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Ester Rada in San Francisco | Jazz with Middle Eastern Flavor
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Ester Rada in San Francisco | Jazz with Middle Eastern Flavor

Picture of Matthew Strebe
Updated: 24 April 2017
On a cool, clear night in San Francisco, a gaggle of Israelis with coiffed dreadlocks shuffle onto the stage and assume their battle stations. Fiddling with their instruments and shuffling back and forth, they do their final checks, puffing on mouthpieces, assembling caches of extra picks, rubbing their arms and scratching their heads. The audience waits. There’s tautness in the air, a sense that something momentous is ready to snap.

Then, from the saxophonist in center stage erupts a staccato of jolting syncopated notes. The sounds of a trombone echo rhythmically against the background of driving piano riffs and blaring oriental horns. The drummer attacks his set with the fury of a bacchant, pouring forth a cascade of manic sounds in the grip of Dionysian ecstasy. Bassist and guitarist engage in dueling distorted solos that evoke the greatest acid-tinged moments of the Grateful Dead. Rising above and uniting the discursive arrangement of elements is a soulful tenor with all the rich effulgent warmth of flowing molasses. Ester Rada has taken the stage.

What the hell is this? ‘I can’t define my work. It’s just music,’ Rada says in the afterglow moments of her set. ‘I have a lot of influences, like Lauren Hill or Nina Simone… but, it’s just music.’ Indeed, attempting to put her sound into a pinewood box is an exercise in futility. In ‘Life Happens’, one of the signature songs of her San Francisco sets and the titular song of her 2013 EP, snatches of klezmer music emerge before transitioning into scales more characteristic of musica mizrahit. The Middle East and the shtetl aren’t the only audible influences, though: the strains of a black church choir stripped of Christian overtones undergird her gospel-inflected chorus.

Smooth American jazz often gives way to Ethiopian-inflected Afrobeat and reggae, as in her homage to Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women‘. While keeping the lyrics intact, Rada took all of her multilayered liberties with the instrumentation, rhythm, and flow of the song. The intro is a Semitic variation of traditional jazzy themes, eventually leading up into a crescendo of psychedelic guitar riffs and pounding drums. Rada’s modern rendition lacks some of the raw power of Simone’s vocals, possessing neither her rich vocal range nor undeniable pathos. The San Francisco of 2015 is not the Harlem of 1969, and attempting to draw on that wellspring is an aesthetic achievement lacking in authentic feeling.

It’s a strange concoction decisively evocative of broader Israeli society. Her bandmates are international, featuring a slew of native-born sabras as well as Iraqis, Yemenis, and Poles. Growing up in Kiryat Arba, a settlement in the Israeli-controlled West Bank, she quickly developed a strong preference for Hebrew against her native Amharic. In an interview with SFGate, she says ‘I told my mom, ‘Don’t talk to me in that language. If you want to speak to me, talk to me in Hebrew.” It didn’t last long, though. First immersed in American soul music and then Jamaican reggae, her lyrics are overwhelmingly written in English and delivered in a characteristic Israeli drawl. ‘I want my music heard. I want it to reach a large audience’ she says, by way of explanation. ‘That’s why I sing in English.’

Rada’s English crooning is as riveting as her stage presence is infectious. As she dances to the pulsing instrumentation of her bandmates, the soft mood lighting of the theatre reflecting off the multicolored sequins of her long black gown, her audience quickly loses its sedation. Her shimmying shoulder dancing is a jolt to their awkward swaying, and couples start forming into impromptu dance sessions, while singles move in circles. Reserved seating looks increasingly empty as people move down to center stage to get in on the action. Rada eats it all up, breaking into a large toothy smile as she sees her effect on the crowd.

It’s all a grand spectacle. When the show is said and done, the audience shuffles away, airing out their sweat-soaked clothes in the cold late-night air. Rada herself is whisked to the top floor of the SF Jazz Center, where a meet and greet with representatives from Jewish organizations, the Israeli consulate, and local residents is scheduled to take place. She appears more star struck than her adoring fans. Exhausted by the mental and physical strain of a two-hour performance, her impeccable English fails her, and she reverts to the comforting strains of her native Hebrew. After posing for a few pictures she is taken away again. Brushing past the soulful crooning and rapid-fire rap lyrics is an artist intensely human, her sultry voice alive to the pulsing lifeblood of her nation’s history and the human experience. Her work is a mixture incomprehensible unless seen.

Ester Rada played a sold-out set on Tuesday, June 17 at the SF Jazz Center in San Francisco, California. It was her second time at the venue for the SF Jazz Festival.

Matthew Strebe

Matthew is a writer, philosopher, and part-time dragon slayer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find him dining at the next big place, playing in the sun, or talking to strangers on BART.

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