Over a decade ago, Ethiopian Idol altered the way audiences consumed television. Aside from the weekly drama series, another show grabbed our attention for an hour as we marveled at angelic voices, commiserated at faltering notes and delighted in awful renditions sung with undeserved bravado.
Today, almost all TV channels have some version of a vocal competition shows. Programs like Balageru Idol became significant platforms that established today’s well known singers. Winning Balegeru Idol launched Dawit Tsige’s career and his album last year was received with great acclaim. As hundreds flock to compete in these shows, younger artists are finding other ways to showcase their talents.
Kaleab Kinfe is one such artist. Known as kal_kin on Instagram, performs covers of popular songs on social media.
“I was just singing with friends and I kept getting comments that I should sing for a larger audience. I’ve gotten a bigger response than I expected with my posts online. People send me messages of what song they want to hear from me on Instagram or telegram.”
This social media popularity has paved the way for Kaleab to work on his own music. He is currently in the process of releasing his new single.
Zelalem Fisseha is another artist using social media to reach an audience. “It’s helping me engage with people. I can identify people who’d like my talent. It’s also helping me develop as an artist and find my own style.”
As TV singing competitions are evident, cover songs are a great way to reach a bigger audience and become better performers. Zelalem referred to singing covers as an internship to becoming a full-fledged artist.
Maktub Sounds is a cover band that performs a range of music from the 1970s and 80s along with new and popular hits. The band is focused on live performances and very little of their work is available online. Melal Dereje, one of three vocalists in the band, showcases her talent on her Instagram and tiktok accounts. She performs songs by Zeritu, Gigi, Eyob Mekonnen, Zerubable Hailu and, as she puts it, anything produced by Elias Melka. She and the other vocalists of the band make song suggestions and the band figures out the arrangement. Maktub is a guitar oriented acoustic band so they have to be creative.
“We sing another version of the song, basically while preserving the essence of the song,” explains Melal. “We know the songs people want. Even if they are not familiar with the songs first, if it’s performed energetically people will enjoy it. Presentation matters. I think that’s the measure of audience engagement.”
Despite this Melal says their band has received feedback from club owners that the songs they perform should be more familiar. That comment is often given to many up and coming artists performing live. Leul Shoaferaw, managing director of WAG Entertainment Agency, has also encountered this comment from venue managers.
“The club scene isn’t welcoming to unknown original songs. The focus is on the social aspect, not the music. Managers want customers to stay and pay for drinks so familiar songs are preferable. It’s the same set every time. There’s no real recording industry so covers are rarely done in the studio. It’s often for live performance.”
For Leul, there is no nurturing environment for young musicians so they give the performances they think the audience wants. Musicians like Tilahun Gessese, Mahmoud Ahmed, Menelik Wossinachew, Aster Aweke, Muluken Melesse and the like are well loved by the public. One can never go wrong if these artists’ songs are performed correctly. These performances are often a barometer for the talent of this young musician. Whether seen scrolling through Instagram or flipping through TV channels or witnessed live, acapella or acoustic versions of well-known songs can get instant fans based solely on familiarity. There is a preference for operatic vocals that can show off range and rhythms that feel familiar and are often associated with traditional north Ethiopian music.
“What’s popular has already been decided. I worked on covers, I liked it but it was clear the audience also had preferences,” says Amanuel Negussie, a musician that started his career performing cover songs with Maktub Sounds. Amanuel released his first EP Jimare last year.
“I try to make the songs my own. It’s not imitation. Every voice is different,” says Zelalem. He explains his renditions of popular music as modernized performances.
“I might change the instrument used. I often don’t sing the full song. Sometimes it’s a mashup of two or more songs. So copyright is no problem,” says Kaleab.
Copyright laws are barely in action to protect intellectual rights of creatives in Ethiopia; and there is little legal recourse available for infringement cases. Established musicians and producers are more likely to ignore possible infringements as illegal downloads and pirating are often more pressing issues. Cover artists performing live are paid for their work but those online have little monetary profit to claim. Youtube views are the only source of financial gain and some cover artists profit from it. However, Youtube channels that post cover compilations by several artists along with other content are more likely to have more viewership and therefore more revenue, leaving cover artists with nothing but a potential audience to gain from the whole affair.
“I think it helps the original artist. After hearing my cover, a lot of people become familiar with an artist they didn’t know before,” says Kaleab, looking at the upside.