Ester Rada Plays One of This Summer’s Most Interesting Shows at Madison Square Park
What’s the likelihood that an Ethiopian-born Israeli singer would have internalized oldschool American soul, funk and jazz to the point where she could pass for a star in any of those styles from the 60s or 70s? Ester Rada is exactly that. Her concert earlier this summer at Madison Square Park with her brilliant Israeli band revealed her every bit as adept at her native Ethiopiques as well as a whole bunch of western idioms. After an intro medley from Rada’s dynamic six-piece group – three-piece horn section, lead guitar, keys, bass and drums – spanning from Ethiopian to American funk, she launched into a wryly catchy ba-BUMP soul tune punctuated by tersely growling baritone sax and ringing guitar riffs. Throughout the set, Rada sang in perfect English in a resonant, measured, dynamic alto, rising and falling with a constant sense of suspense.
She followed with a slinky, moodily vamping, minor-key Bill Withers-tinged anthem that picked up steam ominously as it went along. The band took the next tune from Afrobeat to pulsing roots reggae in seconds flat and then very subtly brought it back to middle ground between a summery, rootsy groove and a frenetic 1970s-style Nigerian club theme. The tenor sax player gave a briskly strolling Ethiopiques number a long, lithely spiraling, apprehensively dancing, Middle Eastern-flavored intro before Rada picked it up with an indomitable, nonchalantly insistent Amharic vocal. Mysterious cinematic, bass-driven pedalpoint gave way to a wickedly catchy, backbeat-driven anthem that hit an unexpected and wickedly fiery Ethiopiques crescendo at the end.
Rada reinvented Nina Simone’s Four Women as a brooding tune that moved uneasily between clave funk and a soaringly dancing African bounce that went doublespeed as it wound up. She paired off dramatic vocals with blippy Baba O’Reilly keys on the Afrobeat number that followed – there was a psychedelic aspect to a lot of the show, and this was the peak. The concert followed a familiar trajectory of call-and-response with the crowd, band intros, expansively funky jamming and a return to oldschool soul and otherworldly Ethiopian riffage at the end.
Let’s hope for another NYC engagement from Rada sooner than later, notwithstanding all the troubles in Israel. The next Madison Square Park concert is tonight at 7 PM featuring one of New York’s most energizing jambands, charismatic singer Arleigh Kincheloe and her group Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds.