by Aziza Ahmad
When Ethiopia celebrated its millennium in 2008, one of the guests was an artist who was returning home after sixteen years, and his fans flocked to the airport to greet him.
This passionate welcome is rare among the Ethiopian community, and explains his standing as the foremost leader of the current Ethiopian music generation. Tedros Kassahun, a.k.a Teddy Afro, may even enjoy this kind of reception when he arrives at airports in the Middle East and Europe. Thewodros Tadesse is widely appreciated by fellow singers and adored by fans for his unique and vivacious voice. His influence can be heard when you watch Ethiopian Idol and listen to the contestants. Growing up he was a choir member at the Saint George Church (Arada Giorgis), considered as one of the most ancient in the country. His soft, elegant voice graced the choir and songs first composed by St. Yared, who lived between 505 and 571 A.D.
In spite of the enjoyable times at the Orthodox Church he sought a career in a music industry dominated by massive talents. The likes of Muluken Mellesse and Alemayehu Eshete were the leaders of that “classical” generation in the history of Ethiopian music. Once, while attending a wedding ceremony, he was scared to jump onto the stage to sing a song by Muluken Mellesse, performing it beautifully. This was said to be the turning point for the cheerful young man, with the attractive look and ox-like eyes. Lubanjaye (the pleasantly aromatic substance used in a coffee ceremony), was the title for his first album, which marked his abrupt and successful introduction to the highly competitive music industry. Playing in the now-defunct Club Sterio in Piazza (old city center), and jamming with bands such as Ethio-Star and Waliyas, he laid his musical foundations.
His stunning musical journey continued with consecutive albums, and his colorful stage performances distinguished him from his contemporaries. Collaborating with Mulatu Astatke (Honorary Ph.D.), the founder of Ethio-jazz, to play Medina na zelesegna (liturgical genres) also thrust him into the public eye. After producing five albums in Ethiopia influenced by traditional Ethiopian music and church songs, he moved to North America in the early 90s. Joining the expatriated Ethiopian music community he performed all over the country. His most significant musical shift was introduced to fans and Ethiopian music audiences when he released the highly-acclaimed Zimita (Silence). This album was a kind of Afro-jazz fusion with elements of modern Ethiopian beats. As a result it received mixed reaction from audiences and music critics, who found it too different from his previous work and more influenced by jazz. However, they also said that it introduced a new sound to the music industry, while others even dared to place it at the top of the Ethiopian discography list.
Abegasu Kibrework Shiota, the arranger and producer, said that Zimita was the masterpiece in his musical career. Many also applauded the new elements used in the compositions that were previously rarely used by Ethiopian music arrangers and composers. Henok Temesgen (bass guitar), a graduate of the Berklee Music College in Boston, and other talented musicians expertly showcased their immense experience and talent on the album. For many, it remains the benchmark for high-quality production. After releasing the album in 1997, Thewodros laid low for several years until he returned to his homeland for the millennium grand-musical concerts, which also featured the US group, the Black Eyed Peas. In those sleepy years in the US there were rumors about hurdles in his social life, which even led distraught fans to think he might not sing again. Nevertheless, his return after sixteen years wiped out all the rumors, and proved that he was healthy and back on track.
Although many fans could not attend the millennium concert in which he was the star attraction, a live transmission made it possible to see him in action. Fans were delighted to see him back on stage, again even if his grey hair and unusual singing style were different from before. “He portrayed himself more as an opera singer, as he stretched his hands and took the microphone away from his mouth,” said fan Misrak Bahiru, who was among those aware of the challenges he faced performing after so many years. But the unexpected death of Telahun Gessese, the Ethiopian music legend, showed again his fine voice as he sang a special song at the funeral ceremony. “His voice was different among the artists who participated in the memorial song,” Misrak recalled. He had also released Anchi Ager Endet Nesh, (How are you my motherland), a single track for the Millennium celebrations that received extensive radio play before his arrival home.
After marrying Yodit Shibru in a private ceremony at the Kuriftu Resort in Bishoftu town, he returned to the US yet struggled on his comeback to the industry. Five years later he revealed that he was collaborating with Indian musicians and finalizing a new album, which became true in August 2013 when it was released in America. Tinantina na Zare (Yesterday and Today) has 22 songs, featuring old and new ballads. It has been less than a month since the album entered the Ethiopian market, and the next disc featuring rearranged songs will be available at Ethiopian Christmas, according to the distributor Romareo Records. The new album has been causing a stir among audiences, and it takes time to listen and appreciate the qualities. “It will take me much more time to get it into context,” says fan Dagim Molla. Some fans logged onto Facebook to post cover photos and views. “This is the type of music I really want to listen to calmly,” one wrote on his timeline. On the other hand, some musicians and critics want to leave “no comment”, as they wait for others to speak, and many still have not heard it.
Yonas Tadesse, a student at the Yared Music School, said that this album is another change in direction from Zimita. He also thinks that he remains one of the best artists, and is more than capable of moving Ethiopian music onto the international stage. “I understand that he wants to sing jazz and afro-jazz, so as to join the likes of some West African singers,” he said. Citing the career shift of Ejigayehu Shibabaw (Gigi), Yonas appreciates the steps that have been taken by some artists to put Ethiopian music on the global scene. Indeed, the artist himself told his audiences that he wanted to focus on a different type of music, which can be sung in a jazz style rather than the trend he had followed for years. “I just want fans to listen to me in a calm, settled mood,” the 50-year-old artist said during his meeting with Seifu Fantahun, host of the Seifu Show on Ethiopian Broadcast Service (EBS). Thewodros, who was first influenced by his idol Muluken Mellesse, was once believed by many musicians and critics to have transformed the liturgical sound into the more modern Ethiopian style, but he is not happy with this view anymore. Now he is attempting to rediscover his talent and soul by playing jazz. Although the internationally-known Mulatu Astatke is famous for promoting jazz in Ethiopia, by fusing jazz and funk with his country’s folk and church’s melodies, artists such as Alemayehu Eshete and Girma Beyene are not far behind. These musicians have devoted their lives to blending Ethiopia’s traditional five tones-per-octave or pentatonic scale with western chords. Listening to their music shows a variety of influences on their approach to jazz, according to commentators, with rhythms comparable to those of Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, and James Brown.
Today’s jazz revival in Ethiopia can be attributed to the success of the Ethiopiques series, and the popularity of the Addis Acoustic Renaissance Group, led by guitarist Girum Mezmur, which focuses on rearranging songs from the 1950s and 60s to invigorate the new generation of Ethiopian club goers with melodies of the past. Perhaps this is why Thewodros wants to become part of this scene, say commentators, and why he chooses to write, play and arrange his music in a jazz-influenced manner. His new songs talk of peace, love and faith, and he sings about Africa in the way that other Africans do, unlike many Ethiopian artists. His songs appear to be an introspective view on his personal ups and downs, commentators add. “This album is a great production from a great musician, and it will demonstrate its difference soon after. The previous album followed the same path,” says Metaferia Bekele, general manager of Romareo Records. According to him, the market is yet to be assessed, and he does not aim to sell millions of copies. “We just wanted to distribute it because of its historic value,” he reiterated. For some it might be a transitional work, differing from the ballads of the past, while others hail him for the change in direction, and may rejoice again after seventeen years of listening to his “greatest-hit”, Zimita.