He is in his 30s, and Ethiopia’s latest music sensation, Sami Dan, is fast becoming one of east Africa’s most promising young musicians. A reggae artiste, Sami Dan is now carving out a successful career with his band, Zewd Band. Sami has had an incredible year in 2016. After releasing his debut album Fikir ena Selam he gained critical acclaim by being featured on the Music In Africa list of five emerging reggae artists within East Africa. He went on to win four awards at Leza Awards. Sami, dropped by The Reporter’s offices this week and talked to Samuel Getachew about Ethiopia’s vibrant music scene, where increasingly, everything is possible, and the making of a Sami Dan.
On local radio stations in Ethiopia, popular clubs and at the many gathering places of the Ethiopian diaspora abroad, there is a particular good music that is being played repeatedly these days. New and modern are the sounds. Now the local music industry is endorsing manufactured and near-fake studio sounds, rather than nurturing and embracing the customary Ethiopian sound.
There is an artist that is determined to change that reality. His name is Samuel Berhanu (Sami Dan), a 30-something-year-old Ethiopian engineer who left a career in the booming construction industry to devote himself to a passion in Ethiopian music. He has been playing in small smoke-filled venues for more than a decade, ever since he graduated from the Department of Construction Technology and Management of the Addis Ababa University in 2001.
He is determined to not become a one-hit-wonder in a local music industry that is also competing with imported music. To those who may have discovered him recently, he wants it be known — to fans and critics alike — that he is on the road of redemption in an attempt to contribute to the betterment of the local music industry,.
Ambitious, sure, but who can fault him for trying, when his music is being heard by many, in Ethiopia and elsewhere by a large number of fans. Sami has been in the music industry for close to two decades, playing in small smoke filled venues for more than a decade and paying his dues and traveling the well-trodden path to the top. Nowhere in the capital is his arrival to the music scene felt than the affluent quarters of Bole and the newly emerging middle-class neighborhoods elsewhere in Addis.
Bole has a particular cosmopolitan feel to it. With its mix of the affluent and the destitute, damaged roads and shiny new buildings, brand new sports cars and blue taxis from another era, the diaspora and the locals, this once quiet neighborhood has transitioned into a busy business district.
Near the noted and celebrated Bole Medhane Alem Church compound next to Edna Mall, not far from Bole, is an area that is widely known as the Times Square of Addis Ababa, for its westernized and modern environment.
These days, what is in the minds of many is Valentine’s Day. A new imported culture from the West, the celebration of lovers has become a favorite day for many and revenue-generating occasion for local businesses.
Extravagant concerts are staged throughout the city. Meanwhile, fresh-cut, perfectly arranged rose flowers are in high demand, and chocolates are the delicacy of the moment. Everyone, in love or pretending to be, is in added pressure to spend. Artists are in high demand at local five-star and boutique-like hotels to lure love-birds.
Of all the concerts by noted vocalists like Neway Debebe, Dawit Melese, Michael Belayneh, the most anticipated one is that of the 75-year old Ethiopian international artiste Mahmoud Ahmed along with Zeritu Kebede, a talented artist, that mixes popular music and on occasions, the music of the gospel and Sami Dan.
At Edna Mall, where concerts are usually advertised on a gigantic screen on top of a popular cinema building, young and attractive women talk about what is hot and popular. There are also huge images of Mahmoud, Zeritu and Sami.
Young girls from nearby Bole Secondary School line up to take a selfie with Sami. Some are his adoring fans, while many others just inquire the price of the entrance ticket. “Isn’t he handsome?” a girl asked, as her friend giggled. “But he is Sami Dan, he is also talented, gifted and perfect”. An older man is taking a picture of the poster, wanting to purchase tickets as a surprise gift to his wife. “Sami Dan is as talented as Ephrem (Tamiru) or Teddy Afro”, he explained. “I am definitely going”, a young banker explained, not being deterred by the price. “For Sami Dan, …”, she added.
Welcome to the world of Sami Dan – a new phenomenon.
It is hard to describe the sound of Sami. He is somewhere between the late Eyob Mekonnen, with his messages of hope, love and solidarity, and Lucky Dube, the late South African artist, with colorful African/Ethiopian dance beats in the background.
The Reporter hosted Sami on Valentine’s Day. Dressed in a simple Polo shirt and faded jeans, and without his shades, one would take him for an average Joe. But he is not. There is an aura about him when he started to talk. He does not talk in sound bites, but is reflective and smart in his use of words. Reflecting on his past and where he wants to be as an artist in the coming years, he had plenty to say.
“I want to take Ethiopian reggae music to the next level,” he declared at the start of the conversation. “I grew up, listening to Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey,” he added.
Last year at the local Leza Award, Ethiopia’s popular music awards, he won in all the categories he was nominated for, with the exception of one. The award, which is more of a popularity contest, is based on votes from the public than a determination of a committee of elders or experts in the music industry. His slew of wins became a hot topic of discussion. “How come an unknown artist, with only a few hits under his belt, win all these categories?” many questioned the result in protest. Among his critics was artist Lij Michael, who mocked him on JTV (a local TV station) for winning all the awards, when there were artists much more talented and popular than he is.
In response to that, Sami says, “Lij Michael is a friend, this contest is based on popularity and I was able to successfully advertise my product.”
Backed by ambitious publicists and promoters, who were brought over from Washington, DC, some critics felt he had cheated his way to winning all these awards, and not on talent.
Days before his big concert, he seemed excited, that he is sharing the stage for the ultimate concert of the season, at the Intercontinental Addis, in Casa Inchis, with renowned artists Mahmoud and Zeritu.
“I am an admirer of Gash Mahmoud, and it is a privilege to be on the same stage with him and Zeritu,” he explained. Asked if this is perhaps his redemption to show his talent to a large audience and redeem himself as a real artist, rather than a boy-wonder of the moment, he said that the pressure does not seem to deter him and he seemed convinced he is on an equal footing with the very best.
His progress to the big league has been a long time coming. In a city where thousands aspire to sing and where it is becoming hard to tell real talent from that manufactured in the studio, Sami is quick to explain his foundation as an artist, and how he managed to graduate, from near obscurity, singing in clubs with Hasset Band, to being invited to international festivals, such as Zanzibar’s Sauti Za Busara Festival earlier this month.
“I started in earnest in my young days, making my own guitars with friends when I was around 12,” he explained to The Reporter. “Then I slowly progressed, and chose to find my own voice, instead of imitating others, and that is why it took me a while to be recognized.”
Before joining Addis Ababa University, he was in a band, Eldan, for five years, and took a break from music to finish his studies. Upon graduation, he joined Hasset Acoustic Band, with whom he stayed for three years, and even had a chance to be in the Sydney Salmon’s Imperial Majestic Band. In 2014, he ventured out on his own, to launch his band, Zewd Acoustic Band, and managed to release singles, including Shegitu and make a mild stir in the local music industry.
He finally released a complete LP last year and the rest is history.
Some of his songs, especially “Fikir Selam” (Love, Peace), from his album, “Keras Gar Negeger” (Speaking with Oneself), became an instant hit of the season. This was released in the midst of a political unrest last year and it became the signature of the moment. The song is a reflection of “peace and love,” he explained. “The ideals I sing about are a reflection that love is better than anger, and peace is still a possibility in the world.”
The same year, he also cooperated with other local artists such as Betty G, Dawit Tsige and Esubalew Yitayew and released a We Are The World-like charity song, Ene Negn Derash, to highlight social issues in the country.
“I want to send positive messages through my music, and help move Ethiopian music forward,”,he added. “I am excited where my musical career is heading and I am here to stay,” he added.