Israeli-Ethiopian singer Ester Rada tells Sophie Eastaugh about the inspiration behind her graceful debut album

Israeli-Ethiopian singer Ester Rada was born in 1985 in Hebron’s volatile Kiryat Arba settlement, just before the first Intifada. A year earlier, her family had been brought to Israel as part of Operation Moses, an initiative that airlifted 80,000 Ethiopian Jews from the devastation of the 1983 famine to begin new lives in Israel. Now aged 28, the talented singer has opened for Alicia Keys, performed at Glastonbury and just released her debut album – a graceful blend of Ethio-Jazz, funk and soul. Ahead of her concert at JW3, we caught up with the star to find out about her cross-cultural heritage and inspiring journey to success.

Q: You’ve had a really interesting background. What was it was like growing up in Kiryat Arba?

A: It was a happy childhood – when you’re a child you don’t know anything, everything is good! My parents got divorced when I was very young and my mother worked all the time to provide food for us. I grew up with my grandfather in a very religious family. They were very Ethiopian – they only moved to Israel a year before I was born.

Q: Was it difficult fitting in with your Israeli peers while having a very Ethiopian upbringing?

A: My mother always tells me that at the age of six I told her not to speak to me anymore in the Amharic language, I think because I was confused. I wanted to be more Israeli than Ethiopian, because I wanted to be like everyone else. The things that I had in my home were very different to the outside. When you’re a child you only want to fit in, so that’s what I decided – I chose the outside.

Ester Rada, Israel's new queen of jazz

Ester Rada, Israel’s new queen of jazz

Q: Your music is a beautiful amalgamation of Ethiopian, American and Israeli influences. Has creating this blend helped you to feel at home with your cross-cultural heritage?

A: Yes. I think that when I accepted myself as a whole person, being Israeli and Ethiopian, I was able to create that by taking all the pieces of me and blending it together. For years I didn’t want to get close to my Ethiopian culture. After I saw Mulatu Astatke perform in Israel, a great Ethiopian producer, it inspired me and I really wanted to use it in my music.

Q: What do you like about living in Tel Aviv now?

A: Tel Aviv is freedom. There are no borders here. I like the variety of people, colours, smells, the music and the art. Mainly the freedom.

Q: Before becoming a singer, you were in several Israeli films and TV shows, including, The Specialist, which was the Israeli version of the American drama series, The Wire. How did you get into acting?

A: I’m still acting. I was in the IDF’s musical group and when they did a remake of the famous film Ha-Lahaka in the national theatre, Habima, I auditioned and got the part. It just came to me and I said yes!

Q: When did you first realise that you wanted to be a singer?

A: I don’t think it was my dream, because I always knew I was a singer. When people asked me when I was young what I wanted to be, I said a psychologist – I didn’t need to say singer because I am a singer! Music and singing was my being, I knew it ever since I was little.

Q: Was being in the military band important for your development as a musician?

A: Not as a musician, but as a performer. We performed a lot, all over Israel and the USA. Until that age, I didn’t do it professionally – I sang to my friends, at home on my guitar. The army made it professional.

Q: Do you think you’ll use your growing international recognition to take a stance on Israel’s political conflict?

A: Yes. I believe in love and unity. I don’t believe in borders and definitions. I believe in one big love! That’s what I want to give the world. I always say to the crowd after the first song: “We came here to give you love. All you need to do is accept it.”

Q: Your music has been likened to greats like Erykah Badu and Nina Simone. Which contemporary artists inspire you?

A: I’ve just discovered a wonderful British singer songwriter called Benjamin Clementine – his power, honesty and braveness are overwhelming.

Ester Rada's first album has been released

Ester Rada’s first album has been released

A: I’d like to work with a lot of people! Pharell Williams, Corinne Bailey Rae, Lauren Hill, Stevie Wonder…so many!

Q: Your first album, self-titled Ester Rada, came out this month. That must feel exciting!

A: Yes! I’ve waited so long for this moment to come, ever since I can remember. I finally did it! I wrote the lyrics and music on my guitar, while the arrangements were made by several people. I’m very happy with the outcome.

Q: What’s in store for you this year?

A: In April, May and June I’m going to tour South, Central and North America. I’ve actually already done my second album – I’m waiting to release that, sometime soon. Now I want to do another one!