For Ilana Besha, 19, the songs conjure up images of the first mass aliyah from famine-stricken Ethiopia to the Promised Land. "When word came to our village that we were going to Israel, it was like a dream come true," said the teenager, who was in Los Angeles last week with Shlomo Gronich and the Sheba Choir. But her long, exhausting journey was fraught with danger. As Besha, at 4, walked with her family across the Sudan, several of her baby cousins wasted away and died. "They are buried in the desert," she said.
Such stories inspired the songs that Besha and 12 other Sheba members performed on a recent U.S. tour that included concerts at the Skirball and UCLA. Their Israeli and African-tinged music is composed by Gronich, a prominent Israeli musician who founded the choir, almost by accident, a decade ago.
Not long after the second Israeli airlift of Ethiopian Jews (in May 1991), Gronich was asked to write two songs to perform with Ethiopian children on TV. It was no easy task. The cultural barriers were dramatic: In Ethiopia, the children had been forbidden to speak unless addressed by an adult and were painfully shy. He also struggled to teach them harmony, because Ethiopian songs are traditionally sung in unison.
But after the taping, Gronich was so attached to the youths that he decided to continue working with them at his Tel Aviv home, at his own expense. Before long, his choir was touring Europe and the United States and performing for world leaders such as President Clinton. The repertoire expanded to include Chassidic songs and an African American spiritual, "Motherless Child."
The current choir members, ages 14-19, are a testament to how far Ethiopian Jewry has come in Israel. During a Journal interview at UCLA Hillel, the students did not appear shy and retiring, but as bold and direct as any sabra.
A highlight of their U.S. trip was meeting African Americans at a Cleveland inner-city high school, the students revealed. "We felt very close to them, because we're black, and we all have common roots in Africa," said Batya Hadera, 15.
Even so, the students are conscious of the role they play in Israel and beyond. "They're ambassadors of the Ethiopian Jewish community to the world," choir manager Dalya Meidan said.