Israeli singer Ester Rada will unveil her unique musical brew at the Cedar
By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
On her 2014 eponymous album, Israeli actress and singer Ester Rada covers a popular Ethiopian song, “Nanu Ney.”
The lyrics are in Amharic, the language of Rada’s parents, who made aliya from Ethiopia shortly before her birth. She was raised in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron.
The song, given a loping, up-tempo arrangement with a horn section here, was popularized by Muluken Melesse, “a very big singer from Ethiopia,” says Rada.
“It’s a love song, it’s about Nanu, he speaks the name of a girl and he asks her to come, ‘Nanu Ney’ — ‘ney’ is come. He asks her to come, because she has everything — his life, his love — and he asks her to come to him.”
The captivating 30-year-old musician recently talked on the phone with the Jewish World. She was on the way to her home in Jaffa, and making preparations for her sister’s wedding that night.
Rada will perform for the first time in Minnesota, when she plays the Cedar Cultural Center on Sept. 22. She and her band will be part of the Cedar’s Global Roots Festival 2015, on a bill with La Chiva Gantiva, a group started by Columbian students living in Brussels, Belgium. Admission is free.
(In an unfortunate bit of scheduling, the Cedar show takes place on Erev Yom Kippur, which will diminish the audience from the Twin Cities Jewish community.)
In order to better understand Rada’s music, which combines jazz with American soul and funk, Ethio-jazz, or Ethiopian jazz, should be mentioned. Ethio-jazz essentially is a genre created by Mulatu Astatke, a native of Ethiopia who got his musical training in London and the United States. He was the first student from Africa to enroll at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied vibraphone and percussion.
“My parents listened to a lot of Ethiopian traditional music,” recalls Rada. “I was introduced to Ethio-jazz, I think, seven years ago, something like that, when I was introduced to Mulatu Astatke, the inventor of Ethio-jazz. It reminded me of the music from home, but not quite — it was more jazzy, more modern, and I really liked it. It moved me and I immediately fell in love with that music, and I had to get it into my music.”
“It’s brilliant,” says Rada, about Astatke’s cool sounds.
Articles about Rada usually mention her affinity for Nina Simone (1933-2003), a hugely influential singer-songwriter and civil rights activist. On her most recent recording, I Wish, a four-song EP, Rada covers songs associated with Simone.
She allows that Nina Simone is “a big inspiration, her attitude, her music, her everything. She’s a true diva, in the good way.”
Rada also reportedly credits Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin as major musical influences, along with Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott.
Words only go so far in communicating the nature of music; so it’s best to check out Rada’s music online. She also has done a number of music videos, which can be seen on YouTube.
When she visits Minneapolis, a stop on a U.S. tour, Rada will be backed by her band: Ben Jose, guitar; Lior Romano, keyboards; Michael Guy, bass; Dan Mayo, drums; Inon Peretz, trumpet; Gal Dahan, sax; and Maayan Mylo, trombone.
And if you go back to the first line of this story, you’ll see that Rada was described as an “actress and singer.” She has played roles in both films and theater productions.
She was in the 2014 Israeli film, The Kindergarten Teacher; and is on a break from filming her fourth film, The Ambassador’s Wife, in which she plays the spouse of an Eritrean diplomat in Paris. Rada says the plot is “a long story,” but her character flees to Israel as assassins pursue her and her husband.
“I come to Israel and then I’m just a regular refugee. You see the life of the refugees in Israel, through that movie and through my character,” she explains.
Rada also has acted in Tel Aviv’s famed Habima Theater, and in Haifa. “Actually, I prefer theater to movies,” she says. “But because I’m touring a lot I can’t play the theater. I see myself as a musician, but I like to act as well.”
It sounds like a busy and fulfilling life. And Rada, who will play dates this fall in Israel and Europe, mentions that she will be traveling around the U.S. with her seven-month-old son.
“He’s coming to all the tours,” she remarks. “His passport is almost full now.”
In concluding, Rada says, “I come to Minnesota to bring my love and my music; and I hope people will come to enjoy it and have a magical night.”
Ester Rada and La Chiva Gantiva perform 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22 at the Cedar Cultural Center (thecedar.org), 416 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis, as part of the Global Roots Festival 2015. Admission is free, but those attending should make reservations through Ticketfly (ticketfly.com).
(American Jewish World, 9.11.15)