Ethiopian Jazz, Israeli Beats and U.S. Soul

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Why you should care

You can never have enough soul.

Iconic voices — Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder — can evoke Detroit, New York City and other capitals of culture. Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline capture the American South. Björk might as well be Iceland. And one day the voice of Ester Rada might instantly bring to mind an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Which is exactly where she started out, in life and in music.

Rada’s take on reggae, Afrobeat, R&B and funk has been making waves among soul aficionados and stars like Alicia Keys, whom Rada opened for when Keys came to Tel Aviv. Lately the Tel Aviv-based singer and actress has been on the festival circuit, playing stages at events like Glastonbury and South by Southwest. She first gained attention after the release of her 2013 EP Life Happens; that same year, she paid homage to Nina Simone in another EP. Last year, Rada released her first full-length album.

Rada is conversational like Corinne Bailey Rae, with the sensual drama of Eartha Kitt.

“Out,” from that self-titled debut, talks about beginnings and ends, an arrest for smoking hash. It centers around a declaration that “something is really wrong — get me out of here.” But it’s hard not to focus on what’s right. Rada is conversational like Corinne Bailey Rae, with the sensual drama of Eartha Kitt. The influences fly fast and furious, and her fluency in these different musical languages creates a sound that’s delightful and listenable but not lightweight.

The hit “Life Happens” kicks off with a flourish of Ethiopian-influenced horns followed by Rada’s every-so-slightly accented English. She knows the song’s theme — taking life’s bumps in stride — well. Her parents emigrated from Ethiopia to Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, just before she was born in 1985. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler. Unsurprisingly, given the conservative community she lived in, Rada first started singing in religious groups, before being accepted to a military entertainment troupe.

It was only later that she heard and dug Ethiopian music, in particular that of Mulatu Astatke, who pioneered Ethio-jazz, a twist on Latin jazz that stuck a chord with Rada. You don’t need to listen very closely to Rada’s tunes to hear the influence of Astatke and his counterparts in Ethiopia’s “Golden Age” of music in the ’70s. The Éthiopiques, as the CD series of popular Ethiopian and Eritrean musicians is called, influence Rada’s music and work to make most Western listeners sit up in their chairs a bit straighter — or, better yet, get up and move.

Wishes for the future? Singing in Amharic and Hebrew.

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