Wednesday, February 8, 2023
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InterviewYamlu Molla, producing Ethiopia's Future Legends in the music industry

Yamlu Molla, producing Ethiopia’s Future Legends in the music industry

Yamlu Molla is a producer, performer, and songwriter. He has composed songs for Betty G, Zerubabel Molla, and Chelina, among other well-known Ethiopian artists, on hit albums.

He is actively producing recordings for up-and-coming musicians such as Micky Hasset, Amanuel Mussie, Dess, and many others, giving their distinct creative voices a platform. He released an album named “Elf” last year.

Yamlu is well-known for his ability to create music that crosses genres and sounds, frequently incorporating traditional instrument sounds. His studio is a soundproofed room where he records and produces his music, and it is adorned with musical instruments and album covers that hold special meaning for him.

In 2018, Yamlu and Betty G received Album of the Year at the Afrima All-Africa Music Awards, where he was praised for successfully combining Ethiopian and Western musical traditions.

Yamlu intends to release his second album through Sewasew Multimedia within the next 12 months. The Reporter’s Rebecca Tewodros visited him at his workshop to learn more about his craft. EXCERPTS:

The Reporter: How was Christmas for you when you were growing up? What traditions did you have with your family?

Yamlu Molla: In Ethiopia, the ideology around Christmas is centered around religious concepts and the birth of Jesus Christ, unlike the western Christmas that has become more about gift-giving within the family. So, growing up, I celebrated Christmas connected to the religious aspects with my family, and, like most Ethiopians, we go around visiting family or family members come over and we celebrate together.

I used to ask my parents if they bought me shoes or clothes a month before because you have expectations as a child. Because I was born and raised in Addis Ababa, I think I grew up mostly with a city lifestyle, and Christmas was an incredible time. I am very grateful for my family because, now as a parent, I can see how hard it is to fill that gap, and God knows how they managed to give us those kinds of happy memories.

How did you celebrate it back then as a 10-year-old, and how do you celebrate it now?

As a child, you go to church with family, and even though I wasn’t forced to wear Habesha clothes back then, I was still pushed to uphold the traditions of the holiday. After that, we return home and greet family members who come by to celebrate, and most of the time you go along with the program that your family sets for the holidays.

Now, I have a wife and kid, and I spend it with them. Most of the time, we spend the morning at home and then spend the rest of the day visiting family. We either go to her family or mine, and most of the holidays are spent visiting members of both families. At the same time, we are doing our best to create a great experience for my child as well.

What is your favorite holiday? and Why?

My favorite holiday is Easter. The thing is, I’m not that much into holidays and celebrations, but the one holiday I enjoy is Easter because I love the connection it has with religion. The fact that the truth contained within it has had such an impact on so many people, as well as how it has changed my life makes that day memorable. So, in regards to the idea and content, Easter is my favorite holiday. But if it is the vibe and the celebrations, then my favorite would be New Year’s because I love the thoughts of “I’m going to do this next year” and so on, and I think those two are my favorite holidays.

How has your childhood influenced your journey into the world of music?

Oh, so much. It starts with Ethiopia Radio, which was the only channel, and even that has a lot of stories. The music played by the station was very eclectic, and we didn’t have different channels to listen music, especially the west ones. There were no strictly R&B, hip-hop, or techno channels back then, and there was no DJ, anyone can be in charge of playing the music.

So, what you grew up listening to was a different range of music from all around the world in languages you didn’t even know, and that helped me understand that there are a lot of different cultures. In addition to that, what you hear at school or at home has an influence, as do the concerts you attend and the songs you listen to wherever you go. The sounds of religious music, which I grew up around, have had a great influence, and my brother, who plays the guitar and sings, has had an influence on me as well.

There was also the music we heard in school, and back then, you didn’t have access to music through streaming. You had to beg to copy cassettes or CDs to listen to music. The fact that it was out of reach made it all the more interesting and made me seek music more as well.

This was how I was raised. Also, when you grow up in Addis, you tend to listen to a lot of western music. Seeing the different worlds—the western songs that we rented on VHS tapes or cassettes and the cultural music that played on TV—without knowing it, both played a role in influencing me.

Were your family members supportive of you when you started your musical journey?

Most of the time, Ethiopian families struggle to accept art. My family cannot be an example of this because they were a 100 percent supportive. Like I said, there was always music in the house, and it was more what kind of music I listened to that concerned them as compared to why I listened to music or why I wanted to work in music.

It was my mother who pushed me into joining music school, and it wasn’t something I thought of. She told me that instead of wasting my time and their money in college by studying something I wasn’t interested in, I should pursue music because that’s what she saw me do at home. And I guess it was in God’s plan as well, so yeah, it worked out.

Throughout the years and as a producer, what changes have you seen in the world of music in regards to genre and expression, especially in Ethiopia?

In regards to genre, there usually isn’t a difference in our country, and there is a similarity in the genres of our country’s music. However, in my time, I’ve witnessed many different genres through the lens of our perception. You can see the works of many different musicians like Elias Melka, Dagmawi Ali, Abegaz, Shota, and many more whose works I have been able to see in close proximity or from afar, and their influence on the Ethiopian music industry has been immense.

The music made in the 1940s and 1950s and even the music made by the Roha Band in the 1970s left their marks. Elias Melka, in particular, was one of the people who completely changed the way lyrics were written. Lyrics frequently included superficial ideas or topics such as a man loving a woman and vice versa.

Over the last eight years, music with an international sound has been introduced by the younger generation, which is very encouraging. Not because it’s an international sound but because it’s a whole new world, and I have seen musicians who listen to hip-hop only or EDM only or so on create their own way of making music, which is a nice thing to see.

Who have been your biggest inspirations throughout your life and career?

If it’s in life, then it’s the Bible, because everything good comes from that. People I admire who are in a good place and heading in the right direction, and who I say inspire me in life, have a good connection with the Bible, which has led me to focus more on the Bible myself. But when it comes to my career, I always mention Quincy Jones, who produced Michael Jackson’s Bad and Thriller albums. He was one of the people who played a huge role in inspiring me as a producer.

When I think of an album, there is a band called Pink Floyd, and I love their album, how it was done, how it was recorded, and it is one of my favorites, especially the album “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

People who think outside the box of what is considered normal always surprise me, and I am always drawn to whoever can do that. If, out of ten people, you have a different opinion, then you are considered an oddity and you’re not wanted. I’m not saying you shouldn’t agree with the community. In fact, there are many things that I support and agree with the public. But many out-of-the-box ideas in our country always inspire me a lot.

When you produce, you work with a lot of artists. How do you perceive their artistry and sound and produce their albums accordingly?

When I first wore the producer’s hat, I did it because I just wanted to help. Whenever the producers sit down with the artist, it is to enhance what the artist already has. The thing is, sometimes, artists come to you with a vision already in mind, but most of the time, they have a lot of wants, and we have to pick what’s best for them.

The thing I work on and stress over daily is making an album that entertains the people while at the same time growing the artists’ careers, and although it has its ups and downs, the process is beautiful, and even though the end product is usually the most exciting, when you look back at the process, you can see how important it is. So, I want to ensure that they are enjoying the process.

What I always tell them is to trust me because we are both heading in the same direction. It’s like when you’re driving: there is only one wheel, and if you entrust me with it, I’m here to serve you and listen to your opinions. Usually in our country, it’s more about releasing a song or an album or a video, and making something conceptual and thinking about what they want to state as an artist through their art is considered a luxury. So, I want to help promote that side of theirs that is being suppressed by a lot of artists.

It’s like a seedling, and in some of the artists, it has been completely stepped on; in others, it is budding but has not fully blossomed; and in some of the artists, it has dried out. I want to be able to do what I can in each of the cases so that I can help it grow.

As a producer, what do you think you have brought to the music scene in Ethiopia?

The one thing I believe I have is the ability to think outside the box. Secondly, I have blended the traditional sound of Ethiopia with the western sound of this day and age. Back in the 1950s, artists like Mulatu Astatke listened to musicians like James Brown, Otis Redding, and Sam Cook, whom they were influenced by, and at the same time grew up listening to Ethiopian music.

By fusing the two together, they were able to create what the westerners call the “golden era” of Ethiopian music, to the point where it seems like there were no Ethiopian songs made after the 1960s. I was able to do that, and everyone was able to see the fruit of it. It’s not only about playing Ethiopian instruments, which is the trend now, where the sound of the Masinko, Kirar, or Washint is forced into a song just for the sake of adding it.

The art behind the instruments and the way each of their unique sounds are recorded is important as well. There was a time where I had a problem finding someone who could play the sounds, but thankfully, I now have great traditional instrument players who have been able to quench my thirst when it comes to the sound of traditional instruments.

There is a way that sound should resonate because you are speaking to the soul, and those sounds have to be delicate and just right.

I am a producer in 2023, not the 1970s or 1980s, you know, so I have to go along with the current time. When we won at Afrima, one of the big magazines there wrote about how we brought a different kind of idea and sound. Sadly, to be able to grow and reach a lot of people, it takes time.

When looking back at your very first project and comparing it to the work you do now, what changes do you see in yourself in terms of how you produce? How do you believe you’ve evolved as a producer?

I mean, I am still the same; the Yamlu that is here today was there back then too. There are things that you want to achieve, but the passion was still there, and this was more than a decade ago. There are a lot of changes, and sometimes, when I look back, I am surprised and shocked, and other times I laugh at myself, wondering what was wrong with me.

You mentioned the advancement of technology and going along with it, and social media is at the forefront right now. Do you use it? If so, in what ways?

It is very consuming for anyone, and its easy access and usability make it something that can be easily addictive. But like our elders say, “You can’t avoid sleep because of the fear of a dream.” Everything that has a bad side has a positive side as well, so yeah, I do use it. I’m not as good at it as the younger generation.

I don’t believe in growing old. Age comes with experience, but when a person stops accepting things, especially when they stop accepting change, that is the time they become old.

Technology is a powerful tool that can easily distract people while also making them more accessible. I am a musician, a producer, and an artist, and I do my own music as well. Thankfully, social media has eased the long distance that we used to travel to reach fans and has made it easier for my fans to reach me and easily see my work.

We can share the art that we want to share and convey any positive message through it, so I am open to using it. So yeah, I do have Instagram and Tik Tok, and I share my work or anything to do with my music, and I share something that I believe should be known to my followers. That’s how I see it, and that’s how I use it.

What is your philosophy in life?

To have the fear of God. This is a time when being a Christian is really difficult as there are a lot of temptations. I have a large place in my heart for my religion. I want my relationship with God to be good, and I don’t want to waste it because he is the creator and I am what he is created, and I believe he had a plan when he created me, and I want to be able to uphold that plan.

None of us knows at what age we are going to pass, but until then, I want to be able to fix what I have with God. The other thing is fixing the relationship I have with people; and, as the Bible says, you should love God and at the same time love people. That direction is important to me. That’s my anchor, and I want to continue to do that.

Also, music isn’t my life; a lot of people say music is my life, and I disagree. Music is part of my life, and I spend a lot of time around it, but it’s just a part and not my whole life. I want to spend time with my family as well—my wife, my kids, and our families. I also have a few close friends, and although I don’t like large gatherings and hangouts, I want to spend as much meaningful time as possible with my closest friends.

I would be happy if I could make a change—a positive change that doesn’t impact the basic and fundamental parts of life. That’s the kind of philosophy I’d like to have. Music in itself is also a philosophy, and there are a lot of things that we can discuss within it, but yeah, that is a philosophy by itself.

Why did you choose a different genre than the usual genre used in Ethiopia?

My growth had a large impact. I grew up with both the traditional and western sounds, and at first, I was pushed to choose one. As much as I tried, that just wasn’t me. I truly love Ethiopian music and Ethiopian songs that are catchy and melodic. But I truly love Ethiopian music that is made from the heart and with passion.

At the same time, you might find me listening to a song from the 80s that was made on a beat-up keyboard. When someone writes a song, they have to write it for more than just having it shown on YouTube. It has to have passion. Doing that is easier, and that box is like a snake that will suffocate me, so I try to stay away from it.

When I make music, I want to show off my country as much as I possibly can through it. I think it’s because I want to create music that isn’t repetitive and tiring that made me choose to go in the direction that I am currently going.

You like working with new and fresh artists more; why is that?

Don’t get me wrong; I admire famous artists, but they usually have their own vision and are unwilling to change because it is exhausting for them or they are afraid, which I completely understand. The younger generation does not know the direction they want to go, and even if they do, they are more willing to try out new things and go in new directions. They are also easier to communicate with because there is less ego about “I have done this” or “I have achieved that.”

I believe that there are many talented people who should join the music industry, so as much as I possibly can, I scout talent wherever I see it and bring them to the scene so they can bring something new. It’s difficult not to live your life doing what you want when you’re gifted and unique.

So, seeing them lose simply because of some challenges—lack of money, not getting recognized, not being able to express themselves—and it being difficult to join the Ethiopian music industry, which may be tiresome, means that these talented people tend to sit in the corner and watch rather than join this messed up industry.

I don’t have any harmful addictions in my life; the only addiction I have is music. I’ve always been drawn to the music world since I was born, so all I want to do is inspire them, give them hope, and give them the opportunity to work with those talented people sitting in the corner by scouting them, especially talented female artists.

I want to create a safe and secure environment for these female artists so they will feel free to express themselves and their work without fear of being taken advantage of.

What inspired you for your album, “Elf”?

My mom’s name is Elefnesh Haylu, so I named the album Elf, and second, the word has a lot of meaning. When I was working on that album, my mother was sick, but I didn’t think she would pass away. As usual, my expectation was that she would get better, and I thought it was something she would overcome. She died unexpectedly.

So, when I lost her, the album I was working on got influenced by her death, but the main reason for me to name the album after her and have some ideas for some of the songs based on her is that I didn’t want her to be forgotten. I didn’t want her to be just remembered as this beautiful lady who lived in this world, got married to my dad, gave birth to three kids, had grandkids, got old, and passed away, which is a common story, but it wasn’t, and she was young.

There is no way I can explain to my kid, who is now two years old, that she passed away right after he was born. I didn’t want to tell my kid about his grandmother like my parents did about mine.  When they explained about them, it felt like a different story about a distant person for me; it didn’t feel close. I had to picture them that way, but I don’t want that for my kid. I don’t want my kids to remember her in that way, so if I make her that cool person by adding her picture to my album, my kids will want to know about her at some point out of their own interest. Instead of forcing them to know her by explaining about her, I want them to see and imagine her for themselves.

Moving forward, what are you planning on bringing to music as a producer, a songwriter, and a singer?

So, there is this streaming service called Sewasew, and I plan on releasing my second album through them. I was working on my album last year and was planning on releasing it, but then this blessed streaming service came to me, and I decided to release it through them. There are also a lot of albums I’m producing, like Amanuel Mussie, Mena, Des, Teref Kassahun, Kiya, and Fela, among others.

I am working on two things. First, my personal project focuses on Yamlu as an artist; there is also Yamlu as a songwriter and producer, which I am trying to balance. I lean toward one side or the other, but I’m trying hard to balance it. Also, I am known through the albums that I work on, whether it is with Betty G, Chelina, or Zerubabel, and I am working with these artists on a separate album.

Since my second album is going to take time and be released probably in May or June, I am going to release different songs with various artists through sewasew multimedia streaming app and maybe on Spotify so that I don’t keep my fans waiting.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Whoever reads this, especially the younger generation, please think outside the box. This is a generation where a lot of creativity can be achieved, and it’s good to take inspiration from others, but try and find yourself. I know it is a long process and hard work, but you have to look for yourself and create something that’s truly yours.

Wherever we are, we might be doing work that we don’t like or just doing it for our daily bread, or we might have joined it because we hoped it would lead to something better, but wherever we are, let us try to bring that mentality along with us. When I was young, if a child did something wrong, elders used to step in and tell them it was wrong, but now, nobody cares. I believe it’s a good thing to show them what is wrong and what is right.

When I was working on Betty G’s album, there wasn’t another woman in Ethiopia who could make an impact after Zeritu, and people who stood out from our country to the rest of the world were scarce, so we looked for that. We were able to achieve more than we even expected and were awarded the best album in Africa among musicians with better sources and access. In addition, the Nobel Committee itself chose Betty to perform at the awarding ceremony of the Nobel Prize, and that was something we didn’t expect.

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