How Racism Changed a Popular Ethiopian-Israeli Singer's Ways

On eve of launching first solo album, Gili Yalo talks about the turning point in his music, his ex-wife Ester Rada, his mom and more.

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Singer and songwriter Gili Yalo. “In Israeli society, it wasn’t in fashion or accepted to speak Amharic or to listen to Ethiopian music.”
Singer and songwriter Gili Yalo. “In Israeli society, it wasn’t in fashion or accepted to speak Amharic or to listen to Ethiopian music.”Credit: Zohar Ralt

Up until four years ago, Ethiopian-Israeli Gili Yalo listened to Israeli singers such as Shalom Hanoch, Ariel Zilber and Matti Caspi as well as African-American music. When he heard that residents of the Bar Yehuda complex in Kiryat Malachi had signed a commitment with the neighborhood committee not to rent or sell apartments to Ethiopian Jews, he became enraged. Since then, he has made it a point of coming to demonstrations and other gatherings, to protest and express the voice of the community.

“In Israeli society, it wasn’t in fashion or accepted to speak Amharic,” he said, “or to listen to Ethiopian music, to outwardly display the culture and the customs of the community. At the time, I hid it and was ashamed of it. My parents listened to Ethiopian music on the radio. My brother listened to cassettes in Amharic. I heard Ethiopian music at events but never really gave it my attention and didn’t connect with it. I related to it like something stuck in the past that couldn’t exist in the present or future.”

“It’s not that I hadn’t experienced racism before that,” continued Yalo, who immigrated to Israel from the a village in the Gondar region of Ethiopia at age five. “Every black person in Israel has experienced racism first hand at some stage, but what happened in Kiryat Malachi put me in a crisis. It was a slap in the face.

“But at least one good thing came of it – I started to take an interest in Ethiopia and look into where I came from,” Yalo says. “I discovered lively, exciting music with impressive progressions. The five major musical scales in Ethiopian music are pentatonic, so on one hand, the beats are very, very authentic and characteristic of Ethiopia, and on the other hand, the scale is very minor – sad songs with a beat, and people dance as if there were no tomorrow. I connected with this music. Now it is well known among fans of world music. I listened mostly to Ethiopiques collections, which document the golden age of Ethiopian music from the 1970s, when a lot of students from Ethiopia went to study in the West and combined motifs from blues and jazz and local music.”

Putting it to music

After Yalo’s reconnection with his roots, his musical group, Zvuloon Dub System, produced a second album of Ethiopian music with a reggae beat.

“I sing on it in Amharic, and we host a singer who sings in Tigrinya [spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia], Yaacov Lilay, while we hosted the greatest singer in Ethiopia, Mahmoud Ahmed, one of the pioneers of Ethiopian music, one of the first who went to perform in the West and expose Ethiopian music to the world. The responses were amazing. As a result of this album we went for a round of performances for two months in Canada, Jamaica and the United States,” he says.

In the wake of the success of Ester Rada, Yalo’s ex-wife, he took a break from the band and launched a solo career. “Ester is talented and from the first moment, she had what it took to succeed.”

“I wrote these songs two years ago, but I was very afraid of this step, to sing solo,” Yalo adds. “I hid behind her, gave her a tailwind so she would succeed. And I was afraid, I didn’t believe in myself enough, but her incredible success, after a lot of hard work, gave me inspiration and motivation. I saw the process up close and it gave me amazing drive.”

Down at the club

In his performance at the Pasá club in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, which started at midnight, Yalo came on stage with sunglasses and a flowered suit. “I’m a nightlife type, I like to perform late. To give a show, feel the energy, the vibe. I like the clubbing way of life, to dance until morning, parties and be happy.”

Over the past few years, Yalo, 35, has run a number of clubs and bars that play black music, but now he is investing all his attention in his music. “When you are self-employed you focus on your business and it always comes at the expense of something else. I reached the conclusion that the time had come for me to do what I can to advance my music. For now it doesn’t pay me like crazy, but I believe and hope it will change later. All my life moves around music. I want to leave an impression, to share and excite people. There are days that I close the house, sit all day and listen to music. It’s my therapy, but at the end of the day I feel guilty I didn’t do anything.”

The members of "Zvuloon Dub System."Credit: David Bachar

So far he has released two singles: “City Life,” a song in English about the difficulties making a living in the big city, and “Hyloga,” a song in Amharic of social criticism that counsels against despair. His first extended play album is supposed to be released later this year, with “a lot of soul, a lot of groove, a lot of Africa,” he says.

“This project is my heart, the DNA of what I experienced in recent years, the social protest, love songs, happiness, sadness, how do I describe this thing? It is simply me. The art I received from my mother, who sculpts in a tribal manner. She is the happiest person in the world, every time I sing she claps, every time I dance she dances with me, and since I was little she tells me I am the most handsome in the world. It seems she complimented me too much, so I thought I was the greatest thing, but she gave me an important tool that I used later. I never saw myself as less good than other people, it didn’t matter where I was and where I went, I always came up on stage with confidence, from a young age, and I was never shy.

“Today my parents are retired. In Ethiopia there are no registries of who is Jewish and who isn’t. They teach you to count seven generations back to see who your family is and according to that they make a family genealogy. My father worked in the Interior Ministry and checked who was Jewish. A very sensitive profession, at the level that people threatened your life because if he determined someone was not Jewish they will find a reason to hurt you and speak about you badly. Except for sculpture, my mother lectures on the aliyah to Israel and the cultural differences, and on educating children and family.”

Have you visited Ethiopia recently?

“A sensitive spot. Actually I haven’t been there since I was five, there is certainly some reason, after all I can get on a plane to there at any time. I have a lot of experiences in my life around the music that took me to other cultures, opened my mind, and guided me to new places; and everyone asks me how I haven’t gone there yet.

“It seems I’m afraid, but I don’t know from what. From age nine I travel the world, I flew a lot, at age 10 I already appeared in the Olympia in Paris when I was the soloist of the Jerusalem Boys Choir with Enrico Macias, a year later I appeared in Los Angeles with Ofra Haza. I was an attraction until my voice changed, my voice became bass and they threw me out of there. That’s how it is in music, there is hype about you, you’re on the wave, and in a second no one remembers who you are. I hope to go to Ethiopia this year, and make music there.”

Did the protests of Ethiopian-Israelis last year improve the situation?

“There is more awareness that the community in Israel is discriminated against by the authorities, law, government, and this is important in my opinion. The soldier shown being beaten by the security guards on the video was infuriating, but that was not the story. The sad story is really that of Yosef Salamsa [who committed suicide after being tasered by police]. You tell yourself, who says tomorrow it won’t happen to me or someone I love or a relative?

“It’s sad that only after making use of violence in demonstrations that people began to talk about this situation, and think how to improve it. We learned that the next time we want attention, that is what we need to do. But then I don’t know who will be more violent, the police or the social activists. If during the social protests of 2011 they had done what the Ethiopian community did in Rabin Square, something certainly would have changed here.”

On Thursday Yalo will host saxophonist Abate Berihun at a performance in Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem. On April 16 he will perform at the official kickoff event for Spirala, a nonprofit organization to help promote independent music and art in Israel, at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.

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