Ethiopian-Israeli artist AvevA Dese is a powerful R&B singer and a songwriter whose Afro groove sound incorporates the Ethiopian rhythms of her heritage.
Dese’s parents are Ethiopian Jews who made a harrowing journey on foot from Ethiopia to a refugee camp in Sudan in 1984 during a famine. From there, they and thousands of other Jews were airlifted to Israel as part of Operation Moses.
Dese was born in Israel four years later. Growing up in Nazareth Illit, she rejected her Ethiopian heritage, along with the Amharic language. Her parents spoke Amharic to each other at home, but when her mother spoke to her in Amharic, Dese insisted on replying in Hebrew.
“I was trying to fit into the Israeli culture. As a kid I thought that the Ethiopian culture is holding me back and so I wasn’t interested in knowing more about it,” she said in an email interview promoting her North American tour that brings her to Toronto this month.
“Now as a mature woman I realize how wrong I was, that this is my identity and I should be proud of it. I learned more about the Ethiopian traditions through the music and through the stories my mom tells me.”
Another aspect of Dese’s musical education came from her older sister, who introduced her to American R&B singers like Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston.
Dese’s development as a singer began when she and her sister sang classic R&B tunes around the house for fun. As she discovered her Ethiopian roots, Dese’s musical diet expanded to include traditional and contemporary Ethiopian artists, among them Aster Aweke, Gigi, and Tilahun Gessesse.
Dese’s debut recording, Who Am I, includes Ethiopian instrumentation, with one of the musicians playing the masenko, a single-stringed bowed lute. Dese was discovered during the first season of the reality TV singing competition The Voice (Israel) in 2012.
“I went there with low self-esteem and with not a lot of experience,” she said, but she did make it through the preliminary round. Now a rising star in Israel, Dese is touring North America and bringing her show, “AvevA–AfroSoul,” to Toronto’s Lula Lounge on March 23. Dese will perform traditional Ethiopian songs and her original material, written mostly in English.
“The texts are about things I observed in my everyday life, starting from my family and the stories I heard while growing up and to more general observations about society, such as injustices and the inequality between different people, black and white, men and women,” she said.
Dese will perform Unfraz from her latest release. The song is about the hard times her family endured in Ethiopia under Haile Mengistu Mariam, a brutal dictator who ruled the country from 1977 to 1991.
Dese’s show at the Lula Lounge is being presented by Ashkenaz, in association with Small World Music and Batuki Music Society, and sponsored by the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, Size Doesn’t Matter and the Consulate General of Israel.
Dese is going to be the featured guest at an interactive community Shabbat dinner at Temple Har Zion on March 24. Presented by the temple and the Schwartz/Reisman Centre, the Ethiopian-style dinner is open to the public. Dese will also be visiting students at Bialik Hebrew Day School and the Montessori Jewish Day School while she’s in Toronto.
“It’s nice to be able to present strong, young Israelis of colour in our community. It debunks some misimpressions that exist about diversity in Israel,” said Eric Stein, the artistic director of Ashkenaz.
For tickets to Dese’s March 23 show at the Lula Lounge, with a full band, visit www.ashkenaz.ca or call 416-979-9955. The show opens at 8 p.m. with the Barnes/Woldemichael Ethiojazz Quartet. Dinner reservations guarantee seating and can be made by calling 416-588-0307. For tickets to the Musical Shabbat with AvevA Dese, at 6:30 p.m. on March 24 at Temple Har Zion, call 905-889-2252, ext. 109, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.