The unheard Ethiopian voice is raised, in word and song
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The unheard Ethiopian voice is raised, in word and song

In ‘Noble Savage’ at the Hullageb Festival in Jerusalem, Orit Tashoma singsongs the story of a community that found its way to Israel but is still finding its way in Israel

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

When Orit Tashoma talks and sings, she creates images for her audiences, of Ethiopian handshakes and enormous family gatherings, of coffee rituals and empty bank accounts — the kind of personal details that everyone can recognize.

Tashoma, an Israeli spoken word artist and singer, will tell of some those stories in her performance “Noble Savage,” on Saturday night, December 22 at 9 p.m. at Hullageb, the annual Israel-Ethiopian arts festival being held at Jerusalem’s Confederation House.

The singsong, storytelling skill is one that Tashoma didn’t know she possessed until a few years ago, when a chance assignment forced her to put her personal history down on paper.

Her instructor “asked everyone to write a text on identity and childhood,” said Tashoma, who was enrolled at the time at a music college in Tel Aviv. “And then all this stuff just poured out.”

That instructor told her to  take to the stage with her words — to make a performance out of her story.

Tashoma was familiar with spoken word  performance art. She had also grown up with abergavenny, an Ethiopian tradition of storytelling, in which storytellers and listeners are seated in half-circles on the floor.

Her first performance was in Beersheba at a spoken word event that combined her songs and texts. That very first event was recorded and went viral, sending Tashoma to radio interviews and other stage work.

“I just wanted to hear my voice with that text,” said Tashoma. “It’s a voice that isn’t really heard, the light hasn’t been put on our community and this gave us a stage.”

Parts of Tashoma’s narrative are familiar, the tale of a community that still struggles to find its way in Israel.

“There was a kind of demand for what I do,” she said. “You have to be very precise. You don’t put in all your woes, but you bring your view, how you look at things, and where you are right now. It wouldn’t be interesting if you told about someone else’s troubles.”

Now 29, Tashoma was born in Israel to Ethiopian parents who came to Israel in 1984 as part of Operation Moses, one of the first airlifts of Ethiopian Jews. Her parents survived their lengthy trek across Sudan, but one of their four children died during that journey. The family eventually settled in Nazareth Illit, a development town in the north, and had four more children in Israel, of whom Tashoma is one of the youngest.

Her parents divorced when Tashoma was 12, and she had a turbulent adolescence, eventually attending a public boarding school.

She began writing when she was 16, said Tashoma, often in English, which wasn’t the language of her home or her friends.

Now her works are in Hebrew, and the performance for Hullageb includes several pieces with Amharic, an Ethiopian language in which Tashoma isn’t completely fluent. She likes to scatter the words she does know in her pieces.

“If only I could speak Amharic,” she lamented. “I don’t know it the way I should, so using the words is part of my apology.”

Orit Tashoma, a budding spoken word artist and musician (Courtesy Orit Tashoma)

“Noble Savage,” Tashoma’s performance piece, features an instrumental background by five musicians and forms the basis of her debut album.

Her combination of music and performance art is geared to “anyone who lives in the State of Israel and wants to see the other side of things,” she said.

It’s not a mainstream work of art, said Tashoma, “but it’s the truth, my truth. It gives a different point of view that isn’t known out there.”

It’s all part of Tashoma’s effort to make the audience experience what she has felt.

“Whatever that is,” she said, “whether it’s happiness or something that’s missing or putting your foot in the wrong place. Some people go out crying from my performances, and some people want to understand it better and that’s what it’s supposed to do. We put our emotions out there and you get what you get from it.”

She’s been surprised to find that other people, not just those of an Ethiopian background, have felt what she feels. She’s also discovered that most of her audiences are not Ethiopian, and if there are Ethiopians in the crowd, they’re usually younger. She would love nothing more than to perform before an older Ethiopian audience.

“It’s always important for me to bring both sides of myself,” she said. “I’m Israeli from an Ethiopian background, and it’s all from my point of view, the balance of both worlds. Sometimes there is the balance, and sometimes there isn’t.”

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