Behind the Headlines: with Popular Musician by Their Side, Ethiopian Youth Sing Their Way to Top

Although their backgrounds are worlds apart, popular singer Shlomo Gronich and a group of Ethiopian children have together formed one of the most popular singing groups in Israel.

Created four years ago by Gronich, the well-known Israeli singer/songwriter, the Sheba Choir is much more than an entertainment troupe.

With 10 talented Ethiopian children as members, Sheba has introduced Ethiopian culture and tradition to an entire generation of Israelis.

Gronich, a ponytailed 45-year-old musician who has written for and performed in scores of musical and theatrical productions in Israel and abroad, decided to establish the choir during the filming of a local television show about Ethiopian immigrants. “A producer from Educational Television asked me to participate in the show,” Gronich said in a recent interview.

“I’d collaborated with this producer on other occasions, and he asked me to come to the studio to work with the show.

“What I found when I arrived were about 40 Ethiopian boys and girls from Hadera,” Gronich said.

A veteran when it comes to working with children, Gronich recalled with a laugh how his usual powers of persuasion did not work with the Ethiopian children.

“They were painfully shy and modest, and they wouldn’t look me in the eye,” he said.

“That’s simply a part of Ethiopian culture,” he said.

After auditioning the children, Gronich chose six of the most talented and launched the choir.

Within weeks, the children, ages 10 to 16, were traveling an hour from Hadera to Tel Aviv to attend regular rehearsals.

“It took quite a while for the children to become accustomed to Western music,” Gronich said.

WERE UNACCUSTOMED TO WESTERN MUSIC

“They were unfamiliar with the piano, and it was a very different sound for them,” he explained.

After a year of hard work, Gronich added four more children and decided to take the group on the road.

While many of their early performances were commissioned by such groups as the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Agency for Israel as a means of attracting Diaspora fund-raising dollars for the absorption of new immigrants, the choir soon became popular among Israelis as well.

Appearing at local festivals and on television, Sheba soon became a household name, and the group ultimately recorded an album.

The group’s best-selling song “Journey to Eretz Yisrael,” which depicts the immigrants’ arduous journey to Israel, pays homage to the Ethiopian’s fortitude and love of Israel.

The song’s video clip, which is full of beautiful, stark desert imagery, often appears on Israeli pop-music shows.

At their concerts, audiences invariably fall in love with the fine-boned, white-clad children with the pure, high-pitched voices.

Singing in Hebrew and Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, they perform a type of ethnic music never heard before in Israel.

With Gronich on the piano, the singers sway and dance, Ethiopian style, as their voices soar in unison.

The songs, most of which were written by Gronich, reflect the children’s dual Ethiopian-Israeli identity.

The choir’s eight girls and two boys have traveled extensively in Israel and recently performed in Belgium and the United States.

The African beat, mixed with Jewish themes, pulls audiences to their feet, swaying along with the performers.

Gronich said he has “always been fascinated by ethnic music, especially African music.

“When I undertook this project, I suddenly found myself working with this kind of music, with these beautiful children,” he said.

“There is a great feeling of love between me and the children, and I think that people can see it.”

Now that some of the choir members are teen-agers, Gronich has decided to find a few more Ethiopian children to join the choir.

“It’s time to bring new blood into the choir,” Gronich said.

He added that some of the original 10 will leave the group.

“It’s not easy to think of separation,” Gronich said, “because we’re like a family.”

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