Hagit Yaso, the 2011 Kochav Nolad winner, will sing in Vancouver on May 5 at the Chan Centre in celebration of Israel’s 66th birthday. (photo from hagityaso.co.il)
One July night in 2011, on a crowded Haifa beach, the 21-year-old singer Hagit Yaso became that year’s winner of Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born), Israel’s version of American Idol. The outsider had triumphed. “It was the most exciting and most life-changing experience I’ve ever had,” she told the Independent by telephone from her home in Sderot.
Yaso is a fully qualified outsider. She is working-class, the child of Ethiopian refugees and a resident of the missile-and-mortar target town of Sderot. Only one kilometre from the Gaza Strip, Sderot is the target of frequent rocket assaults. A small town of only 20,000 people, everyone, she said, knows everyone. “It’s a small town. You get to know the people,” she said. “And I got a lot of support when I was on Kochav Nolad.
Now 24, Yaso has toured the world and released her first CD, a self-titled CD that is available at cdbaby.com and at amazon.com. Vancouver audiences will get a chance to see her May 5 when she headlines the community Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia. The event’s main presenter, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, can take some pride in Yaso’s success. A scholarship from the Canadian Federations provided her voice lessons at Sderot’s Music Centre and the Vancouver Federation itself has taken a special interest in helping Sderot’s Ethiopian community. Federation also provides assistance to Sderot’s trauma victims.
The three months she spent on the television competition were grueling, Yaso said. ‘“The competition is very long, very confusing, with a lot of pressure and media.” She always believed she would win, though.
Her friend, the American filmmaker Laura Bialis, who lives in Tel Aviv, noted by phone that Yaso’s determination is one secret to her success. “You know, it was like everything she set out to do, she did,” Bialis said. “She wanted to get into the army band, she got into the army band. She wanted to get on Kochav Nolad, she got on Kochav Nolad. She wanted to win Kochav Nolad, she won.”
The two met when Bialis was shooting a documentary about music in Sderot. That film, Sderot: Rock in the Red Zone, is now in its final editing stage.
Yaso’s success is a point of pride for Sderot. Her win is also significant to Israelis of Ethiopian heritage. Vancouver resident Ronit Reda-Yona, an Ethiopian Israeli, said Yaso’s 2011 win “was an exciting moment for the Israeli society and especially for the Ethiopian community. Everyone in Israel who is Ethiopian feels like me: this is a good model for young people.”
Not only is Yaso well known in Israel but, in a short time, she has become an international success. She has performed at Jewish events in Paris, London, Canadian cities, American cities and Ethiopia. After Vancouver, she will tour Brazil.
“What is really amazing is that her career has taken off internationally in a really interesting way,” said Bialis. “She’s got this amazing voice, she’s gorgeous, she’s gracious, she’s sweet, and she has an amazing story.”
Thankful for parents’ courageous journey
Yaso’s parents, Yeshayahu and Tova, grew up and got married in rural Ethiopia. “They got married by shiddach,” said Yaso, who explained that the marriage was arranged and the two did not meet until their wedding day. In the early 1990s, the couple was forced to leave home. “Because they were Jewish, they suffered a lot and they had to run away from there and the option was to come to Israel,” Yaso explained.
Tremendous hardship stood between them and that destination. “They walked 400 kilometres by foot,” she said with some pride and awe in her voice. “It took them two and a half months to walk because it’s through the desert. They had to walk only at night and hide during the day because they were not supposed to leave [Ethiopia], and they were afraid…. They had to hide during the day because they were afraid of being caught.”
Yaso’s parents finally crossed the border into Sudan and were airlifted to Israel.
“They had nothing when they came here,” she said. Her parents built a life and a family of five children, in the small town where they still live. That home remains her home, too.
The Vancouver performance will include four songs she performed on Kochav Nolad. Yaso will sing in English, Hebrew, Moroccan Arabic and Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. The four-piece band that accompanies her is a group with whom she served in Israel’s army band. All three backup singers are from her hometown, including her sister, Shlomit.
Both of Yaso’s sisters performed with the town’s youth music ensemble. Many of Sderot’s young people dream of music careers. The ubiquitous bomb shelters sometimes double as rehearsal spaces. Perhaps this love of music helps soften a hard life that includes regular bombardment. When the air raid warning sounds you have 15 seconds to find shelter. Drills are constant, so life itself is always uncertain.
“It’s a city that suffers a lot from what’s going on in the south, from bombing and stuff,” said Yaso. “It’s not easy to live there. I manage by being optimistic, smiling and, when it gets harder, I sing.”
In addition to Yaso, performances at the community celebration of Israel’s 66th birthday at the Chan Centre will include the JCC Festival Ha’Rikud Dancers and a musical tribute written by Jonathan Berkowitz and Heather Glassman Berkowitz.
Michael Groberman is a Vancouver freelance writer.