Up until four years ago, Ethiopian-Israeli Gili Yalo listened to Israeli singers such as Shalom Hanoch, Ariel Zilber and Matti Caspi as well as African-American music. When he heard that residents of the Bar Yehuda complex in Kiryat Malachi had signed a commitment with the neighborhood committee not to rent or sell apartments to Ethiopian Jews, he became enraged. Since then, he has made it a point of coming to demonstrations and other gatherings, to protest and express the voice of the community.
“In Israeli society, it wasn’t in fashion or accepted to speak Amharic,” he said, “or to listen to Ethiopian music, to outwardly display the culture and the customs of the community. At the time, I hid it and was ashamed of it. My parents listened to Ethiopian music on the radio. My brother listened to cassettes in Amharic. I heard Ethiopian music at events but never really gave it my attention and didn’t connect with it. I related to it like something stuck in the past that couldn’t exist in the present or future.”
“It’s not that I hadn’t experienced racism before that,” continued Yalo, who immigrated to Israel from the a village in the Gondar region of Ethiopia at age five. “Every black person in Israel has experienced racism first hand at some stage, but what happened in Kiryat Malachi put me in a crisis. It was a slap in the face.
“But at least one good thing came of it – I started to take an interest in Ethiopia and look into where I came from,” Yalo says. “I discovered lively, exciting music with impressive progressions. The five major musical scales in Ethiopian music are pentatonic, so on one hand, the beats are very, very authentic and characteristic of Ethiopia, and on the other hand, the scale is very minor – sad songs with a beat, and people dance as if there were no tomorrow. I connected with this music. Now it is well known among fans of world music. I listened mostly to Ethiopiques collections, which document the golden age of Ethiopian music from the 1970s, when a lot of students from Ethiopia went to study in the West and combined motifs from blues and jazz and local music.”
Putting it to music
After Yalo’s reconnection with his roots, his musical group, Zvuloon Dub System, produced a second album of Ethiopian music with a reggae beat.
“I sing on it in Amharic, and we host a singer who sings in Tigrinya [spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia], Yaacov Lilay, while we hosted the greatest singer in Ethiopia, Mahmoud Ahmed, one of the pioneers of Ethiopian music, one of the first who went to perform in the West and expose Ethiopian music to the world. The responses were amazing. As a result of this album we went for a round of performances for two months in Canada, Jamaica and the United States,” he says.
In the wake of the success of Ester Rada, Yalo’s ex-wife, he took a break from the band and launched a solo career. “Ester is talented and from the first moment, she had what it took to succeed.”
“I wrote these songs two years ago, but I was very afraid of this step, to sing solo,” Yalo adds. “I hid behind her, gave her a tailwind so she would succeed. And I was afraid, I didn’t believe in myself enough, but her incredible success, after a lot of hard work, gave me inspiration and motivation. I saw the process up close and it gave me amazing drive.”
Down at the club
In his performance at the Pasáž club in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, which started at midnight, Yalo came on stage with sunglasses and a flowered suit. “I’m a nightlife type, I like to perform late. To give a show, feel the energy, the vibe. I like the clubbing way of life, to dance until morning, parties and be happy.”
Over the past few years, Yalo, 35, has run a number of clubs and bars that play black music, but now he is investing all his attention in his music. “When you are self-employed you focus on your business and it always comes at the expense of something else. I reached the conclusion that the time had come for me to do what I can to advance my music. For now it doesn’t pay me like crazy, but I believe and hope it will change later. All my life moves around music. I want to leave an impression, to share and excite people. There are days that I close the house, sit all day and listen to music. It’s my therapy, but at the end of the day I feel guilty I didn’t do anything.”