We caught up with Ground Heights' lead singer, Hewan Meshesha, just before the release of a brand new album (featuring their first Ethiopian original) and performance at the eighth annual Hullegeb festival.
Roots, reggae, and R&B
Was music a big part of your upbringing?
Of course, music was always there as the soundtrack to my life.
How prevalent were Ethiopian customs to you when you were younger?
Very prevalent. My Ethiopian culture was always there in terms of music, food, language, etc. I had the privilege of growing up surrounded by strong people (my parents and the rest of my family) who were very proud of their heritage and passed it on to me.
How did you meet your bandmates?
I met Shalev Ne’eman in music school [Rimon], we formed a band together, and overtime it became Ground Heights. We struggled for a while until the right people, such as Yotam Cohen–who brought the passion and tightened the message and goals of our band–came along, and it all came together.
Where did the name "Ground Heights" originate?
Shalev was the one who suggested it along with other names and we chose Ground Heights because of the opposition of these two words, which described exactly what we bring–old and new, our roots and the tree top we’re trying to reach, the past and the future.
What other styles do you incorporate into your music?
We started mainly with R&B, Reggae, and Dub music with slight Ethiopian touches. We used to end our shows with one Ethiopian number and felt that with me knowing Amharic and the guys absolutely falling in love with the Ethiopian groove and sound, we could write our own "IsraEthiopian” original songs that carry deep contemporary messages.
A lot of Ethio-Israeli singers cover a wealth of Ethiopian artists, especially Mahmoud Ahmed. What twists do you put on these covers to make them your own?
As a band, we are constantly trying to bring new ideas to our music, original or covers. When we cover an Ethiopian song we play it on western instruments instead of traditional Ethiopian instruments. By trying to imitate these traditional sounds with western instruments we had to make compromises, which led to a new, unique sound. We add our own styles of music that we grew up on to songs like "Ashkeru" (Mahmoud Ahmed), where we opened the song and added hip-hop grooves to it. But the best example is our original IsraEthiopian song, "Yehiyot Nuro."
Ethiopian musicians have really been making a name for themselves in Israel and across the globe. What's the next step to keep this growth going?
Though Ethiopian music is now a big thing in cultural events, on the mainstream platforms there are only Ethiopian artists singing R&B and hip-hop, aka Black American music, which is not bad at all but the Ethiopian culture has a lot more to offer.
If a good Ethiopian groove in Hebrew and Amharic like our new song “Anbessa” will succeed in the mainstream media, it will be a big step for us and for Ethiopian music in general.
Is this your first time performing in the Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts festival?
Yes and we are very excited!
What do you hope to gain from the performance?
For more people to know about our music and message and to meet other talented musicians.
Who are you most excited to see perform at the festival?
Mahmoud Ahmed and Aster Aweke.
The next generation
You're launching your first album (Ground Heights) and a new show called Lmimetow Tuwled, or "The Next Generation." Tell me a little about the album.
The album was produced by Michael Goldwasser (Easy Star All-Stars) and will show the unique journey that brought us to create the show Lemimetow Tuwled. Our album captures great moments that we had during the creation process, different styles from all over the world, and our first Ethiopian original song.
What languages/styles have you incorporated into the album?
Hebrew, English, and Amharic. Stylistically, it will include world music, R&B, Reggae, Dub, African Groove, and Jazz.
What does this combination of old and new, traditional and unconventional, east and west allow for?
A bridge for people to truly communicate and of course, great grooves with a great sound.
Did you write all of the music or was it a collective experience with the band?
When we started the band, Shalev [percussion] wrote most of the music, and now it’s mostly Yotam [guitar] and myself–we work on the arrangements together. It is important for us to make sure that every member of the band can express themselves through their instrument.
Is there a narrative or main theme that holds the album together?
Ground Heights - where we are and where we strive to be.
How has your family & community responded to your success as a musician?
Very positively. My family is very happy and supportive of the fact that I am carrying with me the music I used to listen to at home. I was very happy to see the community embracing us and our music, following us to concerts, and sharing it with the world.
Ground Heights will perform at Jerusalem's Confederation House on Dec 11 at 20:30 (as a part of the Hullegeb festival)