Meet Ethiopian-Born Israeli Singer, Gili Yalo

Spoke with Yalo from his home in Jaffa. We discussed his lifelong musical journey, how music is a gateway to identity and self-discovery, some of the particulars of Ethiopian melody and groove, and why music from the Jewish diaspora is suddenly hip with modern Israelis. (Aish.com)

Aish.com

Gili Yalo has been singing his entire life. He sang as a small boy as his family fled Ethiopia in 1984, and sang, sitting on his father’s shoulders, as they made their way to Israel. He sang as a member of Pirhei Yerushalaim, a choir for religious boys, and, as a youngster, did multiple tours of Europe with the group as a chorister and soloist.

He sang in the IDF, and served in one of the army’s musical troops. He sang in cover bands for about a decade after his discharge. He sang, starting in the late 2000s, as the lead singer for the Israeli reggae group, Zvuloon Dub System. He’s still singing, and launched his solo career in 2015, and, given his background, that all-encompassing, holistic relationship to music and song makes sense.

“Music in Ethiopia is a way of living,” Yalo says. “It’s not about playing on stages, or the dream of being a big star. It is a way of life. To make the money at the end of the day – to make the most money – and keep doing the same thing tomorrow. There are those Azmaris [popular folk singers or storytellers whose improvised lyrics are often about members of their audience] who go to a big city and perform on stage, but most of Ethiopia is not cities. It is mountains and small villages, and there are no roads even in most of Ethiopia.”

Yalo grew up with Ethiopian music, although he didn’t incorporate it into his work until later in life. “Racism happens in Israel sometimes, like everywhere else in the world,” he says in our interview below. “You ask yourself, ‘Do I really belong here?’ If you don’t belong here, and you don’t know where you belong, it is a problem. There is no one who can take your side, or help you with power, so you are hopeless. I decided, ‘Alright, I am from Ethiopia, I was born in Ethiopia. Generations of my family are from Ethiopia. I have Ethiopian blood running through my veins. Ethiopian skin color. Ethiopian food. What about that? Why am I trying to escape from that?’”

Yalo’s music fuses the scales and grooves of Ethiopian’s rich musical tradition together with Western feels like ska, reggae, and funk. He released his eponymous debut in 2017, and followed that with an EP, Made in Amharica, in spring 2019. He also starred in an Israeli play, Gently, and has a few new projects up his sleeve as well.

“I am working on an EP in Hebrew,” he says. “Then I am going to release a more international EP, in English and Amharic. I have a lot of ideas. I am writing a script with my friends right now, a feature movie, which is wonderful.”

I spoke with Yalo from his home in Jaffa. We discussed his lifelong musical journey, how music is a gateway to identity and self-discovery, some of the particulars of Ethiopian melody and groove, and why music from the Jewish diaspora is suddenly hip with modern Israelis.

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