Hagit Yaso owes singing career to desert trek her parents made

Hagit Yaso owes singing career to desert trek her parents made

Hagit Yaso (Chronicle photo by Christopher Squier)
Hagit Yaso (Chronicle photo by Christopher Squier)

Stuck in Ethiopia, Hagit Yaso’s parents were determined to give their children the opportunity to do something great, even if it meant walking in the desert for four months.

So that’s exactly what they did, and they couldn’t be happier with their decision.

Thirty-three years later, Hagit Yaso has become an international singing sensation. After winning “Kochav Nolad 9” in 2011, the Israeli version of “American Idol,” Yaso is now touring all over the world, including a performance at Carnegie Mellon University last week week sponsored by the Jewish National Fund.

“It was and has been an amazing experience,” said Yaso of her rise to fame. “I can’t describe it in words.”

Having grown up in an Ethiopian village, the pop star’s parents were treated very poorly, her father working every day as a farmer in a field for extremely low compensation.

Finally, they both decided it would be best for their futures to get married, and leave their families for a new start in the Jewish homeland — Israel.

But even with the assistance of her parents making aliyah, Yaso had to climb her way to the top. Born and raised in Sderot — less than nine miles from the Gaza Strip — she kicked off her career in elementary school by singing in the band “Sderot Youth.”

At the age of 18, Yaso fulfilled her Israeli service obligation by enlisting in the Israeli Defense Force. She remembers her experience in basic training and singing in the military band, both of which had a lasting effect on her.

“The army was a great experience and definitely taught me how to deal with problems,” Yaso said. “If something is changing and you’re having technical difficulties, no matter what it is, [the army] teaches you how to deal with this.”

Figuring she’d give it a shot, Yaso auditioned for the ninth season of Kochav Nolad in 2011. Catching the judges off guard with her soothing voice and compelling story, she would make it all the way to the finals, with her version of the late Israeli singer Ofra Hazza’s “Mishehu Tamid Holech Iti.” Yaso took home the title with 60 percent of the vote between the three finalists, winning a scholarship and recording deal with Israeli producer Ivri Lider.

When she and her parents visited President Shimon Peres at his residence, Peres showed much interest in her parents’ life in Ethiopia and immigration to Sderot, and he compared Yaso’s singing style to the late Hazza’s.

Since then, Yaso has enjoyed almost instant success. Having toured Canada, Great Britain, France and other countries around the globe, she has also teamed up with JNF to do several performances in the United States.

“Rather than having programs where you feel you have to defend Israel and its existence, we want to focus on all the wonderful things that are happening in Israel that are making a difference in the world,” said Anne Greenspoon, JNF associate director of Israel Advocacy & Education.

For Yaso, this is only the beginning of a career she said has aleady taught her much about process.

“As a child, I dreamed that I wanted to sing, and it happened,” she recalled. “If you want something, and you believe in it, it will happen.”

(Jesse Irwin can be reached at jirwin18@gmail.com.)