How Ester Rada's Knockout New Album Turns Pain Into Beauty

When the black Israeli singer sings about 'skin,' what could be more loaded?

If there’s one thing black music has taught us, time after time, it’s that the deepest pain can be transfigured into the most radiant beauty. Though Israeli music is generally not the place to experience this great truth, there are rare occasions when Israeli music and black music meet, and you can hear that miracle occurring here, too.

Listen to Ester Rada sing the word “skin.” That happens in two of the songs on her first full-length new album, titled “Ester Rada,” which has just been released, about a year after her first EP. The first time Rada sings “skin” is in the ninth song on the album, “No More”: “The clouds move and the sun appears / She sent a ray of light under my skin.” (Rada, who composed all the songs, sings in English.)

The second time is in the penultimate song, “Could It Be”: “Could it be that the moon touched my skin? / Is that the way love is measured?”

For a black person living in a country where racism looms on every corner, no word can be more loaded than “skin.” The feeling that you are judged first by your skin color and only afterward, if at all, for who you are, can provoke profound misery. But for an artist, it can also be powerful material for processing, and that’s what Rada does in the two pain-filled love songs in which she inserts the word “skin.”

Because her songs are personal in character, without any explicit social reference point, the word “skin” resonates powerfully. When the body itself is a political arena, there is no separation between the private space and the public space. It’s impossible to escape the political, even in the bedroom. If Rada had sung “skin” in a protest song, the effect would have been far less searing. Interestingly, though, when I heard the song “Could It Be” at Rada’s concerts or on the radio, and not in the context of the whole album, I didn’t notice the word. Only when I listened to the whole album, and after the word had already been voiced in the song “No More” (which is not as good), did it resonate with power – and tenderness – in “Could It Be.”

Ester Rada. Photo by Gabriel Baharlia

Many warm words of praise have been written about Rada in this newspaper, from her appearance at the 
InDnegev festival a year and a half ago – the first time she performed her own songs in public – to the last line of the previous paragraph. The new album completely justifies the enthusiastic coverage, but it also exposes her limitations and shortcomings – and though they are dwarfed by her high qualities, they should be mentioned in order not to create the impression that this is a perfect album.

In fact, it’s not even an outstanding album – more in the “very good” neighborhood. Rada’s EP, which came out shortly after her InDnegev appearance, included two excellent songs – “Monsters” and “Could It Be” – and two less impressive numbers. That the full album does not greatly expand the reservoir of outstanding songs comes as something of a disappointment. We can add “Out” and maybe also “Herd.” (Is it only me, or does the fanfare of horns with which “Herd” opens actually quote “I Gave Her My Life” of the iconic Kaveret group?)

The rest of the songs range between good and quite good, though it’s possible that some of them are only middling and have been enhanced by Rada’s marvelous voice. But there’s a limit to what a standout voice can do. In some of the songs there is a drop in musical tension precisely in the transition from the verse to the refrain, that strategic point which is supposed to act as the songs’ launching pad. There are also some songs in which Rada uses her voice in a way that is unflattering to her, such as her attempt to do something that resembles rapping. Another aspect of the album’s failure to excel throughout is the production – some songs are masterfully arranged, while others get a rather standard treatment.

But even if “Ester Rada” does not reveal gilded songs of the singer we didn’t know, it expands and deepens Rada’s portrait, which was only sketched in the four songs of the EP. Her rare grace, her relaxed stage presence, the singing that flows from her so naturally – this is only one side of the coin. As the album moves on and opens up, a harder side also comes across: vulnerable, wounded, angry, lost. It’s not that Rada’s songs are without optimism and joy, but those elements are ephemeral and are almost always accompanied, in the very next line, by thoughts about the tears that follow the smiles.

The heartwarming lines in which Rada describes moments of deliberate lack of lucidity are a special bonus. In “Bazi” she gets drunk and says, “It’s strange, I doesn’t feel like singing right now.” “Out,” in which she sings about the alienation and loneliness entailed in a new start, ends with her standing on the street and rolling herself a cigarette. She just wants to chill out after the awful day she had. But: “The man said it smells like hash / Pulled off his badge and I’m under arrest / Something is wrong get me out of here.” The horns reply with a phrase in an Ethiopian scale. Maybe that’s a signal from the home from which she embarked on her new path. Maybe she misses that time. Maybe she can’t and doesn’t want to go back. Complicated. And so lovely.

Rada takes part in the Piyut Time Festival at the Brodet Center in Tel Aviv on Friday at 20.30.

Gabriel Baharlia