Ethiopian culture is being celebrated this week with the Sigdiyada Festival in Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater, which will host a variety of Ethiopian performers. But the festival’s roots lay as much in New York as they do in Addis Ababa.
“I decided to found the festival after my stay in New York in 2008, when I became familiar with the revolutionary Apollo Theater,” explains organizer Shai Ferdu. “It was mainstream in New York, even though it was in Harlem. A lot of actors were born there who later changed the face of American or African-American cinema,” he notes.
Ferdu, who is also an actor, director and artistic manager, recently finished filming a television series called “The Nineties,” in which he plays “a major and challenging role.” He also recently starred in the upcoming film “Asher Naim” (a working title, whose name refers to the Israeli ambassador in Ethiopia in 1990-91), an American-Israeli production about Operation Solomon, when Israel airlifted more than 14,300 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours in May 1991.
He’s also the father of “two sweeties, Adam and Mor,” who he says give him the strength to create a different reality for Black children in a white world.
“Today is the 10th anniversary of the festival and it’s really a dream,” he says, looking back. “The contribution of the Sigdiyada to the culture of Ethiopian Israelis is huge. It gave a group of artists who were working under the radar the chance to break out and finally get a platform. Many people in the audience say that, for the first time, they feel they’ve come home to Israel.
“Slowly, a kind of community has been created around the festival – people come every year with their families, their friends, their kids,” Ferdu continues. “There are also people who come from abroad to take part in the festival. It’s a miracle that we’ve been able to bring the Sigdiyada into the Israeli mainstream; to see so many people standing in line is crazy. That’s what keeps me going.”
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Organizing the festival is far from glamorous, though, and Ferdu conducts a lot of research to discover new artists. “It’s not like there are thousands of artists of Ethiopian origin who are waiting by the door and all I have to do is choose,” he says. “You have to find the artists who are underground. These are artists who have lost hope, who are angry, who didn’t go underground of their own free will but because they had to. I dig all over the country looking for them, hearing about their ability.”
He recounts how he found one musician, “one of the most amazing performers in Ethiopia,” after going to the airport and seeing him cleaning there. “To hold on to their art and their culture, the price that artists of Ethiopian descent pay in Israel is absurd,” Ferdu says. “I’m talking about artists who knew this is what they want to do their entire lives. And Ethiopian kids, too – the fact that they survived in this area is a miracle.
“To deal with this culture is a privilege, so I work the whole year so that the Ethiopian artists will feel privileged for these three days,” he adds. This year’s festival runs from Thursday to Saturday.
“It’s an amazing project that has proven itself, Ferdu says. “But I find myself running around for eight months, chasing funding until the last minute. The Culture Ministry, the Tel Aviv municipality and Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery, support us. But at the moment there are criteria to meet to be called a festival – criteria that don’t suit independent artists and small bodies that want to grow. I’m trying to turn the festival into one of the biggest in the country, because there’s crazy added value in that. But I’d like there to be a government body or institution that believes in what I’m doing and to fund it.”
Ferdu enthuses about the first wave of Hebrew-language Ethiopian music that people first became aware of, citing musicians like Ester Rada and Gili Yalo, who both appeared at the first Sigdiyada, and the singer Tamar Rada.
He also mentions a notable collaboration between Ethiopian singers Rudy Beinsin and Zemene Melese and Ehud Banai, in which they released an album of Banai’s songs with Ethiopian musical instruments providing the accompaniment.
“Suddenly, the great Rovina Hall in Habima Theater is filled with a thousand people – Amharic and Hebrew mix, Amharic and foreign languages,” Ferdu says, recalling the festival scene. “The Ethiopian artists began returning to their roots, to sing in Amharic, after years of singing only blues. Lots of people ask me if I’m going to be their producer or their manager, and they ask what’s the catch. I tell them, ‘Let’s just do it and grow together.’ The aim is that the things we start at the festival continue, and give them the impetus to succeed.”
The personal story of Ferdu, 46, is one shared by the few performers of Ethiopian descent who have found success in Israel’s homogenous cultural scene.
“I was accepted in the Khan Theater [in Jerusalem]. After that, I studied at Nissan Nativ [drama school] and I always had this loneliness in the theater – I didn’t see one Ethiopian in the audience. Even though I was already successful, I was barely able to convince my brothers to come to the shows,” he recounts.
In 1995, together with Yaffa Schuster, he established Israel’s first Ethiopian theater: the Netela Theater in Rishon Letzion, which operated for seven years. But when the theater closed, Ferdu continued to pursue his dream.
“Artists, creators and actors from the Ethiopian community are doing three years of studies against all the odds, graduating with honors – and then they aren’t even invited for auditions because there is no place for Blacks here,” he charges. “There is much more to be done, and it must be done. I also searched for this opportunity and didn’t get it. I too wanted to be at the forefront once in a while, but it didn’t happen until I created a world for myself in which I decide what happens. So, yes, it is lonely and sad. On the other hand, though, it brings something new.”
Ferdu decided to bring Ethiopian culture to the Israeli cultural scene via the Sigdiyada Festival. “I said I wanted the Habima Theater,” he recalls, about his desire to use Israel’s national theater. “I didn’t have any money, but I wasn’t going to be dissuaded. The first time they told me: ‘Take the small theater, maybe 400 people will come.’ But even in the first year we had almost 4,000 people. And every year we’ve gotten better, we’ve improved. In this sense, the Sigdiyada has also offered possibilities to those artists without a home.”
One act debuting at this year’s festival is Bandlay, a musical show by Israel’s first Ethiopian orchestra, conducted by Solomon Mersha.
“There were no Ethiopian orchestras in Israel, only bands,” Ferdu explains. “In Ethiopia, you go to a restaurant and eat, and after you finish there’s an orchestra playing. I wanted an orchestra here too, so I went to Solomon, who has his own musical ensemble. I told him I wanted us to take this step, for him to have his own musical project, and that he could have the production at Habima, with funding.”
Mersha’s orchestra is an ensemble of Ethiopian wind instruments along with Western instruments, combining the language of prayer and the popular language, and includes hits from the last hundred years. Ferdu says these are songs that “were performed by legends – by the Zohar Argovs of Ethiopia,” he says, referring to the late “king of Mizrahi music.” “These are songs that our parents grew up with and are hummed by everyone who speaks Amharic,” Ferdu adds. The orchestra will perform songs by legendary Ethiopian singers like Mahmoud Ahmed – who began performing in various groups in the 1960s, opened a record store in Addis Ababa in the ’80s, and gained fame in Europe and America in the ’90s – and Tilahun Gessesse, one of the all-time Ethiopian greats.
On the festival’s second day, Alamork Davidian and Kobi Davidian’s powerful documentary “With No Land” will be screened (Ferdu is the narrator). The film, which was also shown on Israel’s broadcast television station to mark the 30th anniversary of Operation Solomon earlier this year, tells the story of the aliyah activists from Ethiopia who were a key link in the operation.
Director Esti Almo Wexler’s musical TV series “Coco Hahokeret” (“Coco the Investigator”), which is nominated for three Ophir Awards, will also be screened at the festival. The show tells the story of an adventurous girl named Coco who “discovers the world via the Amharic language.” Ferdu stresses the importance of the show in providing a role model for children.
Throughout the three days, there will be a range of music and dance performances. These include the debut performance of choreographer Almaz Mamoya, whose show will deal with the variety of styles of Ethiopian dance, to a performance by Oshi Masala, a singer whose work combines Hebrew lyrics and African music. There’s also the debut performance of hip-hop and spoken word artist A.G., whose work “is influenced by the Ethiopian musical scene,” according to Ferdu, including ethno (aka world) jazz, punk and rock.
Ferdu doesn’t hide his admiration when he speaks about the artists – not only for their work, but also the trails they have blazed. “I find Oshi amazing,” he says of Masala. “She grew up in a tough world. She worked really hard to meet all of the expectations. Now she’s a young singer with her own studio, a tremendous talent who should go far.”
He pauses for a moment to reflect on the upcoming festival. “There are many challenges,” he concludes, “but what’s really amazing is that for these three days, everything else stops.”