Singer Ester Rada inspired by Rasta and reggae
At age 6, while growing up in Kiryat Arba, an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, Ester Rada began rejecting the music her Ethiopian refugee parents played at home, as well as the Amharic language they spoke.
“I told my mom,” the singer and actress, now 30, remembers, “‘Don’t talk to me in that language. If you want to speak to me, talk to me in Hebrew.’”
Rada began singing religious music in a synagogue choir with other Jews of Ethiopian heritage at age 8, and at 10 became enamored of the American soul music she heard on MTV. Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston were early favorites. Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott and Alicia Keys soon made the list, along with Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.
She has a special fondness for Simone and has recorded several songs associated with the late vocalist, including “Feeling Good” and “Three Women.”
“When I hear her, her soul touches my soul,” Rada says of Simone via telephone from her home in Jaffa, Israel. She’s on a break from the filming of her fourth motion picture, “The Ambassador’s Wife,” a drama in which she stars as the spouse of an Eritrean diplomat in Paris.
Although she writes and sings most of her songs in English, she now also performs some in Hebrew and Amharic.
As a teenager, Rada reconnected with Ethiopian music through a rather circuitous route. Jamaican reggae was very popular among many of the 30,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, she explains, and she especially liked the music of Bob Marley, whom she cites as an influence on her songwriting. Marley, like many other reggae artists, was a proponent of the Rastafarian faith, which worships the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Rada did not become a Rasta, but the connection led to her rediscovery of Ethiopian music.
Rada will appear Thursday, June 18, at the SFJazz Center as part of her second North American tour in two months. She first toured throughout Israel and in Jewish communities in the U.S. a dozen years ago, singing Israeli songs with an Israeli Defense Force band.
“It was my job,” she says of the two years she spent singing in the army after being drafted at 18. “Girls serve two years, men three.”
She began her acting career in musical theater soon after being discharged. “Today,” she says, “I do more singing than acting.”
American neo-soul influences are most pronounced in Rada’s music, but strains of jazz, reggae, Israeli and Ethiopian styles are also evident. Her seven-man backing band includes musicians from Israel, Yemen, Iraq and Poland.
“The combination of all these cultures has great impact on the music,” she says.
Lee Hildebrand is a Bay Area writer and frequent Chronicle contributor.