A fresh soul on a world stage

Israeli attitude, American funk and an Ethiopian backdrop make the musical stylings of Ester Rada a force to be reckoned with.

Ester Rada is quickly taking the world by storm with her musical stylings (photo credit: ADI HARARI)
Ester Rada is quickly taking the world by storm with her musical stylings
(photo credit: ADI HARARI)
Ester Rada – the Israeli singer who has been grabbing the world’s attention with her soulful sound – is part of a generation that grew up in Israel with a history of Ethiopian immigrant hardship.
A striking figure with lithe East African looks, she possesses a beauty that can turn heads and a talent that makes ears prick up. Having broken through on MTV, VH1 and the BBC, Rada is getting global recognition from the media and music lovers alike. Her heady mix of Ethio-jazz, Afrobeat, nu soul and reggae packs as much of a punch on the dance floor as it does pumping through peoples’ headphones.
Rada first came onto the live music scene in Tel Aviv in 2012. She gained popularity jamming with Israeli-groove staples like Idan K, Sabbo and Kutiman, but it wasn’t until she self-released her single “Life Happens” that the world took notice.
“The world got smaller with the Internet and Facebook, and the borders have almost gone,” she says. “So I can speak with someone in China right now on Skype, for example. This technology has helped this generation to get closer to the other parts of the world, no matter where you are.”
Born in Kiryat Arba to Ethiopian immigrants, she grew up in an environment characterized by austerity and Orthodoxy. She was raised bilingual, learning Amharic and Hebrew, but says her early musical influences were strictly from a religious canon.
“I started singing when I was six years old, mostly a mix of religious songs and some Ethiopian folk music in Amharic,” she says. She still feels a direct connection to this early influence. “Religious music is characterized by spiritual singing toward God. When I’m singing these kinds of songs, even now, I feel like I’m in a different place, a higher place – mentally and emotionally – and like Gospel music, this is what soul music is all about.”
The idea of soul music, although generically considered African- American, has often transcended cultural or religious definitions.
From the hazan in a synagogue, to the muezzin of a mosque, to the choirmaster in a church, there is a long-standing tradition of music as worship.
Rada also cites influences by contemporary artists such as Nigerian musician Keziah Jones, German-Nigerian hip-hop singer Nneka, and American soul and folk artists like India Arie, Jill Scott, John Legend and Corrine Bailey-Ray. But she says her heritage is her main source of inspiration.
“It’s very important for me to include Ethiopian traditional sounds and elements in my music,” she says. “During my live shows I also perform some known Ethiopian songs from home, which I adapt and update.”
Asked how the Ethiopian community in Israel has taken to her success, she responds that “I get very positive responses from a lot of people, and that means also from the Ethiopian community.”
Rada points out the importance of acknowledging how Israeli culture has influenced her music.
Yet Ethiopian musical heritage has had its impact on Israel as well, and in recent years the country has seen the emergence of artists like saxophonist Abatte Barihun, singer Hagit Yaso and the Idan Raichel Project’s Kabra Kasai.
“I really like what Idan did,” says Rada. “The first time I heard an Ethiopian song on Israeli radio was when Idan played it. I felt proud that he did it, and it was beautiful. I don’t know if there is a place to compare it to mine, because it’s not the same music. Maybe we have some mutual influences, but I think the outcome is totally different, because I guess we’re two different people. I mix stuff and he mixes stuff.”
Emerging onto the global stage has given her the opportunity to see crowds that span numerous countries.
“I think they connect to the same vibe,” she says. “Music is music, and it’s something they all connect to in Israel the same as abroad.”
And her music is gaining more people’s interest as she tours. “It is amazing to see the reactions of people to the music I write. It is the biggest blessing, affecting people in this way.”
Still, asked if her popularity has turned into influence, she remains modest. “I can’t say that about myself, whether my music influences anybody. I hope people take positive things out of my songs. All I can say is that whoever is curious can come and check it out themselves. Every show provides a whole new set of feelings for me when I perform.”
This summer, Rada is on a three-month, 40- date tour of North America. Following that, she will join renowned funk master Bootsy Collins on a tour across France.
“Everything is going well. I feel that it’s the start of everything,” Rada says. “I’m starting to really break out in Israel and out of Israel. We have a lot of tours coming up this summer, big festivals – it’s amazing. I feel that I will do this for the rest of my life.”