Gili Yalo's Ethiopian rhythms turn sadness into joy—just in time for Rosh Hashanah

The Jaffa resident says that if Vancouverites really want to have a good time at his upcoming concert, they need to bring their dancing shoes

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      Ethiopian-Israeli musician Gili Yalo wonders if it was his destiny to become a singer. During a horrific famine in 1984, he and his family fled the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, walking with a crowd of people across the desert toward refugee camps Sudan.

      "You can say the beginning of my career was at the age of four, singing for the people on my father's shoulders," Yalo recalls over Zoom from the Israeli port city of Jaffa.

      "It's something I never thought would happen—that I would be a musician in Israel," he continues. "Everybody told my father that I will be a singer and my father didn't believe it. He didn't want me to be a singer."

      The family made it to Israel as part of Operation Moses, in which the United Jewish Appeal helped evacuate Ethiopian Jews from Sudan. And sure enough, Yalo became a popular singer and songwriter, weaving together Ethiopian rhythms with funk, jazz, and psychedelic music.

      Yalo first played Vancouver at the Chutzpah! Festival in 2015, singing with the roots-reggae band Zvuloon Dub System. The band initially performed in English, but Yalo introduced his first language, Amharic, into the performances. In the process, he became a much-admired figure within the Ethiopian-Israeli community.

      On September 24, Yalo will make his first appearance in Vancouver as a solo singer with a Chutzpah! Festival concert at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. It comes a day before the festive holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which ushers in the Jewish New Year.

      "If people want to have a good time, they need to bring their dancing shoes," Yalo quips.

      Ethiopia is Africa's second-most populous country, with 115 million residents and more than 70 languages. Yalo says that every tribe has its own kind of music. 

      He adds that the pentatonic scale in Ethiopia is unique, with minor harmonies creating catchy rhythms. The words are often heartbreaking, but the trancelike music makes people want to move. There are hints of the Middle East, but also a rich African sensibility.

      "When you hear it, it sounds like a sad song. I'm sad, but I'm dancing," Yalo says with a laugh.

      His eponymous 2017 album captures this duality in a song called "Coffee". It features vibrant trumpet, guitar, drum, keyboard, and Ethiopian krar playing paired with dreary lyrics delivered in a plaintive voice. 

      "Coffee or cigarettes get me through the day/ And nobody, nobody is my friend," Yalo sings.

      Video: Check out Gili Yalo singing "Coffee" live in 2017.

      In addition to writing songs and singing in English and Amharic, Yalo has begun performing in Hebrew.

      One of his new songs, "Yom Ehad Yavo" ("One Day Will Come"), is a about a lost love.

      The upbeat and frankly effervescent music makes you want to dance. But the lyrics, in Hebrew, are soulful and, at times, very sad. 

      Yalo's opening verse declares that his cries were heard throughout the city when he saw that his lover was no longer interested.

      "Sitting in my rented apartment/When you're not here it feels more like a cave," he declares.

      Yet the sounds that accompany these words can only be described as joyful.

      Listen to one of Gili Yalo's new songs in Hebrew, "Yom Ehad Yavo" ("One Day Will Come").

      In some respects, this mirrors the experience of the 160,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, who've endured more than their share of discrimination.

      In 2016, Haaretz reported that Yalo was infuriated—and politicized—when residents of an apartment complex agreed not to sell units to Ethiopian Jews. That's when he started singing in Amharic and learned about the beats of the country of his birth.

      "Now it is well known among fans of world music," Yalo told Haaretz at the time. "I listened mostly to Ethiopiques collections, which document the golden age of Ethiopian music from the 1970s, when a lot of students from Ethiopia went to study in the West and combined motifs from blues and jazz and local music.”

      He now says that Ethiopian music is really part of his DNA. And it's led him to write songs about the experience of his fellow Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

      "It's a topic that's a part of me," Yalo says. "Israel is a good country but it's got a lot of problems."

      He's also been influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement.

      "I think it's a very, very good thing that happened in society," Yalo adds. "I have seen almost every movie about Black America and how someone ends up in jail without doing anything. I'm aware of the situation."

      As a musician and songwriter, he weaves together sorrowful experiences and often turns them into pieces that spread happiness.

      "Let's make something that makes us dance, but the words can be sad," Yalo says. "Little Richard says his baby left him, but you're laughing, you're dancing. It's kind of this thing."