Ethiopian Music On the Horizon

It was eight months back when Walter Rizzi, manager of Villa Verde Restaurant, received a call from the organisers of Rototom Sunsplash Spain, one of the largest European reggae festivals, inviting him to take part in the concert.

Walter is one of the founders of Rototom Sunsplash, which was initially launched in Italy but later moved to Benicàssim, Spain. Founded in 1994, the festival takes place in summer for 10 days on a 50ha open air space. It is reported that up to 300,000 tickets have been sold for the festival, which incorporates campsites, forums, an artisan market, an art symposium and cultural villages.

Since its launch, the festival has hosted 2,500 shows with 15,000 artists from 120 countries. The United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognised the festival as an Exemplary Event between 2001 and 2010. And so far 14 countries have hosted this festival, on top of the main event in Spain.

Accepting the offer warmly, Walter travelled to Spain in November 2016 to deal with the organisers. He processed the deal along with Addis Gessese, a well-known Ethiopian manager for artists who previously managed Jano Band, a group of young Ethiopian rock musicians, and has a strong attachment to the Bob Marley family.

After a couple of discussions and negotiations with the organisers, Walter and Addis succeeded in concluding the deal of taking a crew of Ethiopian artists to the festival to be held between August 12 and 19, 2017, with the theme of ‘Celebrating Africa’.

Upon conclusion of the deal, Walter and his production team – which includes Michel Temteme, Villa Verde Restaurant, Bunifu Advertising and Summer Media – recruited Ethiopian musicians who are going to perform at the festival, representing Ethiopia.

The crew number is 25 and is composed of singers, a sound engineer, band members, and a camera and production crew for live recording. The musicians have been rehearsing at Villa Verde for the past two months.

For the selection process, they listed Ethiopian reggae artists that they believed are the “prominent ones”. They selected the artists themselves while the normal screening process to attend Rototom Sunsplash is already set by the organisers. As per the criteria, the public has the chance to vote which artist is to be included in the crew representing the country.

“As we did not have much time to follow the normal procedure, we selected the musicians ourselves,” said Walter.

Hailemikael Getnet a.k.a. Haile Roots, Henock Mehari, Yohannis Bekele a.k.a. Jonny Ragga, Samuel Berhanu a.k.a. Sami Dan, Tsedeniya Birhanu (Tsedi), Yohanna Ashenafi (Yo Yo), Yohannes Wubeshet (Ras Johny), and Chelina Yeshiwondim are the Ethiopian artists who are going to take part in the festival.

The Mehari Brothers, one of the prominent Ethiopian bands established by three brothers, including Henock, will back up the artists.

Established by Berhanu Getaneh, former president of United Bank, Haileluel Tamiru, partner of Deloitte Consulting Plc, and Michael Belayneh, a well-known Ethiopian artist, BHM Club & Lounge that owns Villa Verde Addis Restaurant is the main producer of this project entitled Ethnopia.

Currently BHM is owned by Haileluel and Walter.

“We launched the project with three main aims,” says Michel Temteme, a member of the production team. “Promoting the country’s music, tourism and culture.”

This crew will be the first team to perform on this stage, apart from Aster Aweke and Mahmoud Ahmed, who previously performed at Rototom Sunsplash individually. Ethnopia, a brand to promote Ethiopian music and culture, will also bring traditional instruments including the Kirar, Kebero and Masinqo to the festival along with the musicians.

The artists will perform three times during the 10-day festival including on the grand opening day. The Mehari Brothers will back up David Hinds, the founder and lead singer of Steel Pulse, the well-known Grammy-winning reggae band, for two and a half hours. The crew will also appear on stage for 45 minutes on August 13th and for two and a half hours on August 14th.

Before their departure to Spain, the eight artists and the Mehari Brothers have been performing in weekly series of schedules at Villa Verde, since June 10, 2017, to promote the festival. Then, on July 22, the eight artists will perform together at Villa Verde.

Along with the musicians, companies that produce unique Ethiopian products, such as coffee, honey, Ethiopian wine and traditional cuisine, will travel to the festival to promote the culture of the country.

In realising the Ethnopia project, Ethiopian Airlines, the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO), the Embassy of Spain to Ethiopia, Heineken Brewery and Garden of Coffee sponsored the organisers in cash and kind.

While members of the business companies travel to promote their products, representatives of ETO and Ethiopian Airlines will travel to promote the cultural and tourist sites of the country by having a booth at the festival.

But this is not the only thing that the organisers are aspiring to – beyond taking the crew to Spain, the production team is working to bring the concert to Addis Abeba by the beginning of next year.

BHM is dealing with the organisers of Rototom Sunsplash to partner with them in bringing the festival to Ethiopia in January 2018, themed ‘Ethiopia Rototom’. Their target is to attract up to 10,000 foreigners to come to Ethiopia in the beginning and up to 30,000 in the long term.

“We partnered with the organisers of Ethnopia with the main target of bringing the festival to be hosted in Ethiopia regularly,” said Yohannes Tilahun, chief executive officer of ETO, an autonomous government body which is entitled to promote and bolster the culture and tourism industry of the country.

The occasion will help the country to be a music hub. If the music comes to Addis Abeba as a regular festival, Ethiopian Airlines, ticketing companies, and accommodation facilities will benefit, according to Yohannes.

During the upcoming festival, the crew will not get paid, but their expenses will be covered by the organisers of the festival and sponsors. Rototom Sunsplash organisers partially cover the crew’s accommodation and air fares while the sponsors cover the remaining expenses.

“We aimed for long-term investment,” said Walter. “As a start, we are going to bring Ethiopian music to the global stage.”

“Earning money is not our priority, rather getting an international exposure,” said Henock Mehari, one of the artists who are going to perform at Rototom Sunsplash. He is also a front man of the Mehari Brothers Band.

The opportunity is one of the big ones for Henock, who previously attended the two editions of one of the big international stages, Abi-Reggae International Music Festival & Conference, which is held in Côte D’Ivoire.

“Ethiopian music is isolated,” said Henock. “Such kinds of opportunities will let us introduce the country’s music as well as ourselves to the world.”

Henock and the Band expect to partner with recording companies and collaborate with international artists.

“We will get a chance to meet inaccessible people,” Henock told Fortune.

On the other hand, Haileluel, co-founder of BHM Lounge, aims to have an annual concert which will have between 20,000 and 30,000 attendants and contribute significantly to tourism in the country.

This is not the first attempt in the country to organise a music festival with international artists and an international audience. One of them is Selam Festival, which was launched in 2010 by Selam Ethiopia and Yisakal Entertainment, headlining legendary local and international artists including Mahmoud Ahmed and Alpha Blondy.






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