Creating vehicles for showcasing art of a specific style and/or genre can be something of a double-edged sword. They naturally nurture the work of artists who primarily, or exclusively, pertain to the field in question and, thus, appeal to the tastes of a particular market sector. While that helps to entice consumers it generally also limits the artistic scope.
Oshi Masala prefers to keep her options open. The singer-songwriter is on the roster of this year’s Hullegeb Ethiopian-Israeli Arts Festival, which runs December 22-29 at various venues around Jerusalem, under the aegis of Confederation House and its CEO-artistic director Effie Benaya. Masala’s “Before Dawn” show is set for December 28, 9:30 p.m., at the Yellow Submarine.
The show header comes from the title of her sophomore record, due out just one week before the gig. Her cohorts for the festival date include stellar bass guitarist and producer Yossi Fine. Fine’s longtime sidekick, percussionist Ben Aylon, saxophonist Nadav Haber, and keyboardist Sharon Mansour, with Adonia Gowada bringing more than a touch of ethnic seasoning on the masengo, a single-string bowed African instrument.
Fine is a major figure on the local rock, ethnic and jazz scene, and has supported and nurtured numerous Israeli artists over the years, since mixing it on the global rock scene with the likes of David Bowie and Lou Reed. Masala says he was pivotal in bringing “Before Dawn” to fruition.
But, I am jumping the gun a little here. The preamble to Masala’s new record follows a stirring path through Ethiopia, when she visited her parents’ country of birth for the first time back in 2018.
“While I was there I was asked if I wanted to meet the people waiting to make aliyah,” she recalls. “I, of course, agreed. It was an amazing experience for me.”
As a musician she was never going to leave such a significant personal encounter just to her own memory bank. This was ideal fodder for a new artistic excursion.
“I decided to write a song together with the people there,” she explains. “They told me their stories and I wrote them down. I decided to base a song on one main story, from an old man called Nayeh Tzega, who has since passed away. He never made it to Israel.”
That became “Sabba Addis” (Grandfather Addis), a single released in 2018, and which comes with a powerfully emotive video clip that shows hundreds of Ethiopian Jews patiently awaiting their turn to make aliyah. Masala was visibly moved by her time at the transit camp.
She quickly realized she was going to need the support of a consummate professional to make the recording happen. “I got back to the hotel and I called Yossi Fine, in Israel. I hadn’t met him before. I told him what I wanted him to do for me, but he said he was about to leave for the US and he probably wouldn’t have time for it before he left.”
Masala clearly wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and went to meet Fine as soon as she landed in Israel. “I told him we have to get this done. Yes, I suppose you could call that Israeli chutzpah,” she laughs.
Masala had come well prepared. “I wrote all the words in the hotel room and I recorded myself singing on my phone. Then we found a studio there, in Addis Ababa, and we got some rough sketches done.”
Back in Tel Aviv, Fine rolled with the punches and they got the deed done. Masala was so desperate to get the single made, particularly after her moving time at the aliyah transit camp, she even resorted to a little emotional blackmail. “I told Yossi it was a mitzvah to tell people about the situation in Addis, with the song,” she laughs.
MASALA WAS born in 1991, a decade after her parents made aliyah. She identifies as an Israeli rather than an Ethiopian Israeli and says, as a child, she heard broken Hebrew along with Amharic at home. Up to the age of 18 she only sang in Hebrew. Then she had a positive life changing experience.
“I flew to the US and the security man asked me where I was from. When I said ‘Israel’ he said I couldn’t be, because I was black. When I told him my parents came from Ethiopia he said: ‘What? On Operation Moses?’ When I said yes, he said ‘wow!’ and I got VIP treatment from the security personnel, who were all black.”
That set her on the road to where she is today, an Israeli singer-songwriter digging into her ethnic roots and managing to marry all that in one multifaceted seamless package. “I began getting more into Amharic – I only understood it until then – and my musical journey really started from there.” That led to the release of her self-titled debut album, at the age of 25.
She also received some sage advice from one of the established movers and shakers on the Israeli ethnic music scene. “I told [Uruguayan-born percussionist] Ronnie Evrin I wanted to be a musician but I didn’t have any idea how to do that. He told me that I should look back into my past, my roots. I learned you have to sing your own story, your own truth. That was an important lesson.”
Evrin’s tip struck a deep chord with Masala, and she says she is fired by a sense of mission to roll out her own layered tapestry of feelings, colors and spices. “I want to tell people about my roots as an Israeli, and also as someone who comes from an Ethiopian family. For me they are of equal importance.”
If Israelis in general know anything about members of the Ethiopian community, it is usually of a bleak nature, principally focusing on the trials and tribulations they endured to make it here, added to the trying – ongoing – struggle for recognition as bona fide members of Israeli society.
But Masala is a happy soul and she prefers to look on the bright side of life. “If I just center on the Ethiopian side, that limits me. As a Jew I think looking at the people waiting to come to Israel from Ethiopia is no different from say, thinking about Yemenites who wanted to make aliyah.”
What Masala really wants is for us to relate to an Israeli with Ethiopian roots like anyone else here. “I get a lot of work around the time of the Sigd Festival, and Hullegeb. It shouldn’t be like that. We shouldn’t need Hullegeb to get gigs. I am very happy about the festival but we shouldn’t be limited to that. That doesn’t define who I am.”
The Yellow Submarine audience will get a better idea of who Masala is and her storyline, as an accomplished artist, on December 28.