Zerihun Bekele, in his mid-50s, is a veteran amateur sound man. When he started working in the role for the then Sevens band, it was his emotion and interest that pushed him to get involved. He worked with the band for eleven years. He did not foresee, however, that he would fall in love with the profession. At the time he joined, the band was well-known in Addis Abeba. Tsedanya Gebremarkos and Shiwndagn Haile were among the founding members of Sevens, which disbanded five years ago.
For Zerihun, it was not the money that mattered, but rather the passion he had for music.
“Though I was paid only around 50 Br on a monthly basis, I was happy to be associated with the band,” he said.
Express band was another big musical group that Zerihun joined up with in his role as sound man. Seven years was enough for him with that outfit, which was founded in 1994 by three musicians – Dereje Tefera, Kibret Zekiwos and Feleke Hailu. The band provided backup music for legendary singers, including Theodros Kassahun (Teddy Afro), Dawit Melesse and Zeritu Kebede.
After accumulating 18 years of experience as a sound man, he retired. It was at that he made a business out of his rich experience and exposure. He ventured into sound system rental for small social events, offering an old sound system for a minimal price. The system includes a microphone, amplifier, speaker and mixer.
Zerihun has been leading a pensioner’s life but he still has the energy to work. Slim in stature, with a crisp face and wearing a bathrobe-like coat in the rainy weeks of June, he described how he makes a living from his business.
“I used to have plenty exposure while working for two bands and got to know many people,” he said. “The people I knew through this work now call me seeking a sound system.”
He charges between 3,000 Br and 4,000 Br for the rental of his equipment. The price is different depending on the length of time the customers wish to keep the system. For dinner or weddings, he charges 3,000 and adds an extra charge of 1,000 Br for both dinner and lunch.”
If he is present to operate the system at an event, he earns an additional 500 Br.
“I prefer to play at weddings to make a larger sum, as well as to enjoy the feast,” he added.
He also said that his work is seasonal. In May and June, the system’s rent will be increased by 60 Br to 100 Br. This is because it comes after the dominant Ethiopian Orthodox Church faithful break their 55-day-long Lenten fast. With the advent of the Easter feast, the annual wedding celebrations are rife.
In Addis Abeba alone, 144,227 people tied the knot between 2009/2010 and 2013/2014. This figure increased by 85pc in 2014/2015.
Another veteran who may have played at some of these weddings is DJ Dani, who began in the same business 15 years ago. DJ Dani claims to be a pioneer who recruited and coached some of Addis’ leading DJs. He is one of those who started Sergwon Bedeje, which literally translates as ‘wedding by DJ’.
In the early years of the 1990s, he frequented clubs and enjoyed playing at local weddings in his neighbourhood. He said that he used reel cassettes to record songs in the old fashion. That is how he evolved into a businessman, importing and renting out the sound system. China and Dubai are the destinations from which he imports his equipment. Sitting at his fancy office around Bole, he attracts customers with impressive displays of all his equipment. Physically well- built, he is proud that he runs a successful business.
“I used to work as a DJ for two years by renting out a sound system,” he explained. “Back then, I earned between 1,500 Br and 2,000 Br for a single occasion.”
Now, however, his income in one year has leapt up to 1.2 million Br, he calculates, assuming that he rents out his sound system for at least 10 concerts.
He said that he rents out his system for a range of 6,000 Br for weddings and 120,000 Br for concerts.
The 6,000Br could be increased to 18,000 Br if he takes a sound crew to support him at the wedding. The transport cost and fee for assistant workers increases the rental fee.
Like Zerihun, Dj Dani contemplated the advantage of the wedding season. The income Zerihun earns, is, however, proportionally lower than what Dani achieves.
“This season gave me a big return,” Dani teased. “We are so busy now.”
He went on to explain that the rental price has increased by 20pc this June.
The sound system must be serviced, which is the main task of the sound man, in addition to adjusting the volume of the sound and ensuring quality.
“We believe that we give a better service with a different capacity of sound system, depending on the size of the event,” he said.
For weddings, the sound system will have a capacity of 500 watts. He also has 13,000-watt sound system, which is used for concerts and large gatherings.
DJ Dani also rents to other sound system operators and Dj Zelalem Fikre Silassie is one his customers.
Dj Zelalem rented the smaller sound system for 6,000 Br, after he contacted Dani to use it for weddings that last for five to six hours.
He too is busy this season as there are so many weddings demanding his services this season.
“When this time has passed, I will be idle,” Zelalem explains. “I have to use the money I collect during this period, so have to work as hard as possible.”
The sum he charges for a wedding is between 20,000 Br and 30,000 Br – 12,000 Br more than what DJ Dani charges.
“Mine is a bit more expensive, because of the system rent and the payment for crews,” he said.
A couple, Hiwan and Henok, who had hired Dj Zelalem to play at their wedding, thought the additional expense was worth the while. In fact, they said it topped the list of things they thought should be included to make their wedding a joyous event.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Hiwan. “So, I believe that we should not miss out on it.”
The couple was initially simply going to use a flash drive and speaker, but ultimately decided that it would not be possible.
“We had to enjoy our wedding day at any cost,” Henok said. “And the 20,000 Br we incurred for the rental of the system was, therefore, a sound decision.”
Wedding guests, who were not aware of the cost incurred, said that the epic mood of the bride and the groom should be expressed through music. They believe that to make a wedding joyous, there will, of course, be a cost to incur.
“I enjoy the music aspect of wedding ceremonies,” said Saba Bezabih, a guest at Hiwan and Henok’s wedding. “A calm ceremony could not express the excitement.”
Guests’ enjoyment and adopting to the new “Wedding by DJ”, pushed prices higher.
Giving testimony to this rise in the price of sound system rentals is Abiy Legesse, owner of Abiy Electronic Shop at Yirga Haile commercial building.
“This month the rental fee is increasing,” he said. “I am importing mixers, microphones and amplifiers from China,” he said without disclosing prices.
However, the price tags displayed on his range of speakers showed prices of 10,000 Br to 20,000 Br, with a profit margin of approximately 500 Br to 800 Br, respectively.
The average price indicated in the popular Amazon online shopping platform in the past month is widely varied.
Microphones can be priced up to 10,000 dollars, while stereos cost from 90 dollars to 11,000 dollars, with mixers and speakers going up to 11,500 dollars and 40,000 dollars respectively.
In the year 2014/15, the country imported 12 million dollars’ worth of sound systems – up 37 pc compared to the previous year. This also represents a four-fold increase from import levels in 2010.
Abiy claims that the majority of his sales are to those who run a rental business. The price he sets for a mixer is 8,000 Br, while microphones and amplifiers fetch 4,000 Br and 2,500 Br, respectively.
“Since May, the price for microphones and amplifiers has increased by 50 Br and 120 Br, respectively,” he added.
Beginning his business two years ago with 200,000 Br in start-up capital, Abiy has amassed half a million Birr.
Sound systems and businesses that provide other wedding services know the wisdom of taking advantage of the peak season. From August to January, the decrease in the number of weddings coincides with a decline in the rental price of sound systems, though there is a shorter wedding season that takes place around Timket (the Epiphany) in January.
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