Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator

By Catalina Maria Johnson

“My family is very religious, and until the age of 12, I was really religious. At school and outside that’s what I heard, religious music, quiet music, not a lot of instruments, kind of a prayer. At home it was Ethiopian music, which is really dancing music. My parents loved masinko music, says singer songwriter Ester Rada about the traditions she’s bringing to town this week.

Speaking by phone from Israel, Rada is preparing for a U.S. tour that will include her Chicago debut as part of the Israeli Jazz Festival on May 23 at City Winery, where she will perform with six other musicians, including her keyboardist from Israel. Her debut EP, Life Happens, was released last year to critical and popular acclaim.

Rada is also describing the two musical strains that formed her life as the child of a highly religious family of Ethiopian emigrés to Israel.  Blessed with a soaring, immensely powerful and velvety voice, Rada´s soulful compositions take funky R&B grooves and add light jazzy Ethiopian flairs (such as occasionally including a masinko player). The songs also speak to the influences she names such as Nina Simone, Erykah Badu and Billie Holiday.

She describes the journey from her upbringing to neo-soul songstress having a few bumps along the way, “Like when I started to wear pants.” But her mother, Rada adds, let her choose her path, as long as Rada was happy, saying with a laugh, “And to her, being a singer is not really a job!”

Although Rada did not study music, her musical talents were evident at an early age, and by the time she was 6 years old, she was already in a choir. At 15 she got her first guitar and at 18 she joined the Israeli army choir. Rada notes that singing in the army was not entirely a freeing experience: “There is an official set list in army, they’re very strict, they look at the lyrics, make sure its OK.” But that moment marked a crossroads, she affirms:  “That’s when I decided music was what I wanted to do my whole life.”

For her own songs, she has chosen the English language. “For no reason. It just sounds better,” she exclaims. “I liked several singers and copied them, but when I wrote my own stuff, what came out, came out!  I did not think about how it would sound, I just sing.”

And she sings, literally, with all her soul. When Rada takes the stage, it is impossible to remove your attention. Having experienced her at this year’s South By Southwest conference in Austin, I can attest that the willowy singer pours all her energy into the syllable of each song, while adding an occasional  Ethio-dance shoulder shake.

And as to how to describe her musical vision? It’s all about sharing good things through the music, such as “love and freedom,” she declares,  much like the message of the “Life Happens” title track :

Why you closing the door?

I don’t know what you’re waiting for!

Life happens!

 

 

originally published in Chicagomusic.org

Photographs: Catalina Maria Johnson