Israel, the anger of Ethiopian Jews becomes music

Ethiopia JewsDuring a recent nighttime brawl, an Israeli police officer shot dead an Ethiopian teen Salomon Tekah. A day later, traffic in Israel was paralyzed by tens of thousands of Israelis of Ethiopian origin protesting against police and denouncing racism against them. And the rage soon became music of protest by ‘Afro-Israeli’ youths. A few weeks ago, the musicians’ names – Abate Berihun, Tamar Radah, Jeremy Cool Habash, Gili Yalou – were unknown. Fans needed to go to small clubs in the towns of the ‘second Israel’ (Lod, Bat Yam, Natanya), or go to indy music festivals to listen to their music.

Now, in the wake of the uprising, they are invited by the most sought-after television shows. Their music – in Hebrew, Amharic or English – is broadcast on national radio. The average Israeli is now closer to the roots of the violent protest this month: the frustration of those living on the margins of society, discriminated due to the color of their skin and watched with suspicion by security officers. “They want me to surrender, handcuffed – denounced rapper Teddy Neguse. – Ten thousand eyes are following me. They can only see my color, they push me to the margins. Then they will make the evidence disappear, just like with Salmasa”. Often quoted in songs are the names of Yosef Salmasa, Yehuda Biadga and Salomon Tekah: three of 12 teens of Ethiopian origin who died in clashes with police. There is also fear for the ‘taser’ stun guns used by officers.

“I remember the crazy races at night to escape from ‘Volt-pistols’ – sings Ofek Adanek – races to survive, quick like Usain Bolt”. “Don’t shoot, Israel” sings another rapper, citing a Biblical verse “Do not fear, Israel”. The immigration to Israel of Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel, or Falasha) started in the 1990s as an utiopian dream.

“We were boys from the dunes, we looked at the stars, we were dreamers”, sings Jeremy Cool Habash in a song called ‘Nervous Israelis’. The dream however is broken: reality in Israel has mortified the elders but forged a new generation. And musicians quote Ethiopian artists, the rhythm and blues, reggae, hip hop and groove. The outcome is an energetic mix with one of the artists, Esther Rada, who has become successful internationally.

In Israel, a musician who has become popular is saxophonist Abate Berihun, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and playing local music. When he first moved to Israel, he washed dishes. Today, he is a successful musician who plays with Ehud Banai, a star of Israeli music. “I always say this – concluded ‘Afro soul singer’ Aveva Dese – that music can defeat racism, promote equality and change the world”.