Lotus artist Ester Rada navigates identity

Ester Rada

The annual Bloomington-based celebration of global music culture known as Lotus Fest arrives this weekend. Consistent with their 20-plus year history Lotus Fest will bring a sampling of the greatest musicians in the world (and from all over the world) to Indiana for a weekend of unforgettable performances. A quick look at this year's line-up reveals why I continually trumpet Lotus as the best music festival in Indiana. There's a dizzying variety of sounds on tap this year from Louisiana music legend Buckwheat Zydeco, to indie rockers tUnE-yArDs, to North African brass band Fanfaraï, to South Korean traditional music duo suːm.

One of my favorite acts on the Lotus schedule this year is the Israeli-born, Ethiopian soul singer Ester Rada. I spoke with Rada via phone in advance of her Friday and Saturday night dates at Lotus Fest.

Head to LotusFest.org for full performance schedules and tune in to Cultural Manifesto this Wednesday night at 9 on 90.1 WFYI for a full hour of Lotus Fest tunes.

NUVO: Your parents emigrated to Israel from Ethiopia. I'm curious what sort of sounds you heard growing up.

Ester Rada: My parents loved music. There was always music at home. Mainly traditional Ethiopian music like masinko and things like that. [Editor's note: The masinko is a single-stringed bowed instrument, along with the lyre-like krar it's one of the iconic instruments in traditional Ethiopian music]

Outside of home of course I heard Israeli music. We lived in a very religious place so I heard a lot of the synagogue prayers and Jewish music.

NUVO: At what point did you discover the American soul music which is now the foundation of your sound?

Rada: When I was around ten years old we moved to a bigger city in the middle of Israel near the sea called Netanya. There I was exposed to MTV and more of the African-American music. I saw Lauryn Hill and it was love at first sight.

NUVO: I'm assuming that experience of discovering Lauryn Hill led you to research the roots of African-American music and artists like Nina Simone. You've recorded a couple songs popularized by Simone like "Feeling Good" and "Sinner Man."

Rada: Exactly, I began listening to Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Stevie wonder — all the big ones.

NUVO: Was that music easy for you access in Israel?

Rada: My older brother brought me a lot of the music when I was a teenager. But the Ethiopian community in Israel is very fond of African-American music. So it was easy to get access to.

NUVO: I read an interview with you where you mentioned that during your teenage years you rebelled against Ethiopian culture and your Ethiopian heritage.

Rada: Like every immigrant child I was confused. My life at home was very different from the world on the outside. I was confused and I wanted to be like everybody else. I asked my mom not to speak to me in the Amharic language. I tried to avoid the Ethiopian within me for a long time.

NUVO: I understand that the Beta Israel community of Ethiopian Jews in Israel face discrimination and are often marginalized from mainstream Israeli culture.

Rada: Yes, that was an issue for me. That's why I was confused as a child. There wasn't any representation of Ethiopians in politics, culture or TV. I think that is why the Ethiopian community in Israel is very much fond of the African-American music scene. When I was young the African-American was my role model. There were no black role models in Israel. Now there are some and I am very happy about it.

NUVO: Do you feel your music is a tool for creating more acceptance for Ethiopians in Israel?

Rada: When I recorded "Nanu Ney" it was the first time an Ethiopian song had been played on Israeli radio. That was a big achievement and I'm very happy about that.

NUVO: The music you're making now clearly reflects your love of the Ethiopian culture. At what point did you start reconsidering your heritage?

Rada: It was in my 20s. I'd heard Ethiopian music, but I didn't really listen because of the confusion I had. But when I started to really listen to Ethiopian music I discovered a whole new world.

NUVO: The music you're now making draws on the sound of classic Ethio-Jazz and Ethiopian soul as pioneered by artists like Mulatu Astatke and Mahmoud Ahmed. Am I correct in assuming those are the influences you're drawing from?

Rada: Yes, Mulatu Astatke is a big inspiration for me. That was the first Ethiopian jazz I ever heard. I really love it. I was very influenced by it and I had to put some of it in my music.

NUVO: I saw you recently performed on a concert bill with the great Ethiopian jazz maestro Hailu Mergia. Are you seeking out collaborations with this older generation of Ethiopian jazz greats and how are they receiving your work in Ethiopia?

Rada: Of course I'd love to record a collaboration with those great musicians. I love to do collaborations. I believe that's what music does: It unites. I've haven't yet been to Ethiopia but I get a lot of messages from Ethiopia and I hear that they love the music and I'm very proud of that.

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Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.