Listening to his song ‘Unajua’, featuring Wendy Kimani, one might confuse Gilad’s voice for Kidum’s. But as the writer finds out, music is a passion for this former Israeli deputy ambassador to Kenya
BUZZ: Your Kiswahili is very good; let’s start from there.
Hehe! Many people tell me that, including some Tanzanians. But what they don’t know is that I can’t have a proper conversation in Kiswahili, or comprehend Kiswahili TV news, or even read a paper like ‘Taifa Leo’.
But it’s so clear in your music and on a phone conversation, too.
I have learnt the basics, and if you listen to ‘Unajua’, the Kiswahili bits are mostly greetings. The best part about Kiswahili in Kenya is that because of Sheng, one can easily throw in several English words in a conversation.
It’s difficult to do so in a country like Tanzania, where they speak fluent Kiswahili.
Where were you born and raised?
My parents were diplomats. When I was born, my parents were living in Turkey, but it was a family tradition for my siblings and I to be born in Israel.
So you didn’t grow up in Israel?
Not at all. We moved from one country to the other during my childhood days, mostly attending foreign schools. We lived in Turkey, Germany, the UK, US, and other places.
Then in adulthood?
After high school, it’s mandatory for every Israeli boy and girl to join the army for three years, then you can choose whichever career you want afterwards.
So I joined the Israeli Defence Forces in the mid 90s. That’s where I met my wife, since we served in the same base.
So what career did you choose after you left the army?
I had to look for money, so I became a bell boy in one of the five-star hotels in Jerusalem for about one-and-a-half years.
How did you end up in Kenya?
Israelis then had this culture of travelling as backpackers to either parts of Asia, Africa or South America. It was cheap to travel that way. With the savings I had, my girlfriend and I went to Thailand, then later came to Kenya for the same trip.
When was that?
That was in the late 90s, when I joined university in Jerusalem to study political science. But since I wanted to start a family, I had to look for a job.
Did you get one?
Yes, at a barbecue party in Tel Aviv, I met this senior editor of ‘Channel Two News’, one of Israel’s biggest media houses. I got an interview opportunity and was employed in the foreign desk.
What was your responsibility?
To record news on tape from CNN, BBC and other international channels; and to label them to be used in the news segment. Just a basic job. But I got to learn so much while in there and, by the time I was leaving three years later, I was almost a proper journalist.
Continued with the media?
I joined the foreign ministry in the public relations department. But the turn of events for me came when the Kikambala bomb attack happened in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002.
An Israeli plane was targeted but luckily the attack wasn’t successful. This was a crisis that the foreign ministry had to be deeply involved in.
I was among the people sent to Kenya, to brief local and foreign media on the operations. I was all over the news.
Then you became a full diplomat…
Yes. A couple of years later I was appointed deputy ambassador to Kenya, overseeing Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Seychelles. I worked for about two years before moving to Los Angeles, where I spearheaded Israel’s public diplomacy efforts in the southwestern United States.
Let’s talk music now.
I sang in the boys choir while in school but later, during the university days, I was in a rock band called ‘White Donkey’. We produced an album before breaking up.
How did you start music in Kenya?
When I was a deputy ambassador, it was difficult to sing. There were too many security men around me, so no privacy. But after working in Los Angeles, I returned to Kenya in 2008 to work as head of business development and public relations at Amiran Kenya, a British agri-business company.
I now work in the same position, but for Balton CP, the company that owns Amiran, among other firms across Africa.
Back in Kenya as a private citizen, it was easy for me to go back to my music passion. I followed Calabash band and could sing during their karaoke sessions. I also met Juliani, whom I did business with at Amiran, where I recruited him as an ambassador for ‘Farming is Cool’ Africa-wide campaign.
We became friends, and he encouraged me to record one song when he realised that I could actually sing well in Kiswahili, with the few words I had learnt.
How about Wendy Kimani?
When I recorded ‘Unajua’, I realised it needed some boost from a female singer. Wendy was occasionally singing with Calabash band, and she loved the idea. That’s how the song was fully recorded and released in April this year as an audio. But…
Wendy got married and left for Holland before we could do the video. We are even yet to share the same stage and perform that song.
But the video is out…
Yes, I shot my parts here, she did the same in Holland and we made the video out of the footage. The reception so far in Kenya has been amazing. I have released a new song too, ‘Sema Milele’, which is receiving good airplay, too.
Which other Kenyan artiste would you like to work with?
Amos and Josh, they are quite talented; H_Art the Band, we work in the same studio; and most definitely Sauti Sol.
Have you made money through music yet?
I do this as a passion, I have a good job here so I don’t make any money at all, even when I perform with the Calabash band. But when my music starts making tangible income, I have a foundation with my family called Israel for Kenya, in honour of my late father.
My music revenue will be channelled there to help poor people in Kenya, especially on agricultural development.