It’s late March and large impressive snowflakes rush down in a flurry outside of the Marriott Hotel in Toronto. Amid industry folks blowing smoke into the air whilst chattering about Canadian Music Week acts, stands Ester Rada, leaning against the building, elegantly smoking a cigarette in the snow. The brightness of her clothing, an oatmeal colored knit sweater paired with a vibrant sunshine yellow floral skirt that meets her brown lace-up boots, stands in contrast to the dullness around her, like a ray of sun slicing through a gray wool blanket. Coming directly from her March 14th SXSW performance to CMW, it is as if she has brought a little piece of the Texas heat with her.
In less than a year, Rada has gone from popular actress to much anticipated singer-songwriter. Her culturally fluid sound has garnered international attention since the release of her self-composed 2012 EP, Life Happens. Described as, “gracefully combining Ethio-Jazz, funk, soul and R&B, with mixed undertones of black grooves,” her musical collaboration with famed producers Kuti (Kutiman/Thru-You) and Sabbo (Soulico), has only added to the eagerness. And although the leap from well-known actress to singer (and vice a versa) can be fraught with awkward hurdles, as well as grumbles about authenticity, Rada appears to be ready (and made) for the transition because music was always the goal.
We meet an hour before her VIP gig at the Hotel. She sits at the bar with her manager, guitar player, and friends. The group looks like the 2013 version of the cool kids table, a culturally eclectic, attractive, and faintly intimidating bunch. But then, as we begin talking, Rada tilts her head to the side and smiles in an unmistakeably sweet and genuine way that puts me at ease.
“It feels amazing!” she says, when asked about all the excitement about her upcoming album and well received performances. “I can’t believe it actually.” (Live, Rada sings with passion and intimacy, as if no one but herself is in the room ). She seems almost breathless as she runs through the whirlwind last few months. “This is the first time I’m performing outside of Israel. So we did New York, Texas, Toronto, and now we’re coming back to Chicago in May and we have Glastonbury festival In June. Then in November we go to Asia and Australia. Great things!” For a woman accustomed to celebrity, her delight is contagious and appears almost childlike. Yet behind the exhilaration, she exudes true grit and has a back-story of overcoming great odds that is simply inspiring.
In 1984, Rada’s parents left Ethiopia during the mass immigration of Jewish Ethiopians to Israel called, “Operation Moses.” The grueling and perilous ordeal saw thousands make their way to Israel via Sudan. Rada is noticeably reserved when discussing what her family endured during the exodus. “They were in the refugee camp in Sudan. It was a hard time for them,” she says, without elaborating.
Born in Kiryat Arba, a year after they settled in Israel, the challenging transition would ultimately take a toll on the family. “They didn’t know the language and they had many difficulties. My parents got divorced, actually, right after they came. So my mother had to raise me and my big brother alone in a country where she didn’t know the language, and it was a different mentality. Looking back, when you’re a child everything is good and you accept everything with love. But when you grow up, you see the past and say, ‘Okay, I kind of had it rough growing up,’ chuckles Rada, earnestly.
While growing up in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv, Rada took part in Youth Theater, and though much was left behind in Ethiopia, the family’s deep connection to their musical heritage remained. “I loved to sing from forever,” she says, the gorgeous smile returning to her slender face. “My father is actually a singer. When he came to Israel he brought a lot of famous singers from Ethiopia to Israel and threw concerts. He was kind of a promoter for the Ethiopian community. Music played all the time in our house. Ethiopian music basically.”
It was the gift of music that helped Rada begin to design a different kind of life for herself. “When I look at my neighbours and what happened to their lives because of where we grew up….,” she pauses for a moment. A forcefulness adds weight to her words once she continues. “It’s a rough neighborhood. They are poor people. We didn’t have a lot of opportunities and we couldn’t see the opportunities. All we saw was the fence in our city and we couldn’t see past that. But music always took me to a different world. The imagined world. The dream world. You can see whatever you want to see [by way of music].”
At 18, Rada joined the Israeli army and became one of the solo singers in the music troop. “To be part of a music group in the army in Israel is a very big thing. Not everybody can get in. So when you do get in the doors will just open for you once you leave.”
Rada left service determined to pursue a music career but acting took center stage instead. “I got into the national theater of Israel [Habima Theater] after my service in the army. I was there in a big musical and started acting a bit…actually a lot. More acting than singing…” For the next few years she would appear in critically acclaimed TV shows including, “The Specialist” (The Israeli version of the U.S. HBO hit, “The Wire”), and theater productions such as the David Mamet play, Race. Despite this success, her desire to pursue music would not release its grip and last year she decided she could no longer resist it.
Six months ago I said, ‘Ok. I’ve acted. But what I really want to do is sing.’ So I got myself together and said this is my…I don’t think my last chance but I really want to do it now so let’s do it. A few months ago I recorded with my two genius producers, Kutiman and Sabbo, and it was an amazing, amazing experience.”
Growing up without a radio, it was religious songs that formed Rada’s beautiful voice, and now plays a profound part in her song writing. “All the music is about personal things that happened. I think that because I was in a religious family, the music that comes from religion is always about bigger things, bigger themes. It’s from the heart. That’s my inspiration when writing music. Singing makes me happy and it’s a spiritual thing. It’s about love and connecting with people.”
Taking this powerful spiritual basis and enriching it with jazz and R&B to create a neo-soul all her own, the influence of celebrated musician, Astatke, the founding father of Ethio-jazz (Ethiopian Jazz) in the 1960’s is just as significant in her sound. Warm, folksy, jazzy, and rhythmic, Rada’s sound creates a reflective groove reminiscent of Les Nubians rich eclectic vibe. Citing greats like Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Erykah Badu, as some of her influences, she brings a similar strength to her lyrics and music.
While fans await Rada’s full length album, (will it be sung completely in English? Or will there be some Hebrew and Amharic thrown into the mix?), she promises that one theme will reign supreme, “It’s going to be about love. That’s what motivates me,” she says tilting her head again in that special way. “That’s what I hope motivates the world. That’s what I hope for the world.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the creator of The Winehouse Mag.
Photograph: Dean Avisar (Photos 1/2)
CMW Photo: Chaka V.
Get cozy inside the Winehouse…in-depth and revealing interviews with the Winehouse Mag’s favourite artists. Singer-songwriter, Chloe Charles, coming in June!