Stellar pianist Girma Yifrashew, a world-renowned performer and composer has been honing his craft and fine tuning his sound for over 20 years. Girma has been playing the piano with passion while gaining fans from places that classical music and jazz originated, even though he started playing the piano at the age of 16. He has carried the torch in taking Ethiopian music to the international scene through classical music. With not one, but two pianos in his home and a wide and welcoming smile the 49-year old father of three sat down with MAHLET WORKAYEHU, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER, for a light-hearted discussion.
A late beginner in the world of piano, Girma Yifrashewa was 16 years old when he first laid eyes on a piano, after he heard the sound of it playing. He was hooked and at that moment made the decision that the piano was the instrument he would master. And he sure did.
He would see life no other than a pianist, despite a pressing question to make a choice for a career other than music.
“It would be difficult to imagine what I will do if music was not there,” he told Fortune.
We are all born with different talents, and it is a matter of finding and developing them. Maybe if there were no piano, I would have been in other arts such as theatre. I am happy I ended up making classical music and playing the piano.
The classical pianist, has a very warm and welcoming personality, with a disarming smile. Residing in the quiet neighbourhood of Ayat, an upscale area east of Addis Abeba, he looked a bit overworked, preparing for his concert in the coming few months. But, his mood quickly changed once on the interview, engaged, laughing and smiling ear to ear.
I try to focus, which is very crucial. When you are playing for one hour or 75 minutes, it can be the most tiring thing. There needs to be no distraction. I try to calm myself down before performing and be alone so that I can think of my music and my way of interpretation.
Girma has been taking his music around the world and playing in the United States, Europe and Africa. He is well-known on the international classical music scene with his experience that stretches over two decades. His room was well-decorated with accolades and awards hanging on the wall behind his upright piano which weighs close to 250Kg. His most recent award was from University of Los Angeles (UCLA).
In one performance normally it is 75 minutes. But we have to break it up into two parts; there needs to be a pause for the audience as well as the performer. But I can play 40 minutes non-stop, then there is a 10 or 15 minutes break then I continue to the second half. It is about an hour and a half.
“It would be difficult to imagine what I will do if music was not there,” Girma Yifrashew.
A native of Addis Abeba, where he grew up until leaving for Bulgaria to study music in the late 80s, his journey in music began with the Kirar, a traditional instrument he still keeps close to him, on a chair next to his piano.
I like the northern part of Ethiopia. Hawassa is beautiful, but it is becoming hectic, kind of like Addis now. I like calm cities. I have been to Gonder a couple of times, and I think that is my favourite city.
He whipped out his laptop to show pictures of him clad in traditional Ethiopian outfits he prefers to wear when performing at events, and other pictures he had taken while performing.
I am into iPhone. I am not that much picky with electronics, but I started using an iPhone. I am comfortable with it and got used to it very well. I think I would not change it.
I use Facebook. I do not use Twitter that much. And of course, I have my website that I use to communicate.
I like to read books; with movies, I am very selective. I like to be on a journey that is realistic, and the story of the film needs to touch on issues that are relevant to real life. But, I do not give much time to movies. I prefer to be alone and write music.
With books, I like to read inspirational and motivational stuff which my wife also likes. I share it with her. Something which can motivate us in trying times. There are lots of books written on these topics.
I think it was St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish celebration. It was at the Radisson Blu Hotel.
“That is my dream, more than anything in life, to have a grand piano I own,” Girma Yifrashew.
Fortune: Would you prefer to travel back in time or travel to the future?
I very much enjoyed my time as a student in Bulgaria, I was there for seven years, from 1987 to 1994. I would love to bring that time back.
In the future, of course, I want to touch all parts of the world with my music, not as a tourist, but, as a kind of missionary introducing my music all over the world. I would like to do both.
I do not want to wear any accessories when I am performing. I try to get rid of everything like that before going on stage. I even take off my wedding ring. I once forgot it on the piano, and I had a bad experience with that.
I concentrate on what I am wearing. I try to match that with my music. As you can see from my album covers, I wear traditional clothes, but I mix it with non-traditional clothes because my music is also a combination of different cultures.
Girma was very child-like when he talked about his music and music in general; it was clear that he was passionate about his musicianship.
I listen to jazz soul music, which I equally respect as classical music. At the moment I am listening to Vanessa Rubin. She is my favourite singer, and her music is always relaxing. I also listen to music by different composers and Ethiopian music. It is my base, my soul and the inspiration of my music. Pop music and Ethiopian traditional music are for dancing.
That is Medina ena Zelasegna. [He turns to his piano and starts playing the tune.] It is typical Ethiopia. The moment I listen to this music, it is Ethiopia. We have something so very original. If you listen to Bati and Tizita, you find these are common with jazz and other traditions. But Ambasel and Anchoye are very typical to Ethiopia; I am happy we have something of our own.
I have written a piece of music, Sememen, based on this scale. It is on my album Elilta, which has been featured by NPR as the best of the year in 2014. It became a favourite because it is written in Anchoye; it was original and enjoyable for listeners there. I think it is the reward I got for the love I have for this type of Ethiopian music.
He was in a small room that looked intentionally built for a single person. But there were two pianos which implied that he would have company there once in a while and play the piano.
It would be the pianist Vladmir Horowitz. I would ask him about his techniques on how he can achieve such success with his music, and I would try to learn from him so that I can also pass down the techniques to others.
Whenever I travel, I try to discover pianos. Even when I am visiting lovely houses, I always think of pianos. I would love to play the piano whenever I find one.
On the walls were pictures of himself playing at concerts or just sightseeings in different parts of the world. There were pictures of his wife and three children, too. Above the piano was a painting of the great composer Beethoven, who Girma is a big fan.
No one has asked me if I wanted to own a grand piano. It is the one with the wings you find at the Sheraton Addis. That is my dream, more than anything in life, to have a grand piano I own.
If you are attached to a musical instrument, you would always like to have that instrument with you. You would want it to be used not only by yourself but to serve as an inspiration to other people, especially young people. If I had a grand piano, I would have placed it somewhere in the centre of the city, and play it for children. I would have them be inspired to play the piano.
I am thinking to have it at the National Theatre, which is the best auditorium in Ethiopia. But there is no facility, and there is no piano. I am trying to bring a piano from somewhere, and it is a bit challenging.
There is a kind lady who offered me the piano from Adama (Nazareth). Giving a piano is like letting someone use your house for some time, which is not an easy thing to do. You need to have a professional transporting the piano which is why I am bringing a technician to help bring it. When you get to the venue, you have to tune it and return it tuned as well. It is a very sophisticated instrument.
Girma usually rehearses for more than five hours a day when he has upcoming concerts. He says his neighbours enjoy the music and it usually relaxes and gives them a good night sleep. They come close to the gate with their coffee where they can hear the melody well.