ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Ester Rada, Gili Yalo and Tom Cohen offer soulful sound of Ethiopian jazz and pop

Cohen’s Jerusalem Orchestra East West add strings, drums and keyboard to performers singing Amharic and English

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Gili Yalo (left) and Ester Rada (right) perform in 'Tazeta,' ('Nostalgia' in Amharic), a concert melding the sounds of jazz and pop from Ethiopian music, with conductor Tom Cohen and his East-West Orchestra on July 10, 2023 (Courtesy Israeli Opera)
Gili Yalo (left) and Ester Rada (right) perform in 'Tazeta,' ('Nostalgia' in Amharic), a concert melding the sounds of jazz and pop from Ethiopian music, with conductor Tom Cohen and his East-West Orchestra on July 10, 2023 (Courtesy Israeli Opera)

Conductor Tom Cohen never misses a chance to collaborate with friends and musical colleagues.

There was the musical children’s book with Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, his theme music for “Zaguria Imperia” for childhood friend Maor Zagori, and other projects with Omer Adam, Ninet Tayeb and Ehud Banai.

This week, it’s “Tezeta” (“Nostalgia” in Amharit), a concert that melded the sounds of jazz and pop from Ethiopian music, with Ester Rada and Gili Yalo, two of Israel’s well-known singers, along with Cohen and his Jerusalem Orchestra East West.

The show was performed Monday at Tel Aviv’s Israeli Opera as part of the East-West series, but Cohen has hopes for a global tour with this long-awaited concert.

It’s an idea that’s been batted around for a long time, said Cohen, but never found the right moment, audience or location.

“It’s felt like the music of the Ethiopian community falls between the cracks,” he said. “It’s amazing music full of so many influences, from Africa and Arabic-speaking countries and America, but no one actually does it.”

Gili Yalo (left) and Ester Rada (middle) with Tom Cohen (right) performed in ‘Tazeta,’ (‘Nostalgia’ in Amharit), a concert melding the sounds of jazz and pop from Ethiopian music, with conductor Cohen and his East-West Orchestra on July 10, 2023 (Courtesy Israeli Opera)

Until now.

Most of the concert was sung in Amharic, with Rada and Yalo as the soulful representatives of Ethiopian music in Israel. Ethiopian classics were included along with material of their own from their individual solo acts, with soulful jazz and some funk, and in other languages, to create a different kind of musical flow.

The two sang “Adebayewosh” together at the start, along with “Dera” and then “Tenesh” and “Ashkeru” at the end. Yalo performed “Sew Lesew,” “Salem” and “Sab Sam,” while Rada sang “Out,” “Sorries” and “Life Happens” as well as “Nana Ney,” as part of the 15-song playlist.

“I asked them for a lot, a lot of ideas,” said Cohen who chose which pieces to perform with them, aiming for sounds of the past and present.

“This does sound like a lot of things we already play,” he said of his orchestra. “It’s like playing the music of African Americans, but with touches of Africa, along with Morocco and Mauritania.”

The orchestra and singers were putting the final touches on their second of two six-hour rehearsals Sunday evening, at a rehearsal room in the back of the opera house.

Cohen stood at the front, in white tee and white leather sneakers, a short, commanding presence for an orchestra that’s heavy on the strings, with cello, three double bass and at least 15 violinists, along with two electric guitarists, two percussionists and several keyboardists.

Rada, in denim cut-offs, her long curly hair hanging loosely down her back, sat next to her ex-husband Yalo, whose trademark aviator sunglasses stayed on throughout. The two sometimes consulted quietly, but mostly sat until it was their turn to belt out the jazzy, funk-lined tunes that were sung in English or Amharic.

Rada, 38, was born in Israel to Ethiopian parents. Yalo, 42, made the perilous journey with his family from Gondar at the age of five. The two were together for seven years, and married for three, but their relationship is now far behind them and “the warmth and connection between them is still there,” said Cohen. “Don’t you feel it?”

Besides, the mission here is the music. The rehearsal sometimes felt like a noisy middle school classroom, as one of the double bass players complained that the drummers were so loud she couldn’t hear Rada singing.

But once Cohen calmed everyone down, they all returned to work, offering different sounds in this melding of east and west, with the violinists at one time pulling their bows across the strings once for a cool “swoosh” sound and clapping their hands together in another song.

“I’m so proud of this performance,” said Cohen, during a break. “I wouldn’t invest all of this without knowing it will happen again.”

Gili Yalo (left) and Ester Rada (right) and performed in ‘Tazeta,’ (‘Nostalgia’ in Amharit), a concert melding the sounds of jazz and pop from Ethiopian music, with conductor Tom Cohen and his East-West Orchestra on July 10, 2023 (Courtesy Israeli Opera)

He’s thankful to the Israeli Opera for hosting “Tezeta” as part of the East-West program, knowing it wasn’t the easiest of programs to sell.

“It’d be easier to sell tickets for a pop star singing his songs but this is an artistic decision,” he said.

And while Monday night’s performance was the only one planned for now, Cohen plans to market the program with a recording of the concert, to be able to explain what happens onstage in this melding of Hebrew, Amharic and English.

“It’s hard to understand what this is,” he acknowledged. “Ester and Gili are familiar names but the audience doesn’t know what they’re going to hear, until they hear it.”

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