All her roots

This musician sings ballads with electric guitars and masenqos

Oshi Masala’s music brings together every sound she’s ever heard, now at the Hullageb Festival, celebrating Ethiopian culture

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

Singer Oshi Masala will perform December 28, 2021, at the 12th Hullageb Festival celebrating Ethiopian culture (Courtesy Oshi Masala)
Singer Oshi Masala will perform December 28, 2021, at the 12th Hullageb Festival celebrating Ethiopian culture (Courtesy Oshi Masala)

Singer Oshi Masala will bring her brand of Ethiopian-inspired Israeli ballads to this year’s 12th Hullageb Festival, performing December 28 with bassist Yossi Fine.

Hullageb, celebrating Israeli-Ethiopian creativity, and hosted by Jerusalem’s Confederation House directed by Effi Benaya, opens December 22.

Masala’s brand of slow, melodic ballads sung in Hebrew are what she’s been performing for the last 12 years or so, since first discovering her voice at the age of 18.

The 30-year-old is usually on guitar, but her background music is supplied by keyboard, electric guitars and the masenqo, a single-stringed bowed lute commonly found in Ethiopia that has a high-pitched sound that bears some similarity to a violin.

That kind of combination is fairly typical of Masala, who was born in Israel to Ethiopian parents, but makes music that’s connected to her roots, all of them.

“I wanted to find my uniqueness,” said Masala. “It takes time to get used to the music because it’s different, it’s hard to categorize it. It’s not standard. It’s got all the colors in it.”

Her music has roots in every kind of music she’s heard and sung, said Masala. Some people have called it yoga music, she said, while others think of it as a kind of world music.

“We don’t need to name it,” she said.

It took some time for Masala to think about bringing her family’s roots and culture into her music. In fact, it was a US border control officer at an airport in the US who gave her the push.

At the time, Masala was traveling with another band as a vocalist, and when she went through border control, the African American officer handling her passport asked where she was from.

“I said, ‘Israeli,'” said Masala. “He said, ‘yeah, but from where?'”

He kept pushing until Masala relented and told him her parents were from Ethiopia. He couldn’t have been more excited about her combination of ethnicities.

“I realized then that I had something, and I had to use it, to let it be part of my experience,” she said.

Masala’s Ethiopian background became the impetus for her to begin writing music and formed the background of her 2018 debut album, “Oshi.”

Her upcoming appearance at Hullageb coincides with her second album, which will be used as the soundtrack of a new documentary, “Sisters in Blood,” about Ethiopian victims of violence.

“I can sing anything I want and in any language I want, but I’ll always be Ethiopian,” said Masala.

She gets frustrated with expectations that she should be singing more ethnic music, or in Amharit rather than in Hebrew, her native language.

“Would a Yemenite Israeli sing in Yemeni?” said Masala. “I don’t think so.”

Still, Masala is feeling good about her career, producing her own music, testing her boundaries and at the moment, learning to play contra bass.

“I’ve been in a loop in this industry and I’m still in it,” she said. “I do what I love.”

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