may have made significant professional and personal strides here, but she is not blind to the hardships her fellow Ethiopian-Israelis have to routinely square up to.
“There is discrimination, which every Ethiopian in Israel has to deal with, but I don’t want to feel victimized. Moaning about things isn’t going to get us anywhere.”
THAT SAID, the cold hard statistics make for tough reading. Zevadia referred me to an article published earlier this week in Haaretz, based on an interview with Aweke Kobi Zena, head of the Anti-Racism Coordination Unit in the Justice Ministry. Zena is quoted as saying, “It is almost impossible for an Ethiopian to achieve a management position. The state launders (whitens) the posts.”
 “The figures are extremely concerning,” asserts Zevadia, with regard to the chances of Ethiopian-Israelis attaining senior management positions. “There are only two senior managers in Israel from the community. That is outrageous. That is very worrying. Why can’t we make it to senior management? We have to progress.”
 There are basic, feral, commonplace behavioral patterns to be navigated too. In her 2014 book Not in Our School, Dr. Tsega Melaku who, like Zevadia, came here on Operation Moses in her teens, cites a distasteful incident in which a child at her son Emmanuel’s kindergarten called the latter kushi (the equivalent of the N word). When Melaku, a veteran radio journalist and former director of the Reshet Aleph station of the now defunct Israel Broadcast Authority, asked the child why he used that term she says the young boy turned to his mother and said “Mom, you told me that blacks are disgusting kushim.”
Melaku was taken aback and sprang into action, and subsequently elicited an apology from the mother. Zevadia has also experienced such racist remarks, although she favors a different line of response.
“If someone calls me kushit I turn away,” she says. “That’s my nature. I talk about the important things, about education and how our children grow up. Our children are Israelis. I want them to have an easier life. I come from a different way of life and different values, including respect for our elders. I want our children to grow up as equals among equals. That concerns me.”
MELAKU IS very active on that score and others. She is on the advisory board of the Hullegeb Festival and currently serves as chair of the Hanan Aynor Foundation, which provides Ethiopian-Israeli students with grants. She herself was the recipient of funding for her master’s degree studies.
“We are providing grants for 400 students this year. I got a grant myself and now I am helping others,” she laughs.
 She is also keenly aware of the discriminatory roadblocks her fellow community members have to negotiate in their personal and professional life.
“I give talks to IDF officers and I ask them if they believe there is racism in Israel. Most of them say there isn’t, and then I show them this,” she says, pointing to a weighty tome containing a state summary report, to which she contributed, which came out in 2016, under the heading of The Team for Eradicating Racism against Members of the Ethiopian Community. “That shows there is racism in this country, and not just against Ethiopians, also against Arabs, haredim and anyone else who is attacked. It is recognized by the state,” he exclaims. “You can’t argue against that.”
Like Zevadia, Melaku believes the only way to tackle that is by taking a grassroots approach.
“We have to invest in education. We have to teach small children about Ethiopian traditions. They don’t know anything about that. My book is now part of the Education Ministry curriculum, but they don’t teach school students from a young age about the Ethiopian community. That is a must if we are going to make any progress on this front.”
PERHAPS INTRODUCING the Israeli public in general, including the youngsters, to the moving, inspiring and entertaining work of artists from the Ethiopian community can help move things along in the desired directions. Hullegeb, under the stewardship of Confederation House head and artistic director Effie Benaya, has certainly been doing its best in that regard.
 THE BETA Ensemble performs Rewind & Repeat based on acclaimed choreographer Daga Feder’s Ethiopian dance vocabulary. (Photo credit: Orna Kalgrad)
THE BETA Ensemble performs Rewind & Repeat based on acclaimed choreographer Daga Feder’s Ethiopian dance vocabulary. (Photo credit: Orna Kalgrad)
The weeklong event features numerous top-notch acts across a range of disciplines, including Rada’s slot in which she performs numbers from her new album Yesh Hesed, her first in Hebrew. There is some intriguing dance fare, courtesy of actor-dancer Tzvika Iskias and choreographer-dancer Ofra Idel, with their dance performance “Black Label,” based on a collection of tales of a social outsider, and plenty more in the way of musical shows, including the launch of Rada’s sister Tamar Rada’s debut offering. Singer-songwriter Aveva Dese returns to the festival in an intimate acoustic performance that tells her life story as part of the first generation born in Israel to immigrants from Ethiopia. The soundscape runs the gamut of traditional Ethiopian song, soul-pop and punk.
 ACTOR-DANCER Tzvika Iskias and choreographer-dancer Ofra Idel will present their ‘Black Label’ dance on stories of a social outcast. (Photo credit: Ido Cohen)
ACTOR-DANCER Tzvika Iskias and choreographer-dancer Ofra Idel will present their ‘Black Label’ dance on stories of a social outcast. (Photo credit: Ido Cohen)
With plenty more on offer at this year’s Hullegeb Festival, perhaps we can all give some thought to some deeper social imbalances as we sit back to enjoy some quality artistic work. 
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