"I decided I didn't want to audition in a skirt. I wanted to look like the secular girls who were auditioning," she says. "But we had no pants at home, so I borrowed a pair from a cousin, and wore my skirt on top. On the bus, I took the skirt off and wore the pants." To complete the revolutionary look, she also donned a pair of her cousin's platform shoes.
"On the one hand, I felt the power of having a voice, of belonging," she recalls. "But at the same time, I felt very uncomfortable. I looked at myself and said, 'Yo. What a sin. Why are you wearing pants? You're supposed to guard your modesty.'"
But mixed feelings failed to detract from her vocal capability: She was accepted into the navy's musical troupe - the first Ethiopian to serve in an IDF troupe. Persuading her father to permit her to enlist was less difficult than she had imagined, "mainly because of my mom," she explains.
Ten years have passed since then, during which Ingdsht has played supporting roles in musical performances and other forms of entertainment. She's performed in a children's play, appeared in the Israel Festival, where she sang duets with Eli Luzon and Yehudit Ravitz, and she has sung with the hip-hop band Hadag Nahash. She also sang back-up on hip-hop artist Muki's tour. Only now, at 28, is she taking center stage.
"It's not that I didn't want to [sing lead] before this. There has been a fire burning inside me for a few years, to get myself out there and let people hear me. But I knew I would have to meet the right partner for this to happen, and that took a long time." She attempted collaborations with a number of producers, but without success.
"It's like being in a couple," she says. "You meet someone, and after a few months, you're tired of him. Then, unless you're a dependent, obsessive person, you remain alone for a while and that's difficult. I remember thinking, 'Enough, already, Aiiala. When will it happen? There's no perfection in the world. So, maybe, be with him.' But I can't lie to myself. Should I stand on stage and sing something I don't really feel?"
'Something happened there'
A year and a half ago, she sang back-up for Muki on Music Channel 24's hip-hop program, "Dibur Tzafuf." After the program, the host, producer Roi Edri, approached her. "He told me, with his typical enthusiasm, 'Wow! You are pure soul!' He gave me his phone number. It took me two months to call. I was scared - I don't know why. But when I finally went to his small room in his parents' home, I immediately knew that my search was over.
"Something happened there, in his messy room. There was inspiration. Some of the songs began from nothing. Roi played a cool rhythm on his beat machine. I started singing. He started playing a groove on his guitar, and suddenly, boom, there was a song."
How does she explain the instant connection? "We have the same musical taste. But, mainly, we have similar personalities. We are both sensitive and emotional. For us, everything works on the emotional level. Everything comes from the gut. It's a very rare trait among men."
One of the loveliest things about Ingdsht's album is that it preserves the fresh spontaneity of half-improvised songs; one can hear the click between the singer and her producer. The album also has the lightness, simplicity and joy that are vital elements to an album that focuses on soul and R&B (despite the fact that Edri is reluctant to use any of these labels, preferring to describe the album as "eclectic"). "I know how to sing this way, with all the riffs, and it's very cool," she says. "I will also make music with more love of self, but not this time."
The album owes its superb groove to musicians, including the jazz-hip hop band Hatapuhim. "I first heard them not long before we recorded, and I thought they were totally cool," says Edri. "I told Aiiala, we went to their show in Haifa, and she was turned on, too." Members of Hatapuhim received a rough draft of one of the songs, and they loved it. "It's really cool to meet someone whose personality comes out so clearly in her music," says Yona Halevi, the band's drummer. "Aiiala is so radiant, so positive, so charming, and all of that comes out when she sings."
Ingdsht's family immigrated to Israel when she was 2. They lived in an absorption center in Ashkelon for several months, before moving to Kiryat Arba, where she says she had "the most fun childhood in the world. We came from the desert and suddenly there was all that snow." Ingdsht says that, unlike most of the Ethiopian immigrant families around them, her family quickly adapted. "My mother is a strong, curious person. She worked in the kitchen of a yeshiva, and I remember being proud that very quickly, we had Israeli food at home."
Big city life
When Aiiala was 9, the family moved to Ashdod. "After Kiryat Arba, Ashdod looked like a big city. The children behaved differently. It's a somewhat closed place. People are always looking and checking you out. How you dress, how you speak. I know that people in Tel Aviv also look at you and check you out, but, in Tel Aviv, there's a certain freedom."
Her parents rarely listened to music at home, and when they did, it was Hasidic music. "All kinds of children's groups, 'Efrohim,' and the like," she says. "You couldn't even talk about non-Jewish music. Religious people don't go for that sort of thing. They shun it as if it were something dirty." And Ethiopian music? "Barely. It's not considered spiritual."
At age 14, she heard tapes of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston at her cousins' home. "They blew me away. I never imagined that you could sing like that," she says. She soon started singing herself, imitating the singers she adored: Mainly Houston, whom she still considers an "incredible singer."
"I started humming to myself and realized that it did something for me. >From that moment, I couldn't stop. While washing dishes, I sang. While cleaning the house, I sang. My father found it very difficult to accept that I connected to that world. My mother was also not wild about it, at the beginning. But one day, a neighbor woman told her, 'Tikva, you have a talented daughter.' That's how I came to join the municipal troupe."
With the troupe director's encouragement, Aiiala auditioned for the IDF. "At first, the IDF troupe was an absolute dream, an extremely different world, a completely different way of talking. I came there saying, 'With God's help,' and other lines that religious people often finish sentences with, and suddenly I'm with people who go out to bars and drink alcohol. But, like my mother, I quickly understood what was going on. Another thing that gave me strength was the feeling that, as the first Ethiopian in the troupe, I represented something - I had a responsibility. I am sure that I opened doors for other Ethiopian youth."
During her military service and in the years that followed, Ingdsht's love of African-American music grew deeper. "I began listening to Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, all that great music, the real thing, with soul. It makes me feel good." She is less fond of the R&B hits that appear on MTV. "It's cheap," she says. "Except for Beyonce, who is a fantastic singer."
Ethiopian music has a presence in her album, but only in small doses, mainly in the introductions to some of the songs. Only in the song "Jetnai" do Ethiopian sounds play a central role. "It's a song I wrote about my uncle, a wise, learned, sweet man to whom life was not very kind. He became an alcoholic, and people around him treated him cruelly, like the court jester: Along the lines of, 'Let's give him something to drink, and then we'll have something to laugh about.' As a child, I took it very hard - it made me cry. And I wrote a song, which came from my gut, based on the little that I know about [Ethiopian] folk songs. The song is different than any other song on the album. There are no verses, no refrain - it's all a lot less pop. At first, it sort of shocked the professionals."
When asked if she intends to integrate additional Ethiopian elements into her music in the future, Ingdsht says, "Lately, I've felt connected to it. I don't repress it anymore or put it aside. I guess it will be expressed in the future. For now, I'm only thinking about the new album, which is pleasant and fun and varied, and how it represents who I am. It's only a beginning, and I still have a lot to say. But things have to be done calmly, with patience. There's time for everything."