Samuel Yirga is a young rising Ethiopian pianist who graduated from Addis Abeba University’s (AAU) Yared Music School eight years ago. He gained international recognition through his tours and recording with Dub Colossus, a.k.a Nick Page – the British Musician and producer – and he is named among 50 African Rising Stars by The African Report, a Paris-based Magazine, in its August-September 2014 edition, which described him as “A piano protégée”. His influences are traditional Ethiopian music, Herbie Hancock’s and Keith Jarrett’s American jazz, latin and classical music. Guzo, his first album – recorded partly in Addis Abeba and partly in the UK at Real World Studios – is mainly dominated by Ethiojazz and fuses Soul and Funk, and Solo, among others, with cosmopolitan feature vocalists. In this exclusive interview with Anteneh Derese, ASSIGNMENT EDITOR, Samuel shares perspectives on the meaning of his international recognition, the state of Ethiopian instrumental music and the media-music nexus. Excerpts:
ortune: The fame of Ethiopian instrumental musicians usually flows from outside to inside. We can mention Mulatu Astatke, Girma Yifrashewa and Ashenafi Kebede (PhD) as examples in this regard. The same thing has happened to you. Where do you think is the problem?
Samuel Yirga: I know about Mulatu Astatke from my childhood. I know how finely he has done and is doing. The media has given some coverage for him, but it was not in recognition of his greatness and it is not enough credit for him.
Mostly, the broadcast media uses his works as transitions between programs. Coming to myself, I live here in Ethiopia because I like to promote the country and I cannot do that living abroad. I go to other countries for shows to present my work to foreign audiences and work with colleagues abroad.
I love my country and I think I miss my family and friends. So I prefer to live here in Ethiopia. I started experimenting with my works when I was fourth year student; since then, I have faced different challenges, which emanate from family, musicians and other systemic problems in the country.
I live here withstanding several challenges, but even living here, foreign media knows much more about me than local media. I get promoted and respected by the foreign media. My fans are largely foreign nationals.
I feel sorry that this happens. Local media mostly does not give precise and sufficient information about us. I do not understand why we do not get respect from our own people so that we will have more energy to create.
Q: How do you see the development of Ethiopian music in general and the type of music you are engaged in, in particular?
There is change. I see very talented young people in Ethiopia. There is a good audience in Ethiopia, but I doubt that the musicians and the media are giving the public enough.
There are many talented individuals, but at the same time, musicians are not working to the creativity, standard and quality Ethiopian music deserves; and I see musicians focusing more on temporary sales.
Q: There were popular bands in Ethiopia in the 1950s/60s, and there were venues for interested and qualified individuals to engage in music. But now, we do not see that much commitment and facility. Why do you think this is happening?
There are different challenges. We do not work simply by ourselves. We deal and work with businessmen.
There are musicians who have visions and there are those who do not. When you give priority to the art, there are musicians who betray it.
In such circumstances, businessmen get the upper hand over the art and promote works and people who do not deserve that much. Hence, the challenge is on getting the right balance between business and art.
Musicians have to sacrifice something, but businessmen should also give respect to the art. There are venues suitable for musical works, but still the business aspect is winning.
Businessmen should not simply work to attract customers, but also to maintain them, which they cannot do without loving and respecting the art. I know businesses who could not sustain due to this problem.
Q: When you first entered into the Yared Music School, you were forced to play clarinet, though you were interested to play piano. This happened due to the belief in the School that a person who has short fingers cannot professionally play piano. Now you are an internationally recognised pianist, what is the opinion of those teachers who made you play clarinet at that time?
I do not have that much of a relationship with my teachers, except Feleke Hailu, a great musician, and I do not think he had that kind of attitude. In general, there are two major problems in the School’s recruitment process. One is the physical prejudice that the teachers have.
In foreign countries, we see children as young as four or five performing greatly with many musical instruments. When I entered the Yared Music School, I was 16. Yet, I faced challenges from the school because of my relatively short fingers.
That is not logical and scientific. Their theory did not work and they should rethink on this issue.
I think the physical appearance of people does not affect their capacity. Unfortunately, though, there is a contradiction in the school about this issue.
The second problem is that there is discrimination against disabled people in the School. They check whether people’s body parts all function properly and people with disabilities could not join the School.
This is shameful and wrong, and goes against their rights. That is why the Wusate Birhan Abera Music Training Centre for Visually Impaired was established by people with disability. Yared should support this by providing materials and teachers, but it does not.
But I think now, at least with me, they know that they follow a wrong theory. This is a huge problem that the government needs to intervene and address.
Q: You used to have a big plan to organise a symphony using traditional Ethiopian instruments. Its script writing was finalised, but it is not realised yet. When should we expect it to happen?
That is a project that I have been thinking about since I was in school. It was a cultural symphony. I made things ready and proposed it to the Ethiopian Millennium Committee for it to be part of the Ethiopian Millennium celebrations. But it failed due to the inability to get financing.
Then after, there were individuals who presented the idea as if it was theirs and looked for finance. I have no problem with them, as far as they could realise it, because, one way or another, my desire is to see it materialised.
But I hope it will be realised within a short time. I have discussed it with other people, such as Abraham Wolde, who was thinking of a similar project for the Ethiopian Millennium. What he wants is to see symphony using Ethiopian instruments happening, regardless of who did it.
I also have a modern symphony project. There are symphony works I have done in studios. So I hope both the cultural and modern symphony projects will be realised soon. These projects need support both from government and private sector.
Q: There is no that much collaboration between young Ethiopian musicians. We do not see best performing musicians working together to take Ethiopian music a step forward. Why do you think this is happening?
I am and have been thinking about this issue for the last 10 years. Incidentally, the individuals who saw my potential and called me were people from England.
I was busy working with them on Dub Colossus’s project. Then came a project in my name and I told Dub and colleagues that there is potential in Ethiopia and I wanted to work with Ethiopians and convinced them.
Then I performed with Henok Temesgen, Feleke Hailu and others at the Wolman Festival. It was a very nice performance. But in the end, even though, I do not want to mention names, some just defected to foreign countries.
This is a very serious problem. It creates a bad reputation for Ethiopia as a nation and Ethiopian musicians. The other problem is that, since I take them being personally responsible, people may think as if they pay me to defect, which is not good for my name. This could affect my work in other countries.
So when I think of working on projects in foreign countries, I prefer to work either with Ethiopians who live or have lived in foreign countries, or with foreigners. I am very sorry about this; I wish if I could give the chance for young Ethiopians who have potential but lack the chance.
Currently, I have formed a new group called Afropia, whose name came from Africa and Ethiopia, with the aim of working Ethiopian music within the general African music spirit; I think it is a distinctly different experience. International invitations always come, but I always ask how much responsibility I could take.
In addition, there are very few individuals who experiment with music in Ethiopia, which discourages my motives of working together. I do not like to participate in a kind of music that I do not like to be engage with, I mean in terms of quality.
Q: You have an album, Guzo, which was released on June 6, 2012. This album is not accessible in Ethiopia, even in high end shops. But I know you have been trying to make it accessible in Ethiopia to the general public. Why is it not accessible in Ethiopia and how are your efforts going?
Many people ask to get the original album here in Ethiopia. It is my wish to see the album available here to the general public.
But the problem is, it is recorded in UK at a very high cost. It is not affordable for the general public in Ethiopia and the market for such works in Ethiopia is minimal, which discourages the producers. So I know that I will not bring it for profit, but I also feel responsible to bring it for the sake of the audiences and music in Ethiopia.
It is available online for those who want to listen it. But even online purchasing is impossible in Ethiopia due to lack of an online payment system.
Understanding all issues, they have allowed for it to get released in Ethiopia, but currently there is no record label in Ethiopia. Due to fear of copyright infringement and to ensure quality, they asked to sign a contract with a local record label. Now, I am thinking to take all the risks and responsibility, and bring it myself for release here.
Q: You live here in Ethiopia and you regularly play in places like Mama’s Kitchen. But those places are not that affordable for the general public in Ethiopia. Do you have any plans to perform concerts in Ethiopia?
I have planned many concerts in Ethiopia for the next Ethiopian year. I have never performed at a concert in Ethiopia. But now, I will be having big concerts in the Italian Cultural Institute and The Goethe Institute. Then, I have requests from the Italian, German and Israel Embassies to work with musicians from those countries in Ethiopia.
Except the request from the German Embassy, I will perform the others before 2015. The program by the German Embassy will be within the first two months of 2015.
I will also be having a concert in the new African Union Hall, which they are discussing as to whether it should be open for public or limited to the diplomatic community.
I have also plans to tour in Gonder, Bahir Dar, Adama (Nazreth) and some other places in Ethiopia, with legendary Ethiopian singers. So, surely, I will have many concerts of a different nature and size in Ethiopia in the coming Ethiopian Year.
Q: Do you see any unique potential in Ethiopian traditional music?
We have something more than potential. If you move from North to South and East to West, you can see amazing musical elements. We do not know that much about our musical resources.
For instance, there are several uniquely Ethiopian musical instruments unknown to many of us. We do not even sufficiently know about the characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of those traditional musical instruments we know. It, therefore, is not possible to effectively preserve and use our traditional music. We need to study and explore our cultural music very deeply and use it to promote our country.
In this regard, I have proposed to study the origin of Ethiopian music, which I have been dreaming about for a long time, to the Germany Culture & Tourism Ministry. They have accepted my proposal and soon I will be going to Germany to discuss the project.
The study, which is a documentary style, will help us to understand our culture better. I believe that unless we know and understand our traditional music better, we cannot know its value and use it effectively.
Q: How do you evaluate the Ethiopian media from the perspective of promoting Ethiopian music and musicians?
There are several problems. Beginners should be promoted and legends need to be given credit, so that there is energy for both. But there is so much music and musicians who are improperly promoted.
It is common to see poorly produced music getting promoted. The majority on our television and radio programs are of that type. I wonder whether there are people who control music broadcasting in those media outlets.
I think one of the problems is that they broadcast musical works for free. Hence, there is no control of the playlist. If they had to pay for it, since no one wants to spend money on poorly produced music, they would have resorted to quality ones; I hope such a thing will be started in the future.
The other problem is that the media presents and talks only about singers. It should have also promoted lyricists, composers and all other people who make a contribution to a work. The media should not simply talk about people in the front; it should also talk about the people behind. This is why the popularity of individuals who make music like jazz, classical or instrumental is an imported one.
Q: The British music producer, Dan Harper, whose music is an eclectic fusion of Ethiopian, dub, reggae, techno, goth and rock, was your first link to foreign audiences. How did he come to know you and how did your foreign link look like in those days?
When I was student, he came to Yared School and asked my teachers for a good student who could work with him. He found Feleke Hailu and Ezra Abate, who brought him to my classroom.
Then he took me to his home studio, in which he had been working on Azmari Music and asked me what I could play. I did keyboard and impressed him, then technically assisted him on his effort of collecting and promoting Azmari Music.
Dan is not a producer; he has been in Mali and used to work at an NGO in Ethiopia. He sent my works to England, to Nick Page. Nick came to Ethiopia to see the talent here; being impressed, he recorded my works. After that, both Dan and Nick were made no contact with me for two years.
After two years, Nick made a call to Tsedenia Gebremarkos asking for my contact. Then he made a call to me and told me that there is a record deal in England and asked me to process my visa. He made the same call to four other people and we traveled to England and made records in the Real World Studio for two weeks.
That was my first experience to be recorded in a professional studio. We recorded Dub Colossus’s album, then, after two months, we started a tour across Europe. We presented our work at Glastonbury Festival, in England – the biggest festival in Europe – which was my first concert. That was how the link was created.
Q: Which musicians do you like from the Ethiopian musical scene?
Mulatu Astatke, Francis Falceto, Getachew Mekuriya, Mahamud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete; I could not list all my legends. Francis Falceto did a great job for Ethiopian music, even more than we, Ethiopians, do.
I respect what all those individuals did. Had it not been for the prices they have paid, there would have been no one who looked for talent in Ethiopia. Their work is the basis for what I experiment with now and this generation’s work will be the basis for the coming one.
This is how we can preserve our culture and pass it on to the next generations. This is not something we do individually, though; it needs the collaboration of government, universities, especially music schools, even though limited in number, all musicians and all other stakeholders. I respect all who lived in such a challenging professional environment without shifting their profession. It shows how much they are committed.
As a pianist, the one who inspired me and whom I admire most is Elias Negash, pianist and arranger. I use to listen to his works even before I went to music school, but I did not know who he was at the time. Then, after I joined music school, I came to know all about him.
Until this day, there is no pianist for me who could play Ethiopian music like him. Girma Yifrashew and Emahoy Tsegemaryam Gebru are also great pianists for me. I cannot mention all great artists I admire in every musica; field who inspired me. But I also expect to see more than this from Ethiopians.
I also admire Haile Gebreselasie, even though we are not in the same profession. He is someone who I admire most from Ethiopians. He is a person who achieves what he believes in and he is one of the main sources of inspiration in Ethiopia.
Q: If you were asked to name one whom you admire most from foreign musicians, who would you name?
It would be Herbie Hancock, jazz pianist and producer, who studied classical music. He produced so many television songs too. He is an energetic musician who inspired many, including me.
Q: What is your message to the youth in Ethiopia?
Families must consider and support children to realise their interests. Young people need to have dreams about their future, if not their life could possibly be a failure.
Young people have the time and energy to realise their dreams. Wise youth use their time and energy to realise their life mission in their young years. Youth is the time to work hard, be inspired and make things possible.
There could be challenges, but they have to withstand it. They should not stop to strive for a dream. For instance, when I was a child, my family didn’t like my ambition to become a musician. But I strived and now everyone is happy about what I am doing.
Youngsters have the physical and mental capacity to work hard. They should entertain themselves, but cautiously avoid things that could go against their dream.
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