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  • Ethiopian Jews taking part in a prayer of the Sigd holiday on the Armon Hanatziv Promenade overlooking Jerusalem *) | Photo: Kobi Gideon/Flash90
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The Man Who Beat His Demons

Kay Wilson - 23 June 2021

Ethiopian music is hip in Israel, partly thanks to Ethiopian-born Gili Yalo who with his family fled Ethiopia in 1984 to come home. Gili remembers that emotional day. As part of Operation Moses, an Israeli airlift that rescued 8,000 Jews from famine war-torn Ethiopia, the five year old arrived in the Promised Land on his father’s shoulder, singing his heart out.

*) Caption top photo:
Ethiopian Jews taking part in a prayer of the Sigd holiday on the Armon Hanatziv Promenade overlooking Jerusalem. The prayer is performed by Ethiopian Jews every year to celebrate their community’s connection and commitment to Israel. About 80,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, many of them came in massive Israeli airlifts during times of crisis in Ethiopia in 1984 and 1991.

Music was part of Gili from that moment on. He went on to sing in a choir for religious boys, and even toured Europe with the group as a soloist. Upon leaving school he served in one of the army’s musical bands and after completing his mandatory service became the lead singer for the Israeli reggae group, Zvuloon Dub System. Just a few years ago, he launched his solo career from which he has never looked back.

For Gili, music is a tool he has used to channel his all-too familiar difficulties as part of the Ethiopian community, a community which has not had an easy absorption into Israel.

In the late-‘80s, the economy was rough, the mood low and it was not fashionable to be Ethiopian. Amharic was strange, unfamiliar and almost unheard of. It is no surprise therefore that as a kid, Gili wanted to discard  everything that connected him to the Ethiopian culture. In doing so, he felt Israelis would see him as a acceptable part of society.

“Israel is a nation of immigrants with one of the biggest varieties in the world of music and cuisine”

But this young man who so wanted to fit into Israeli culture, soon realized that Israeli culture is not homogenous after all. Israel is a nation of immigrants with one of the biggest varieties in the world of music and cuisine. Hence, he began to see his own music and culture as an integral  part of Israel. Further, by embracing it, it became the gateway to his authentic identity and journey of self-discovery.

Gili poured his thoughts and feelings into his music and reconciled himself with the fact that there is no reason on earth for him to deny his Ethiopian heritage. The result is authentic, exotic and quintessentially Jewish music which he sings in Hebrew and Amharic.

His self-confidence did not come easy. Gili had a fear of failure and never saw himself as a talented musician. He found it hard to believe that because he saw himself as different, that anyone should really be interested in his style, or words, or heart. It was only when he was about 30 that he began to understand that he should take his talent seriously, because other people were.

He began to write songs and explore rhythm and harmony, and adopt the “tezeta”, a musical scale dominant in Ethiopia. Gili is strengthened from the word itself because Tezeta, means memory. He sees memory in all of his songs, memories of love, parents and his African village.

“Like most Ethiopian Jews who came in the 1980’s, Gili also had never encountered so many things that the West takes for granted”

Like most Ethiopian Jews who came in the 1980’s, Gili also had never encountered so many things that the West takes for granted. Many Ethiopian immigrants unashamedly tell their stories of their first encounter with the likes of a light switch, where they would play for hours with it, feeling intrigued, afraid, entertained and in awe.

But years later, the talented young man who may have once been estranged from electricity has long learned the benefits of technology. His renaissance in music that catapulted him into the public domain, happened when he uploaded a song on YouTube. It caught the ear of a mainstream radio station who played it on their show and due to such an enthusiastic response from the listeners, later invited him on the show itself. Gili never looked back. The internet, his persistence, talent and honesty have all made the massive wide-world, more accessible and inviting.

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