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.

How old were you when you left Ethiopia?

I was born in Ethiopia, and I came to Israel when I was around four or five years old, something like that. I was part of that journey, Operation Moses [The Israeli Defense Forces, together with other organizations, helped about 8,000 Jews escape famine in war-torn Ethiopia with Operation Moses, an airlift run in cooperation with neighboring Sudan during the winter of 1984/1985].

You were a child at the time, do you remember much of it?

I don’t remember that much. I remember a few pictures, like the tents in Sudan – in El-Gadarif – and the ants. There were big ants that used to bite me when I was a kid. I remember that, and I remember the big lights from the plane. When we got into the plane, it was like we came from a very dark place into light. That was very symbolic.

Did you speak Amharic with your parents?

When I was born, yes. I spoke Amharic until I was seven or eight years old, and then I stopped talking Amharic with them. I only spoke Hebrew. There were a lot of reasons back then. It was the early 1990s – maybe even the late-‘80s – and we were this new people who came to Israel. We were like the new kids on the block. It wasn’t fashionable to be Ethiopian, or talk in this African language back then. As a kid, you just want to throw away everything that connects you to the Ethiopian culture. You want to be part of Israel, and be part of society. Plus, the society didn’t really want Ethiopian culture. They didn’t know it, and they didn’t want to know it. People are afraid from what they don’t know.

And you wanted to assimilate into Israeli society.

I wanted to. I didn’t want to feel different. Nobody likes to feel different.

Where were you living?

We were in Tzfat the first six years, and then we moved to Ramla, which is a very tough city. But at the age of 13, I really wanted to go to a boarding school – I saw my brother go to a boarding school – and I went and studied in Jerusalem. I was there for six years. Later, I went to Tel Aviv, although my parents don’t live in Tel Aviv, they still live in Ramla.

When did you start getting interested in music?

Since I remember myself. But I wasn’t interested in making it a career, and dreaming about big stages, and stuff like that. It was a natural thing. I really liked to sing when I was a kid. I liked to dance in front of the guests when they came. If my father or mother played a song, I knew that if I would dance I would get some money. It was fun. I really liked the attention. There was no shyness in me.

I sang on my father’s shoulders on the way to Israel, and later I auditioned for a choir – a religious choir called Pirhei Yerushalaim (Flowers of Jerusalem Choir) – I was around 10 years old. I got lucky, and I was the lead singer. I traveled around Europe as a kid. I got this really great opportunity to see what the world had to offer. It was this opportunity to learn a lot, and to develop as a human being, and not only as a musician. Just to get out of my small place in Ramla – it is not a rich neighborhood, it is kind of a poor neighborhood – and to see what the world’s got to offer. It gave me the understanding that you can live your life in a very different way, and there are a lot of ways, and a lot of cultures, and once you open up to learn, you can learn more, and become what you want to be. You can do whatever you want to, or whatever you want to dream.

Did you serve in the IDF and play music as part of your service?

Yes. At the beginning, I did one year as a regular soldier, and I got lucky and I did an audition for a choir in the army. A year later – after a lot of conflicts with the place I used to serve, because they didn’t want to let me go – but finally, I got lucky, and I did two years in the army as a singer in a band. That was the first time I understood that people take me seriously as a singer.

Really, even more than when you were touring with the choir as a child? Were you the only singer with the group in the army?

It was just me and another white kid. I am not sure that I thought that I was a really good singer. I hadn’t thought about it. I enjoyed it when it was happening, but when people told me that I was a good singer, I told myself, “They are lying.” Actually, it was a problem until I was about 30 years old. After 30, I understood that I could take myself seriously as a musician, as Gili Yalo, and write songs and compose. I didn’t do it before. I always sang, but I never saw it as a profession. I owned bars and clubs from the age of 24 until the age of 32 or 33.

Was it a lack of confidence?

It’s a lot of things. It was a fear of failure, of course, and I didn’t think I was a good singer. I was criticizing myself, even when I was on really big stages. The fear of going with your truth and your belief, putting it on paper, reading it to people, and telling it to people. And that people need to listen to you, and to find your words and your melody or your music or your style interesting. That is very hard, because sometimes you are not sure – even yourself – what it is that is interesting in you, in your voice, in your personality, in your story. Why are people interested in Gili Yalo? As a band, it was very easy. I was able to sing in this reggae band, Zvuloon Dub System, and it was fun because I was just the singer.

When did you start exploring Ethiopian music, singing in Amharic, and embracing that style?

First of all, I think my base is Ethiopian. I used to sing as a little kid in Amharic. Over the years, I didn’t want to touch the Ethiopian culture or get close to it. It was in my house – my father and my brothers used to listen to Ethiopian music – but I didn’t pay much attention to it. When I grew up, and I tried to understand, “Who am I?” Racism happens here sometimes, like everywhere else in the world, and 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?” I started to explore it. First through the history, and then talking with my parents, and then there was the music, of course. I am a musician. I tried to understand the words that the singer was singing, and through the words as they connect to the melody, suddenly, it takes on a different meaning. I thought, “That’s deep. That’s beautiful. How come I never heard it before?” I heard it thousands of times, but I never paid attention.

At that point, I started to explore the scales. What is an Ethiopian scale? What is tezeta? What is anchihoye? What is ambassel? I started with the tezeta scale, because I think it’s very dominant in the Ethiopian music. A lot of people use it, for example, like [the multi-instrumentalist], Mulatu Astatke. They are all pentatonic scales, which is a five-note scale. The word, tezeta, means memory. That could be remembering a love that you lost, or family that you lost – or maybe a sweet memory – but these scales are talking about memories. Everybody uses the scale, and it is so close, sometimes it is almost the same song. “Tezeta” is also the name of every song that you are singing about your love, or your father, or your village that you’re missing. There are thousands of songs called “Tezeta,” and every singer has a tezeta.

Another scale, called anchihoye, can sound creepy and weird, but if you put a beat to it, it can be a wedding song.

It’s like a mode of tezeta?

Yeah, and there is another scale called bati which talks more about places, and the wisdom of life. The four main scales: anchihoye, bati, ambassel, and tezeta, and nobody knows where they came from, but they are used everywhere in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian music is hip in Israel these days, but it wasn’t like that when you were growing up. There was a push to assimilate and mainstream into Israeli culture. Why do you think people are now embracing diaspora cultures?

You know, a window opened up in this internet time. But if I tried to do it 20 years ago, it would have been very difficult. Even if it was my dream, and I decided to do it. There are no platforms to expose my music. Back then, you had to send it to national radio or something, and I don’t think they would have played Ethiopian music on mainstream radio, never. Now we have different platforms. I put it on YouTube, and suddenly, a person who works at that mainstream radio station likes the music. He says, “I want to put it to my show and I want to host you.” That is nice. The internet made the world very small.

This article originally appeared in the Ingathering. For more articles about Jewish music and spirituality, subscribe to the Ingathering