They have music and the arts in their genes and their spiritual values as well as family bonds seem to have put them on a solid foundation. They know they are brand name material and in this exclusive interview, SAMRAWIT TASSEW, FORTUNE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF discovers the ingredients of their success.
Fortune: How did you start your journey?
H: It started in church, long before I was accepted into Yared Music School. Where I grew up art and music were serious matters. My mainstream career started in 2004 when I stepped foot in Yared Music School.
I can count three milestones in over a decade: my first album in 2004, establishing Mehari Brothers and now my new album, Henok and Mehari Brothers, a culmination of the ten years and a fresh start for me and my band. We have more to give than we have given so far.
What have you given so far?
H: A new dimension to the music industry. Before Mehari Brothers no one associated with bands but vocalists. Bands before us were never followed after. It was a trailer to a vocalist. And bands had no life, no engagement with the music they played. Mehari Brothers featured singers – promotion tags changed to Mehari Brothers and XYZ or XYZ with Mehari Brothers. It was an added value.
The seven young dreads responding to their music [while performing] were a new look of the band in the country. We jump, dance and smile while playing – that was unique. Now at least we have one other brand that followed suit. By saying this we are not claiming perfection. There were genius musicians who killed the performance with cold feet; we are not like that, we show that music is performed as its own melody demands.
Do you have a consistent value or idea behind this new approach, or it just happened to be that way?
H: We have a defined vision and purpose and are using it as a tool to navigate values and send messages we believe in. We have strict standards when it comes to that. We have the guts to turn down offers with big money, if we do not agree with the message or pattern of doing things. We refrained from featuring many musicians with bad messaging. We believe we have a responsibility of the generation we come from, a burden of our faith for example. Our religion refrained us from many bad things.
What is your measurement for good and bad?
H: As a stand we believe biblical Christianity has the right values. If something defies that we are not part of it. We do not pick on denominations but ideas and values. Through my music I should be able to pass my message and the audience should be able to choose.
As a musician one I know one thing – there is no way everybody likes you and no way everybody hates you; you have to be you to connect with those who agree with you.
Wouldn’t this be a challenge considering the audience or did you have an identified, targeted audience?
H: As I said it is not me defining my audience, but a process. I give what comes from within and if I touch the hearts of people they follow me. It is through this process that my audience will be defined. The process has to keep on rolling, I have to be active to engage and identify my audience. But first I have to define myself as I am.
What is your stumbling block from keeping it going?
H: Me and Mehari Brothers keep a blindfold for stumbling blocks. There might be stumbles but they never block us.
We had stumbles from the Church, which we overcame. And now this chapter has showed us a new stumble. The way the industry operates is so traditional. Music and art are just another commodity that you value after bargaining and manipulation, the ‘Merkato way’. There is no business atmosphere shaped for the level the music has reached. The dominant way now – ‘sponsorship’ run by big CEO’s of big companies – is still in that trap. Now the music has grown so big that [it’s time to focus on] the business side of it. No recording labels have been established over long years. It is unpredictable and has not started to respect its own essence, MUSIC! It even operates in an island, not learning from examples like Sony and Michael Jackson’s marriage in terms of marketing and promotion.
Reflect on specific challenges that you went through. You broke out of a very strict church induced tradition? Tell us about it.
H: It is a red line between music; secular and spiritual. Instead of contemplating on what it is, people take sides and wage war. We stood in that war straight. We brought the discussion to the table. Thought we cannot say we won, we have started it and a few others followed – and they are good. I am so happy, we went through that. Lots are unhappy, but we did what we believe in and we believe we are right. I just did my thing. And we are doing our thing.
Do you have preferences among your things?
H: It is hard to say I do, but practically you have to choose one above the other in certain settings – audience, message, rhythm – it does not come in one package. For my album 790 I wrote close to 60 songs, only to pick 12 of them.
I love the remaining ones as much, but I had to choose, and I did that on different grounds. I like it when I say ‘ykiray bet‘ and people share my idea. When it is a love song the public assumes it is for my wife; yea, of course. It would be better if everything comes right out of your heart, I do not like singing fiction or it has to be the best fiction ever, to which can connect. I love the slow jams just because they are slow. There are fast tracks which have good messaging and amazing energy, I like them too.
What is the number one track in the album?
H: All are number one. But one song named ‘Fikir Yishalal‘ is unique for me. It is not because it is better or substandard [in comparison to] the others; I just love the message. “Don’t take your destiny for granted is the message”.
Who are your Mom and Dad?
H: They are both in the arts – a singer and saxophone player. My mom was a dancer in Hager Fiker Theatre. They are both artists; in a way they passed a value to us that music is an integral part of [life]. If somebody loses that… My dad sees a problem in that.
How many boys?
Don’t you have sisters?
H: Not at home, but spread all over the country. All the girls and ladies – our fans out there are our sisters. No we don’t. Our sisters are in Ethiopia society.
Do you live together?
H: No we only work together.
Are four of you working together? People say don’t mix business with pleasure – Don’t you find it difficult to mix business with family?
H: It is difficult; I know most people think just because we are brothers, it’s a walk on – a bed of roses; but it is not. We have meetings and prayer times that help a lot. I always told them there is no brotherhood when we get on the stage.
In the band I am a leader; I do not allow late coming or skipping rehearsals. In a band of seven, four brothers are just one as a member. There is no four.
We have seen band members deciding to go solo every now and then your band, is it blood is thicker than water?
H: To tell you the truth; that can be a factor. But the real thing is the brand that connects us. If we are not together we are not Mehari Brothers. Most of all it is the values that we deeply share.
Brand – Do you think you have reached the stage to be a brand?
A: Yes! I boldly say Yes. Our name is a household name.
What is your vision in the brand? Is it limited to the music?
H: The music takes the biggest share. In a country where releasing an album requires is a huge deal of work, it would be too much of a stride to think of a record label, but it is a matter of time. We want to take our music international before becoming a local record label.
Can you franchise or replicate Mehari Brothers as a brand, as a mark?
H: If it is a record label in which we can find extraordinary talents then yes, of course. That would be a blessing. If not we would like to have control as much as possible.
How much did you spend on production of the album?
H: It is not calculated yet, but it is close to 400,000 Br so far. It could be higher. The band covers up to 80pc but recently a major sponsor has got in.
How about the price your wife and kids pay?
H: I make sure my music does not tax anyone, not my family. So I was very careful. But her ideas and support are amazing. I work hard to keep the balance. I don’t want to give her a headache which she, for sure, does not deserve. I enjoy the challenge.
How did you two meet?
H: In the church where I get most of my good things – music and her, and love and marriage.
Are your brothers married?
H: I have not been invited to any wedding.
After all this, are you ready to be not liked?
H: The one thing my heart tells me, is that I am ready. I know challenges will never stop us. I would not expect all people to love it, it is not healthy to expect [that] at all because everybody’s test is different.
How will you measure the success of your album?
H: Feedback: even one really counts.
What is your expectation in financial returns? How much will you profit from the album?
H: Income flows from shows not albums. Albums have no money. I am not expecting from the album but it will boost my career. This will bring a performer out of me.
With you shining, don’t you see a danger to the Mehari Brothers brand? Like what happened to the Jackson Fives and Michael Jackson?
H: To avoid this we gave this project a name; we called it Henok and Mehari Brothers. This album was mainly a result of my effort. I did this to work in freedom. As a writer I wanted to be free. If we write as a band, it will be a band album. The difference between the Jackson Five and us is that the Jackson Five were all singers. We are not. For instance, Robel is a favorite guitarist for many musicians. Whenever Teddy Afro has Abugida show, Robel always plays the guitar. He has that much potential. I am a musician who provides vocals and plays keyboard. We each have our own individual package. Each of us has an independent line of career. Even if we sit in a studio and just be producers we have so many things to do. We will not play in clubs constantly we just jam secretly. That will let us be missed.
How do you see Henok’s coming to the front? What do you think will it do to the brand?
R: You can say Henok has always been in the front since we started ten years ago. We prioritized our steps and vision and this did not come as a surprise. Just because we are identified as one in three, does not mean we will deny him the chance to discover himself. He gigs before our band, and now he adds it up to our band. Your own shadow can never cover you.
Will you continue being the Mehari Brothers?
Will you repeat what Henok did? Produce an album of your own?
R: Not as vocalist. But having my own guitar music could be a matter of time.
Will a Mehari Brothers member gets banned if he plays with other musicians?
L: So far we are not thinking about it. We will see what the future brings and decide. Though we havd an album now, the band will continue in its old path.
You have waited 10 years for one album; how long will we wait for the next? 10? 20 years?
L: No. the difficult one is always the first one. I think the intervals will be shorter from now onwards.
Will you do concerts?
L: No doubt.
When should we expect you [onstage]?
L: Now we have to release the CD, after that we have to give it time to get through to the audience. Organising a concert is not that easy but we will do it.
Did you contribute money to the production?
L- In-kind Yes.
If this album and the concerts to follow pay off, what would you do with it [your profits]?
L: I want to buy a four-wheel drive. We each already have one. Personally I would like to have a bigger car.
What is the change you want to have in your band for the future?
L: We believe in God. Our confidence is by him. Then, the audience has to hear it before I say anything about the future. Everything I say until now is by God’s confidence and hard work.
Thank you all we love you. God bless you.
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