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Ethiopian Jew Shares Music and Heritage in America


America is rightly known as a diverse nation, a place where millions of individuals with far-ranging backgrounds and unique talents contribute to a colorful American mosaic. Today on New American Voices you’ll meet a man who adds his own distinctive saga to this mosaic – Ethiopian musician Alula Johannes Tzadik.

Alula Tzadik, a dreadlocked, ebony-skinned Ethiopian Jew in his late thirties, says his music is an expression of the many disparate strands of his life. His songs are in Hebrew, in Amharic or in English with an underpinning of Ethiopian, Latin and German musical influences, and overlaid by American hip-hop and reggae.

The story Alula Tzadik tells of his early life is both sad and complex. His mother, an Ethiopian Jew, was thirteen when she was raped by one of the Ethiopian teachers in the Christian school she attended. The child grew up in a Catholic orphanage in Ethiopia, not aware of his Jewish heritage but living with its stigma, made aware by the other kids and some of the elders that he was somehow inferior. In his teens he went to live with his father, a prominent personage in Addis Ababa with a passion for all things Lutheran. Later he managed to find his mother, who taught him Hebrew songs and prayers and reconnected him with his Jewish roots. His musical career started, oddly enough, when he was sent by his father to Germany to study medicine.

“I was playing as a student in clubs, you know, with acoustic guitar, singing, and a gentleman said, ‘Hey, I like your music, I’d like to produce a record.’ So the record came out, and he said, ‘Now the record is selling well, you have to travel, you have to promote the record.” So I interrupted my medical studies, and since then I went professionally into music.”

The big hit which made Mr. Tzadik a star was the song “Sentayahu”, which he wrote in honor of the name his mother had given him before his birth, and the name he himself gave to his new-born son.

Alula Tzadik returned to Ethiopia in the mid-eighties as an extremely popular singer – like an Ethiopian Michael Jackson, he says. But he fell afoul of the government of President Mengistu Haile-Mariam when he refused to join the Communist party, as all prominent performers were required to do for propaganda purposes. Mr. Tzadik spent two years in prison. When the Mengistu government fell in 1991, he sought asylum in the United States.

Alula Tzadik says his transition to life in this country was quite easy. The day after he arrived in the United States, he was playing guitar and singing with a band in an Ethiopian club in Washington, D.C. While he says he had no trouble fitting into American society as a Jew, it was a little different for him as an African.

“As a Jew, actually not, because you know nobody could see my faith, but everybody could see my face. So you know, -- sure, in America there’s this black and white thing, you have to accept that, there’s a differentiation. But with faith, though, nobody could see what I am, so I had no problem.”

His faith is an essential part of Alula Tzadik’s life in this country, inextricably interwoven with his calling as a musician.

“I often go to synagogue, in fact I’m a member of two synagogues in Los Angeles, where I live, and I’m assistant cantor of the synagogues. And sometimes I get invited to different synagogues as a cantor, as a singer, as a speaker, and I travel to many parts of the United States talking about my experiences as a Jew in Ethiopia, as a Jew in Germany, as a Jew in America.”

One aspect of Mr. Tzadik’s commitment as a Jew in America, he says, is using his music in the service of the community. He does a monthly “mitzvah”, or good deed, performing his music for people in old age homes, for recovering alcoholics, jailed inmates. He devotes time to entertaining and teaching young kids who find themselves in jail for one reason or another.

“In fact, I made a CD with the juveniles in Los Angeles, you know the youngest is 9 years old, the oldest 14. They were rapping on it, I told them, ‘Do what you think you can do. Tell about yourself, why you’re here, anything you want.’ And one of the guys said, it was really sad, ‘I miss my mother. And I don’t see any bird around, we’re always put into the cell and I see only gray. I miss the birds.’”

His faith is one of the reasons he devotes his time and talent to helping the community, Alula Tzadik says – but it’s not the only one.

“There are many reasons. One of them is – I grew up in such a very hard life. But God blessed me with what I have, so I have to give something back, as well. And I’m happy to be in this country, you know. So what America gave me, I have to give it to others. It’s thankfulness for America, also.”