“In concert, his [Mahmoud's] enigmatic multi-octave voice seizes on a note, brief or sustained, and makes its pitch tremble as it its urgency could barely be contained” The New York Times
“MAHMOUD Ahmed has a rich, deep voice that oozes liquid chocolate down a phone line crackling with static; what a pity I can't understand a word he is saying.” Sydney morning herald
75 years ago a baby named Mahmoud Ahmed brought to this world by an Ethiopian working class parents at a place locally known as Mercato in the center of Addis Ababa. Neither his family nor himself had imagined that this little boy one-day would be an internationally acclaimed artist. Mahmoud coming from Ethiopia's well known entrepreneurial and hard-working Gurage ethnic group, his first profession like many of his fellow mates, was shining shoes on the streets of Addis. He tried a series of other menial jobs before he ended up as handy-man at the Arizona Club which was back then an after-work hangout place for Emperor Haile Selassie I's Imperial Body Guard Band. On a fateful night, one of the singers didn't show-up and Mahmoud persuaded the house band to let him substitute the singer and ever since then he continued doing the job he loves for half a century. Mahmoud soon was recruited at Imperial Body Guard Band, serving there until the military coup of 1974. Mahmoud released his first single with Venus Band "Nafqot New Yegodagn"/"Yasdestal" in 1971 and quickly became a pop-star across Ethiopia. Mahmoud continued to record with several bands for the Amha and Kaifa record labels throughout the 1970s.
Following the overthrow of Emperor Sellassie, the military junta suspended musical nightlife and the Imperial Body Guard Band was disbanded, nonetheless Mahmoud continued to make hit records and cassettes with many local musicians, including the Dahlack and the Ibex Bands.
Mahmoud switched to releasing his music on cassettes from vinyl as the 1978 censorship laws prevented him to do so. In the 1980s, Mahmoud operated his own music shop in the hub of Addis Ababa's - Piazza district as a side-kick to his singing career. Mahmoud became a pioneer modern Ethiopian music maker to perform in the United States for the Ethiopian diaspora on a 1980-1981 tour with the Wallias Band, Gétatchew Kassa, and Webeshet Fisseha.
Almost 30 years ago, Mahmoud's music reached a larger western audience when the Belgian label Crammed Discs released the collection Ere Mela Mela, at a time when Ethiopia was making headlines in the west because of political repression and for the worst famine the country experienced. Mahmoud gained even a huge international limelight in the late 1990s after Buda Musique launched the Éthiopiques series on CD. Eventually, this led to new recordings and tours worldwide with Boston's Either/Orchestra and Badume's Band. He tours globally, performing concerts both for international music fans as well as the Ethiopian diaspora.
iREFUGEE was able to have words with Mahmoud, when he came to perform at Stockholm's Cultural Festival on August 18, 2015 where thousands of his fans were able to enjoy his live performances. Mahmoud is witty, down-to-earth, humble and coherent. Please enjoy his interview.
iREFUGEE: How and when did you start singing?
Mahmoud: I started singing while I was in school. I used to sing during breaks to my classmates songs that I heard on the Ethiopian radio. I dropped out of school and became a shoe-shine boy. Then I worked as handy-man at the Arizona Night-Club. One evening, one of the singers didn't show-up and I begged and persuaded the band's manager to let me substitute the singer and ever since then I am singing and here you meet me.
iREFUGEE: What was your family's reaction towards your career?
MAHMOUD: They were OK with it except that my father was a bit disappointed.
iREFUGEE: Who was your role-model?
MAHMOUD: Tilahun Gessese.
iREFUGEE: How was it to be an artist back then and now?
MAHMOUD: There is a huge difference. During that time, singing was considered as something bad and people call us names such Azemarie-a derogatory term to express their contempt towards us. Today, singing is a very respected job.
iREFUGEE: How do you feel being an internationally known artist?
MAHMOUD: [laughter] Honestly speaking, I'm very happy and I do my best to entertain the audience wherever I go on tour.
iREFUGEE: Why didn't you release an album for such a long time?
MAHMOUD: I could not be able to release the album due to copyright issues. I'm thinking to release an album in the future as the implementation of the copyright law is being strengthened at the moment.
iREFUGEE: How is the situation of Copyright in Ethiopia?
MAHMOUD: it is getting better. We [artists] organized ourselves and trying to defend our rights.
iREFUGEE: In a 1-10 scale (1 the lowest and 10 the highest), how do you rate Ethiopia's contemporary music standard?
iREFUGEE: How do you see the future of the music industry in Ethiopia?
MAHMOUD: It looks promising. A copyright association is created and we made a consensus to abide by the copyright law.
iREFUGEE: What's your future-plan?
MAHMOUD: I want to rest. Your body doesn't work as it used to be when you get older. I would like to take things at a slowdown level. However, I will serve as long as I could.
iREFUGEE: What would you have been, if you were not a singer?
MAHMOUD: [laughter] I don't know. I could have might been a shoe-shiner.
iREFUGEE: What is your advice for the new generation of Ethiopian artists?
MAHMOUD: there are many talented young Ethiopian artists right now. I would be very happy if they could serve the public as we did.
MAHMOUD: I can't say anything, knowing that I can't turn-back the clock.
iREFUGEE: Does any of your children follow your foot-step?
iREFUGEE: Which of your songs are your favorite?
MAHMOUD: Tizeta. It gives me goose-bump even when somebody sings Tizeta.
iREFUGEE: your happiest/saddest day?
MAHMOUD: My saddest day was when I lost my mother. Happiest days are too many.
iREFUGEE: What is your message to your Ethiopian and international fans?
MAHMOUD: Thanks a lot for letting me be where I am now.
Next week, iREFUGEE will present Alemayehu Eshete's thoughts about his career and future plan. Miss it not!