Oldies Swagger, Newbies Stutter

Ethiopian music has always been a case of individual excellence more than institutional effort. From the Ethiopian music’s king of kings, the late Tilahun Gesesse, to the crown prince, Teddy Afro, there have been individual artists who outshined their generations without having the necessary education or institutional backing.

Artists are born not made. They enter this world with a unique ability to express the seen and, even, the unseen through creative works. This fraction of the population, with their innate ability to represent the natural world, communicate ideas and evoke emotions through their masterful use of line, shape, colour and composition. Of course, formal education and training enable one not only to have awareness in a particular profession, but also awards the capacity to understand and penetrate the global community.

Art and artists have been particularly suffering from an unfair treatment for long. As a society, we have been mostly disinclined to encourage entrepreneurial thinking, especially in past times. Back in the old days, it had been challenging for talented artists to pursue their passions due to the disparaging label that had been attached to singers and practicians of other performing arts. As a result, the nation’s art scene had been dependent on the hands of a few brave individuals who were bold enough to sacrifice their lives for the cause.

Paradoxically, it was during those trying times that most of the greatest songs and singers of the country were produced. The 1960s and ’70s were best known as the golden age of Ethiopian music. The era was not only famous for harbouring some of the best vocalists but was also endowed with great composers like Mulatu Asetatke, a.k.a. the Father of Ethio-jazz. Young visionaries like Amha Eshete started a recording company, which went on to produce albums that transcended time. These included some of the famous Ethiopiques collections, produced by Francis Falceto, a contemporary French musicologist and producer, specialising in World Music. The Frenchman has helped promote Ethiopian music internationally since 1986.

But what makes a song great, anyway?

According to SongTown, a community established to help prospective songwriters, amongst other things, states that a great song is one that connects with people and can stand the test of time. Ageless songs stay in the minds of millions of listeners for a long time because they can identify with individuals of all backgrounds. Good music will be relevant centuries after it was written, as witness the symphonies of Mozart or Beethoven. Despite exceptions, great songs are here to stay.

Many Ethiopians claim that what made songs great started to disappear after the Ethiopian revolution of 1974. As with Dergue’s approach of a command economy, it was just like the communist junta to centralise every aspect of life, so that every individual would be subordinate to the regime. Thus, artists were expected to be the vanguard of the revolution. It was their duty to praise the fruits of the monarchy’s downfall.

Surprisingly, the system was not devoid of great artists. When we look at the different talent shows on TV, almost all the young contestants choose to perform songs released before they were born; the same music produced under the nose of the military junta. Credit should be given to the great Roha Band, and other music producers of the era, for their efforts to shine a light on talented vocalists under such unfriendly conditions.

Let us fast forward to the present. When I was listening to a record of Netsanet Melesse’s best collections, I was amazed by the number of professionals engaged in the writing of the lyrics, melodies, composition and accompaniment.

But, just to add flavour, I decided to give a recently released album a go. On the album cover was a young singer called Esubalewe Yetayewe, and the title of his album, Tiretaye (meaning, “my heartbeat”). Right there I learned that Esubalew had composed all the melodies, written the lyrics of the 14 tracks and that a single studio composer had made the arrangements. This sums up the whole story behind the poor quality of today’s music scene.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that vocalists are not capable of writing melodies and lyrics of songs. I am just highlighting the importance of a collective effort.

As they say, “two heads are better than one.”

I understand younger artists are forced to work with minimal human power, due to cost implications. A burden music shop owners used to share in the olden days, which, thanks to grave copyright violations, has gone extinct. It is no wonder that victors of different idol shows disappear after their last winning act. The success of these shows should not be measured by the number of contestants nor the round of competitions it had managed to stage. It should instead be measured by the introduction of singers capable of penetrating the music world with their own novel styles. What is more disappointing is witnessing younger artists mutilating decent old songs under the guise of remixes.

But there are financially capable artists who shall assume the moral responsibility to produce internationally competitive music that can connect with the people and successfully stands the test of time. Ethiopian music is a highly localised affair which is almost unrecognised in the global arena. The fact is that our music is different from other African styles, most probably because Ethiopia has never been colonised. The music is pure, unblemished with outside influence, neither American hip-hop nor West African music.

With a population of more than 90 million, and over 70 different nations and nationalities with distinctive cultures and languages, there is no excuse for professional musicians not to be experimental. There is no reason they do not advance the Habesha music just as it had been attempted in the 1960s.

The fruits of this would be songs as good as the oldies. For those sceptical, I offer Washehu Ende (did I lie?).


By Abraham Negussie
Abraham Negussie (areyam2004@gmail.com) is a public relations and communication officer at Awash Bank. He has a blog called - 'aglegele.wordpress.com'. The writer would like to humbly reiterate that the viewpoint is his personal reflection.

Published on Oct 10,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 911]



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