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Saturday, September 5, 2015

I'll Stop singing Romantic Songs: Legendary Ethiopian Singer Alemayehu Eshete

Image result for alemayehu esheteAlemayehu Eshete is one of the living legends of modern Ethiopian popular culture and one of the outstanding Ethiopian vocalists who emerged during the heyday of Ethiopian music in the turbulent 1960s. Alemayehu, known by many as the ''Ethiopian Elvis'' or "the James Brown of Addis", was a pioneer to modernize Ethiopian music by combining R&B, Ethiopian groove, soul, rock n' roll, and traditional Ethiopian music to create something truly unique. 
His parents wanted and dreamed their only child to be an engineer, a medical doctor or a lawyer and when they found out that Alemayehu was singing at the local night-clubs, their heart broken. Especially, Alemayehu's father, who did everything in his capacity to educate his son, took the news personally and wanted to shoot and kill Alemayehu. The aspiring artist wasn't in good terms with father for more many years. Understandably, singing had a very low status in Ethiopia during those days.   
Alemayehu who was determined to realize his dreams, has dared to adopt elements from rock-n-roll and American soul, including body movements, dance and hair styles, eventually coming to be known as  or "James Brown of Addis." Over the course of years Eshete released over 30 albums that became enormous hits in Ethiopia and led various orchestras, including the famous Police Orchestra and groups that he himself established.
Colonel Retta Demeqe was the one who recognized Alemayehu's talent and
invited the young singer to perform with Addis Ababa's Police Orchestra in the 1960s. "Seul" was  Alemayehu's first hit which was released in 1961 before moving on to found the orchestra Alem-Girma Band with Girma Beyene. During the course of 15 years, Alemayehu released some 30 singles until the communist junta Derg deposed Ethiopia's last Monarchy in 1974.
Image result for alemayehu esheteDue to repression of the military junta, like many fellow artists, Alemayehu fled his homeland and established himself in Europe and the US as a vibrant and exciting vocalist, including performing alongside one of Ethiopian legends Mahmoud Ahmed. Ethiopiques series devoted two albums to his works, the first focusing upon his earlier works and the second, upon his career during the early 1970s.
 Alemayehu has since earned prominence in Europe and the Americas following  the release of Buda Musique's Ethiopiques series of compilations on compact disc Ethiopiques Volume 9 which was devoted entirely to recordings of Alemayhu's oldest music collection, and Volume 22 covers his career between 1972 and 1974. Other songs have also appeared on Volumes 3, 8, 10, and 13 or the series. This LP features a collection of his 45's recorded between 1967 and 1974. Back to back true classics.
Since 2008 Eshete has been touring the United States with fellow Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed, backed by Boston's 10-piece Either/Orchestra as well as other famous bands. 
iRefugee had the honor to meet this legendary Ethiopian artist last August, when he came to perform with Mahmoud Ahmed and EthioColor band here at Stockholm's cultural festival. Here is what he said about his carrier, past and present Ethiopian music as well as his future plan. Thanks a lot Gash Alemayhu for giving me the opportunity to have words with you. 
iREFUGEE: When and how did you start singing?
ALEMAYEHU: I started singing when I was very young. At the beginning, I was only singing in English songs of famous American artists such as Elvis Precisely, James Brown, Nat-King Cole and others. And then one day, I heard Tilahun Gessese's songs on the radio and it made me change my mind to sing in Amharic. 
iREFUGEE: How did your parents react to your singing career? 
ALEMAYEHU: It was very difficult, especially to my father. Being illiterate himself,  my father was trying to live his dreams in me by encouraging me to be good at school. When he found out about my singing career, he went ballistic. I remember he once said to me " by being a singer, do you want to eat the leftovers of people you entertain?" He wanted to shoot and kill me. My father I did neither talked or see each other for more many years. 
iREFUGEE: Who was your idol?
ALEMAYEHU: At the beginning, my idols were the likes of Elvis Precisely, James Brown, Nat-King Cole who were popular at that time. But, Tilahun Gessese (alias known as Ethiopia's Pop King) is my irreplaceable idol of all time.
iREFUGEE: How is it to be an artist back then and now?
ALEMAYEHU: There is a huge difference. Back then, singing was considered as something very low. These days, its status elevated to highest level. There is a big acceptance towards our profession.
iREFUGEE: How does it feel to be an internationally renown Ethiopian artist. 
ALEMAYEHU: It feels good. Ethiopian music being accepted and recognized hugely by the international audience. I had been touring in Europe and next week I will be performing in Australia. 
iREFUGEE: Why didn't you release an album for such a long time. 
ALEMAYEHU: I don't want to talk in detail but simply, I'm not happy. If you sing something, it will be interpreted differently as opposed to your original intention and eventually which probably put your life in some kind of jeopardy. There is a saying in Amharic, mejermyawnu balzefensh, kezefensh balafersh (literal means, you shouldn't have sang in the first place and if you dared, you don't have to be shy).
Regardless, I have a few works which will be released sometime soon.  
iREFUGEE: How do you rate the current Ethiopian music on 1-10 scale (1 the lowest and 10 the highest). 
ALEMAYEHU: It is really difficult for me to rate as I am from different generation. But I honestly believe that there are very few young Ethiopian singers at the moment. Most of the lyrics are nonsense in which female body parts are the main theme unlike during our time. There is some progress but there is a lot be done by young Ethiopian artists.   
iREFUGEE: Your happiest or saddest day/s?
ALEMAYEHU: Happiest days are too many to count but my saddest day was when I heard about the death of Tilahun Gessesse. I lost all my singing desires for more than a year which made me realize how much I love him. 
iREFUGEE: What is your future plan?
ALEMAYEHU: Well, I'm 73 years old now and I don't want to sing all my life especially love songs. I did that when I was young. My plan is to sing songs with different themes other than romance on some special occasions. Some of these songs are under productions and the album will be released as soon as it is completed. 
iREFUGEE: What would have you been, if you were not a singer?
ALEMAYEHU: [laughter]A lawyer! A lawyer who stands not for the money but for justice. But, being such a lawyer is very difficult these days and I'm glad that I am not a lawyer.   
iREFUGEE: What is your message to young Ethiopian artists. 
ALEMAYEHU: Please sing songs which has a meaningful messages. 
iREFUGEE: Are there any of your children followed your foot-steps?
ALEMAYEHU: None of them. 
iREFUGEE: How is the situation of Copy-right in Ethiopia?
ALEMAYEHU: Symbolically, it is there but its execution is still needs more work. There is some progress, however those with powerful money are still exploiting us [artists].
iREFUGEE: What would be the fate the music industry in Ethiopia?
ALEMAYEHU: I am not a messiah and I can not profess about the future. 
iREFUGEE: Which one of your songs are your favorite?
ALEMAYEHU: [laughter], are you joking? I can not favor one of my children over the others. 
iREFUGEE: What is your message to your Ethiopian and international audience?
ALEMAYEHU: I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all of my Ethiopian and international fans for showing their love and respect to me during my entire carrier.
Next week, iREFUGEE will present the interview with Temsegen HaileGebriel, founder of EthioColor Ethiopian folk dance group, don't miss it!

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