Proud of their roots

Ethiopian performers fight for their place in the cultural scene

Dege Feder (photo credit: YA’ACOV SADAN)
Dege Feder
(photo credit: YA’ACOV SADAN)
AT THE opening of her band Lela’s performance at the Hullegeb Israeli- Ethiopian Arts Festival in Jerusalem mid- December, singer Dege Feder shares some of the fleeting memories she has of her childhood in Ethiopia.
“I was fortunate enough to have left Ethiopia at an age where I still have memories of our life there,” she tells the intimate audience attending the show at the Confederation House in Jerusalem. “We were very much connected to the land, to nature. It was a very basic sort of existence.
We drew water from a well and I was able to do some shepherding.”
Though she has lived most of her life in Israel – she came to the country with a group of relatives when she was either seven or eight years old in 1985 in Operation Moses – and her Hebrew is flawless, she sings most of her songs in Amharic.
On stage with her are Oded Aloni on percussion, Yiftah Kadan on guitar, Tal Feder on bass, Lior Paz on saxophone, and Dejan Manchilot playing a traditional Ethiopian stringed instrument called a masenqo.
When Feder, who is also the artistic director of the Beita Dance Ensemble, adds traditional Ethiopian dance to the mix, she fills the stage with her performance – so much so that her diminutive size comes as a surprise when you meet her in person.
“When you connect to yourself, to your world, you get more strength,” she tells The Jerusalem Report before the performance.
“You have self-confidence, you know the facts of where you came from and that is something important.”
Like other Israeli-Ethiopian performers, Feder says that in her teen years she did exactly the opposite and tried to fit into Israeli society by shaking off her Ethiopian heritage and trying to be like everyone else.
“But that doesn’t help you to be a part of Israeli society, escaping from yourself,” says Feder, who spent years in a boarding school as many Ethiopian children did when they first arrived in Israel.
She went on to study at Haifa University and, by chance, joined the student dance troupe, Esketa, which showcased the traditional Ethiopian shoulder dance through modern dance choreography. Established by dancer Ruth Eshel, the troupe eventually struck out independently as the Beita Ensemble. It ignited in Feder something she hadn’t felt before in her connection to her Ethiopian roots and realized that this was what she wanted to do.
Since then, she has gone to Ethiopia to study traditional dance movements and now teaches her modern interpretation.
“We tell our stories via our bodies, but we don’t do it in a traditional way. It’s very artistic. There are a lot of troupes that do Ethiopian dance, but nobody does what we do. We take tradition and renovate it, we bring a new language to the movement,” Feder explains, noting, however, that some older members of the Ethiopian community are not always keen on the way the younger generation is changing their traditional dance and music.
As for Israeli society in general, Feder says that with only an estimated one percent of the Ethiopian community represented in the local performing-arts world, it is not a question of whether it accepts Ethiopian artistic expression, but rather whether Israelis have an opportunity to be exposed to it.
Still, Feder says, Ethiopian performers shouldn’t rely on festivals to advance their careers, but need to fight for their place in the Israeli cultural scene like all other starving young artists.
“We are all in survival mode,” she says.
“At least music is one part of society where they deal with you as they do with any other performer. If you are good, they want to work with you and come to your performances.”
From reggae to rap and jazz fusion, the younger generation of Ethiopian performers – many Israeli-born with no personal memory of Ethiopia – are seeking to find their niche just like other musicians.
Ester Rada took the Israeli music world by storm last year when she performed her original jazz/blues songs – sung in English and laced with Ethiopian groove – at the InDNegev Festival. Her husband, Gili Yalu, the lead singer in the reggae band Zvuloon Dub System, played at the Sumfest Reggae festival in Jamaica this year and the Sigdiada Festival in November at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv, blending Ethiopian music in Amharic and Tigrinya with reggae and dub, a sub-genre of reggae. The Cafe Shachor Hazak (Strong Black Coffee) group made up of Ilak Sahalu and Uri Alamo is trying to break in with their rap/pop songs in Hebrew.
Much has changed for singer Ayala Ingedashet in the four years since her first album was released. The music she hears is less “American” and she has become more connected to her African roots, she says, noting that this is the something special she can offer to the Israeli music scene.
“It feels very right to me and comfortable,” Ingedashet says. “I feel very comfortable where I am now. I feel more whole than I did four years ago. Music is the only place left where you can be different and people welcome you with open arms without judging you on your race or the color of your skin.”
THOUGH SHE does not set out to be a role model for anyone, Ingedashet says she enjoys hearing when Ethiopian youngsters look up to her as an example of success.
For Abate Berihun, 45, who arrived in Israel in 1999 and struggled to convince people at the absorption center that he actually was a first-class jazz musician in Ethiopia, this new approach is a step in the right direction. He would like to see the younger generation of Ethiopians having a stronger connection to their own musical traditions before they start fiddling with music forms with roots in the US and elsewhere.
“It is important not to lose our traditions,” he says. “If we have no past, we have no future. They are looking to African America for their culture. What we have here is the culture of the Ethiopians. We have 2,000 years of history.”
Local musicians such as Idan Raichel and Shlomo Gronich have been wise enough to connect with the Ethiopian musical traditions, says Berihun. “Something will come out of this, a wonderful color from all worlds,” he says.
His own path in Israel has not been an easy one. Having left his saxophone behind with the band he played with in Ethiopia – the instrument had been bought jointly and he never imagined it would be so hard to get another one in Israel – no one at the absorption center where other Ethiopians were just learning about concepts such as refrigeration could grasp the idea that Berihun really knew how to play. Finally, his talent was recognized by singer Ariel Zilber who happened to visit the absorption center.
Like many jazz musicians, Berihun has continued to struggle to make ends meet, often having to combine his music with additional jobs. He also takes on private students, including young Ethiopians who want to learn the basics of Ethiopian jazz.
His first album, “Res Deshen,” produced with pianist Yitzhak Yedid in 2004, combined traditional Ethiopian music with jazz and received favorable reviews. In 2011, he was awarded first place at a music festival in Afula and has performed in New York City. His second recording project, which combines Ethiopian prayers sung by the community’s kessim religious leaders with his own original compositions, was put on hold when the producer died.
Although Ethiopians are making headways in the music arena, in theater and cinema they are often typecast because of the color of their skin, some Ethiopian actors say, though the Ethiopian-Israeli experience has been brought to the stage and cinema.
HAVING PARTICIPATED in past Hullegeb festivals, comedian and actor Yossi Vassa continues to perform in Israel and abroad in productions with Nefesh Theater. His one man show, “It Sounds Better in Amharic,” tells the story of his family’s journey to Israel and “One of a Kind,” performed with other Ethiopian actors, tells about life in an Ethiopian village. Director/comedian Shmuel Beru directed “Zruvbavel” in 2008, the first full-length Israeli movie about the Ethiopian- Israeli experience.
At the improvisational Hullegeb (“multifaceted” in Amharic) Theater, which is also housed at the Confederation House, director Moshe Marka works with a small group of seven mostly Ethiopian actors to tell the dramatic narratives of the Israeli- Ethiopian realities.
While Russian and Anglo immigrant theater groups normally have their country’s classical traditional dramas and comedies to fall back on, there was no tradition of theater in Ethiopia, notes Marka, so theirs is a theater of improvisations and experimentation.
Four years ago they won first prize in the Acre Theater Festival for their production of “HaBayit Shel Metuko” (Metuko’s House).
“Here the material comes from the actor, not from any method schools. One of the focuses of the theater is to create actors. Here they go deep inside themselves in search of the material, about the issues that are important to them,” he says. “There are also some things which are very universal in the immigration reality, issues immigrants deal with all over the world. This is a chance for them to investigate their own stories – other theaters don’t highlight that.”
The theater itself is small, Marka notes, so while their audience is not huge, their productions – one of which was also a part of the Hullegeb Festival, are regularly attended.
Hullegeb allows Ethiopian actors, who may not be able to afford acting school, to learn the basics, as did dancer/actor Tzvika Iskais, 32, who started working with the group two years ago.
“A lot of Ethiopian families are still trying to integrate and are struggling in society,” says Iskais. “This is an opportunity for Ethiopian actors to bring those stories to the forefront.
There are a lot of talented [Ethiopian] actors but they are usually typecast and directors won’t accept them [for certain parts] because they are black.
“Our role is not to go out and get exposure for ourselves and get to the top and forget who I am, but to bring this identity to the outside,” adds Iskais, who also danced for three years with the Batsheva Dance Company and the Beita Dance Ensemble. “You have to protect the beauty of who you are inside. What good does it do if you are playing at the Cameri, but you are not the real color of who you are and the difficulty of your community in societ y.”
Tehilla Yeshayahu Adge, 40, who appeared with Iskais in their recent production of “Seychelles,” which tells the story of an Israeli-Ethiopian couple who must find a way to pay for some expensive medicine for their son, has been working as an actress for 20 years and says she has turned down typecast roles in larger productions.
“We have an Ethiopian theater. Here I create,” says Yeshayahu Adge, who came to Israel at the age of nine. In addition to her acting, the Jerusalemite mother of two teaches acting to children.
Doreen Mendel, 22, a native born non- Ethiopian Israeli who rounds out the cast of “Seychelles,” says “this is pure fringe.
It is very real,” adding, “It is not just about immigrants, there are a lot of people who don’t feel like they belong here.”
IN HER last role on stage with the Cameri Theater, Ruth Asarsai, one of the few Ethiopian actors who has succeeded in mainstream theater, played Lady Anne in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and now is enjoying herself in the new role of a call girl in a comedy by Edna Mazia, “The New Criminals.”
Most of her roles in the four years she has been with the premier company have been in classical productions. “It is very challenging and here and you have to bring your ability and not your color,” she says.
“I can understand why other Ethiopian actors say they feel typecast but I have not felt it in the Cameri,” says Asarsai, who considers veteran actress Meski Shibru, who in 2011 became the first Ethiopian actress to play the leading role in a production of Ephraim Sidon’s “Lizzy,” as her role model.
“We each have to change the reality for ourselves. There is racism and there will always be racism, but nobody should say ‘I can’t achieve something because of the color of my skin.’ The question is how much you allow the obstacles to get in your way. It takes strength to change attitudes,” she says.
Still, Feder says festivals such as the Hullegeb, now in its fifth year, sometimes are the only way general audiences have an opportunity to experience performances by young Ethiopian-Israeli actors, musicians and dancers.
“Maybe they feel that Ethiopian music and dance is just for the Ethiopian community, but they don’t understand that it is for everybody.
I hope people will be open to it. It is a bridge and a way to connect to culture,” she says.
As the largely non-Ethiopian audience at the Lela’s concert began to trickle out after an encore performance of “Music” – an original song written in Amharic by Feder – a French- speaking woman sat enraptured in her seat, and, turning to look up at her companion who was already on his feet, said, “magnifique.”