Guitar virtuoso Michael Hailu, a long time member and musical director of Jano Band, has always marched to his own drum, following his own musical journey. Michael is gaining wide critical acclaim and attracting legions of fans. He has played a key role in the local music scene as a producer of many popular local artists such as Michael Belayneh, Teddy Afro and Abinet Agonafir. With his signature guitar close by, and his warm, open personality in full display, the 28-year-old shares his experiences to SAMSON BERHANE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER, inside his studio, about music, life and how he became interested in playing the guitar by watching a video of Michael Jackson and his guitarist. With his unique sound and contribution to the advancement of Ethiopian music, it is easy to predict why he is indeed a star in the making.
Fortune: What inspired you to become an artist?
I have loved the sound of a guitar since my younger days. I discovered Jennifer Batten play in a Michael Jackson concert and I was impressed. How could I not be that, when I was discovering something unique and beautiful? For the longest time, playing with my guitar became my best memorable hours well spent.
Then I also discovered other kinds of music, including gospel and popular music. For me, music is something that takes you away to moments that mean something for you. It takes me back to the days I would walk into a church and receive some peace of mind. As far as popular music is concerned, I first became a member of a group, founded by popular artist Dawit Tsige.
Q: Do you recall the excitement you had when your work came out?
I most definitely do. It was my effort with Abel Mulugeta on the album “Tegerime” and then I got to work with Teddy Afro. That was a milestone moment for me. It is very hard to identify which song made me known to the public. I worked in many bands, however, my work with Michael Belayneh, the song Tizita must have been the one that made me, humbly, a household name.
Q: Jano is known for its unique sound.
Before my work with Jano, I was mainly interested in rock music. That is more of my style. Jano has a sound that is mixed, a reflection of our diversity in contemporary, jazz, and soul music and gospel.
I brought the idea to the group. However, it was Bill Laswell (former partner of Gigi), a famous American producer, who worked with the likes of U2, who brought us together. Since he was our producer at the time, we followed suit and accepted his advice. We are known to experiment, to discover all unique styles.
Q: Ermais T. Amelga is known to have been the band’s early supporter
He was our sponsor since the inception of the band, in finance and practical advice. I don’t know how much he spent on us, but it estimated to be in the millions. While he is not supporting us financially, our friendship has continued. Being an artist is hard. Ethiopia has yet to have a mechanism to pay its artists adequately. I don’t recall how much I earned when I started but it was nominal. Since I joined Jano, we were earning a salary from a company named Trio Entertainment, which was owned by Ermias Amelga, Bill Laswell and Addis Gessese. Right now, Jano is independent and has no affiliation with the company.
We parted ways with Addis Gessesse, as we had many disagreements on directions and strategies. He was very busy and we had disagreements on many things. In addition, there were financial issues. The money was a lot but it is not a big issue compared with the other issues.
Q: How did your family accept your fame?
It was hard. Our culture has a certain misconception when it comes to musicians. Most see art not as a profession but a luxury that is expensive to own and practice. But they understood I had a passion for it and they allowed me to pursue it fully.
I left home when I turned 20 years old. I had a lot of pressure and it was hard to cope with family responsibilities. I was spending all my spare time in the studio. I somehow drifted away and become very dedicated to my work.
But I am now more content, as both a father and husband. My wife is a poet. I don’t want to decide the future career of my daughter but I want her to decide that for herself. It does not really have to be art, whatever she wants.
Q: Is music about talent or certification?
Music is based on talent and discipline. One can’t detach one from the other. There is no one certificate that says you are an artist. Having a certificate for being a musician is great, but not having one doesn’t stop any from becoming an artist.
You can take me for example, even though I went to various music schools, I didn’t graduate from any of these institutions. That didn’t stop me from reaching my goals. I aspired to be a unique artist, and I think I did well for myself.
I am talented and I can perform to my given ability. So having any acknowledgment is good but at the end, that is not what it’s all about. One also needs dedication. I sacrificed my time and invested a lot to be where I am at today. I had a dream and I pursued it.
I believe my work can be seen as a certification – acknowledgment from any organization placed on a piece of a paper is not that significant. In order to do the job, you need to contribute a unique product to the public, if one can’t do that, then that person is not in the right profession.
Q: Reflect with me the school you went through?
I joined university in 2008. I was first assigned to study Economics, but I dropped out. I joined Yared Music School. I did not stay for long. Then, I became a businessman.
After awhile I joined the African Jazz Music School. I then dropped out, due to time constraint, but went back to business. But that didn’t stop me from trying to discover and study the skills of music and do music on the side.
Q: What was the main reason for dropping out for Yared Music School?
I was always looking forward to learning how to play the guitar but they wanted me to discover other instruments. I was assigned to work on the violin. But Violin was not doing it for me. I was more attracted to the guitar. Since I wasn’t able to find what I was looking for, I left. I had to chase my dream elsewhere.
Q: You don’t go out on the international stage as much as other artists do. Young artists are usually sought after on the international stage. Why is that?
The work itself isn’t easy. It’s hard, and it’s tiring. Honestly speaking, I spend most of my time on my work, even missing sleep for it. That’s normal for me. For going overseas, I just haven’t had the chance because of my work but I wouldn’t say no. At some point, I did try to go around and travel. That’s one of the reasons I joined Jano, so that I could have those kinds of experiences with my friends. We wanted to make our style mainstream here and outside of Ethiopia and we’re still working towards that goal.
Q: Locally, Jano concerts are popular and the tickets sell quickly, but you don’t organize concerts frequently. Why do you think that is?
That’s not just Jano. That’s the general atmosphere of the Ethiopian music industry. There are a lot of problems. I can’t say specifically but in my opinion, there is an issue of capacity to frequently organize concerts and festivals. For example, if investors could get involved in this area and help organize these kinds of platforms, there could be progress. The music distribution chain from the studio production to the listeners to the concertgoers is weak. Trying to get people to be interested from the first production is difficult. The overall Ethiopian music industry is very weak. It’s almost nonexistent. I think it will develop slowly over time. There are a lot of artists that want to do this kind of thing, not just Jano, but there are so many limitations that it’s difficult. But if these problems could be solved, it would be nice. If albums could have better outreach and were paid for properly and the artists got the payment that they were due, and the government could take a stake in the business and try to help elevate it to a better level, we could even have a better music scene than in other countries.
Q: What could the government do to help revive the industry?
They should have more of a focus on the industry. Lately, there are some things that the government has been doing to try to look into the problems. For example, the copyright situation in the country has been creating a big issue for artists. At this point, the government is trying to put a system in place to work with musicians and artists to try to improve the situation. Until now it was very bad. Even if it’s only a small progress, it does give hope for the future. It would be nice for the government to know us and recognize us. The musician’s association is very weak. They don’t have backing.
Q: The Ethiopian music association has reflected the lack of participation of artists in advocating for their interest. Why is not there a mechanism to do better?
The structure isn’t there for that level of involvement. The structure has to be built first. There isn’t that kind of structure in the country. There needs to be a formal platform. We work and the benefits go to someone else. The money goes to other people, not us. First, that brings morale exhaustion. People don’t think about being associated, they think of how to eat. If there was a structure, there wouldn’t be this kind of problem. If the entertainment industry got some attention from the government like other sectors have, we could support our country the same way it supported us. What made America America is its entertainment industry and its ability to export its culture around the world. In our country, the situation is the opposite. Slowly we are losing our heritage and adopting other cultures. The audience that we call our own will start to follow foreign things and the Ethiopian music and culture will die out.
Q: In your music, people tend to have two views. Some say you brought up a new trend of mixing the old and the new. Others say that you’re distorting Ethiopian cultural music.
Making music and playing music is our part. It’s something that comes from emotion and we play what we feel. I participate in other music other than with Jano. I use other styles, like Ethiopian styles. I try many things, I always will. The main thing is that it’s a matter of emotion. It comes by itself and is organic. I don’t think about deliberately doing this or that.
There were the challenges we talked about before in the industry. However, there are other complaints about the industry. For instance, some people say that it lacks originality. People copy each other rather than do anything that is original.
I think it’s quite true. Because people want to do the popular thing. It’s a financial issue. People do whatever they can to survive. There is not a lot of assistance for musicians to protect their earnings. What made it like that was the lack of a structure. There is a lot of competition. which has a good side and a bad side. Anyone can get up and be a producer or a singer, because there is not a platform or a structure. Artists also don’t get paid for what they produce. What they get working in their country is so much less than what they get abroad. For example, what’s popular and sells well abroad are songs about missing your country. Every singer has songs like that. The rights of artists are not respected in Ethiopia. It all creates a blockage for creativity. In any other profession, you expect that what you create and what you do will be respected. That’s not true in the music industry. Artists in this country live through charity. That’s not acceptable for me. In any and every sector, there is music. But instead of following their emotions, wouldn’t it be better to chase what will make them money and help their survival?
Q: Doesn’t this endanger the art?
Very much so. Some of the things that we hear today I’m certain that when we look back 20 or 30 years from now we’ll feel very disappointed. I don’t mean everyone. There are so many who are careful and work very hard for their art. Because the ones before us did their own thing in their own time and we’re copying it again. When I think about whether our music will still be listened to in 20 or 30 or 40 years like we listen to music made 20 or 30 years ago, I get very worried.
Q: A lot of times, drug abuse is brought up in the music industry. You’re a young man, you’re energetic and active and sacrifice for your work. Some associate that with drug abuse.
No, I’m 100pc clean from any kind of addiction. There is no drugs. I gave up smoking. The job is stressful and back in the day, I made some mistakes. It’s better to try things and then move through them and past them. I may have tried things when I was young because I was young. However, compared to the rest of the world, in Ethiopia there are no real addictions.
Q: There are still issues that people bring up, and you’re clean but many people in the industry use drugs.
I don’t judge those who use drugs because I know how hard this job is and how stressful and how hard it is I’m not surprised. If situations were properly addressed, like the things I brought up before, it wouldn’t get to that point. The issues that I brought up before are decisive. They relate with everything. I can say that honestly.
Q: What can the public expect next from you?
Many things. With Jano, we’re getting ready to release our next album. We can expect it in 2017. Outside of that, there will be things that I do myself. I’m working on my own music, vocally. Not necessarily separately from Jano, but I’m still working so I can’t say whether it will be with them or not. It’s going to take time but my own album will be released.
Q: Won’t that create a conflict with your agreement with Jano?
Not at all. This is just an experiment for me to see if I can do it. Up to now I just produce albums. There are four singers in Jano and I’m a guitarist and a musical director and producer. Outside of that, regarding my own vocals, it’s not my vocals that I contribute to the band so it’s not a problem and the other members don’t have an issue with it. Our members are open minded as long as Jano is my main priority, and it is. But outside of Jano, just like I produce albums for other people, I’m going to make one for myself.
Q: What genre of music will you do?
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