Many music lovers around the world still dance to songs from the oldies but goodies collection produced 30, 40 and even 50 years ago. Apparently, the same period of time is widely regarded as the golden age of music in Ethiopia. Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen explores what makes the golden age so golden.
Distant sobbing and gasping are echoed from here and there. The auditorium filled with hiccups might mislead one as if something terrible has occurred. The truth is the event was an album release mini-concert.
Why all these tear? One might ask. The answer is not only in the lyrics of the songs or even the melody. Both the old and young crowed seem to have found the kind of music they relate to; the kind of music that creates a bridge between generations. The old folks were reminded of their hey-days. While the young ones traveled back in time to the 70s.
The audience at the Ethiopian National Theatre did not try to hide their emotions. They were truly touched with Girma Beyene’s speech, narrating about his beloved wife, the late Etsegenet, who was an inspiration for most of his famous songs.
Few months back, when Éthiopiques volume 30 was released, Girma gave a world-class performance encircled with his loyal fans. The album-Mistakes On Purpose– is a collection of his renowned songs with AkaléWubé band, a Parisian band devoted to the grooves of 60s and 70s from Ethiopian. Since the band’s beginning, in 2009, AkaléWubé have been exploring Ethiopian music, which they discovered through the Éthiopiques compilation curated by Buda Musique.
The remake of the decades old music, not only moved those who experienced the hype of Girma’s music back in the days, but the youth of this generation too. His songs such as Ethiopiawit Konjo and Tsigereda transcend time, forcing the audience of all age to weep every time he picked up a microphone.
Looking at the audience offering tissue paper to one-another to wipe their tears dry and the lovers holding hands, one might ask, what could cause a full house of youngsters to still be grooving to the music of the 60s, 70s and partially of the 80s? Why does this generation still rock to oldies Ethiopian music? Arguably, the golden age of Ethiopian music, that era seems to overshadow today’s music scene.
What is so unique about music of the “golden age” that even the up and coming musicians prefer to do a cover of old songs? Be it a single, an album or remix, it is almost as if all ears are stuck in the past. Some musicians try to get fame with oldies songs that are already loved by the crowd. While others claim it is their way of commemorating singers who inspire them.
Either in search of a good reputation or trying to keep the artists’ legacy alive, the question remains would we still be listening to today’s oldies centuries from now or does this generation’s artists has a chance to be loved by the coming ones?
The late Colonel Lemma Demissew’s son Michael Lemma remade his father’s songs in his debut album Des Bilagnalech and the controversial remake of Muluken Melesse’s songs by Bizuayehu Demisse can also be mentioned. These days, lots of young musicians are also in the business of performing duets such as songs by Hamelmal Abate and Neway Debebe. The recent trend also appears to be blending two different oldies hits in one song.
Five years ago, a mix of Ethiopian music from the 60s was uploaded on Mixcloud by a British user called Tracky Griots. With a cover picture of Aster Awoke wearing bell bottom pants and an afro, the mix starts from Ali Birra’s hit song Hammalelee, continuing by the way of the 60s and 70s. The 42-minutemix takes listeners through hits-mainly from Kaifa Records. Following the post, DJs and other music lovers from all over the world attested tracks from that era are euphonious.
According to an article on The Independent titled The golden age of Ethiopian music, the reason behind the oldies being spectacular is that every imperial institution, every army including the police, the imperial bodyguard and the then Emperor HaileSelassie I Theatre, (now the Ethiopian National Theater) had their own orchestra.
The transition from this period to the next is described as “The imperial bodyguard and its orchestra were heavily implicated, that the strictly regimented system of institutional bands started to crumble and smaller, hipper, funkier groups began to forge a new sound that was both brazenly modern, with a sonic approach broadly synchronized to the soul, jazz and funk that spanned the globe, and resolutely Ethiopian at the same time.”
The article highlights the music had an immense effect at the life style especially to that of the famous WubeBereha– which was the then hot spot of Addis Ababa. With the popularization of bands, Ras Band, All Star Band, Zula Band, Venus Band, WabeShebele Band, Roha Band and Dahlak Band took over the music scene.
Looking back at the oldies, many cite the Éthiopiques collection. It is believed to have captured the very essence of Ethiopian music and is a series of compact discs starting from the first volume, Éthiopiques 1 – Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975.
The series comprises of many compiled songs from various singles and albums that Amha Records, Kaifa Records and Philips-Ethiopia released during the 60s and 70s. Prominent singers and musicians from this era appearing on Éthiopiques include Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete, Asnaketch Worku, Getachew Mekuria, Emahoy Tsigemariam Gebru and Mulatu Astatke.
Another article-Popular Music in Ethiopia-published on Music in Africa website echoes a different view. “Predominantly filled with asymmetric rhythms set to melodic contours and pentatonic (five-note) scale, Ethiopia’s popular music has been going through a steady evolution from its early days.” It reads, and the credit is mostly given to the trend of blending Ethiopian music with different genres from across the world.
Singers such as Abinet Agonafir, Abby Lakew, Michael Belayneh and Jano band are mentioned as an example to blending different Ethiopian sounds and rhythms to the sounds of reggae, funk, folk and hip-hop.
It is stated that traditional Ethiopian music fused with other sounds has helped to re-establish Ethiopian pop music on the international musical map. “This is a welcome return to form, following its golden era in the 1960s and its subsequent decline. The new generation of musicians is described in terms of evolving with the contemporary music scene,” it is stated.
Dawit Yifru, president of the Ethiopian Musicians Association, music arranger and keyboardist, remembers how Roha band, one of the highly praised bands in Ethiopian music history, used to make music back in the day. It took them more than a month to complete a single as each member of the band (six musicians) has tons of responsibilities.
“With a full band, we invested our time and energy to making the intro, bridge and outto. We focused on timely issues as that is what the people want to hear,” he elaborates. He believes, music in this era has become more commercial, causing the lack of quality and stresses any musical work can transcend time if produced with passion.
Dawit states, number of musicians with different skills should be involved in music making. He has opposing opinions when it comes to the implementation of state-of-the-art technological devises in music. “Some musicians prefer to abuse the fruits of technology that they use a keyboard and a computer to make music,” he elaborates and points out that musicians should be able to use technology for the betterment of the sector.
As many, Dawit too stresses music should be genuine and heartfelt so that people from any generation be able to relate. However, he argues it is not fair to condemn every music of this generation since there are few dedicated musicians worth listening to. He hopes the quality of music will improve once copy right related obstacles are resolved. “Once the music industry is regulated and musicians are properly rewarded for their artistic works, they will be encouraged to make quality music,” he explains.
Guitarist, music producer and teacher Girum Mezmur says in terms of producing music, the oldies were directed under an institution, whereas these days, music making is more of an individual journey. Nowadays, without having to answer to a theatre house or other institution, musicians are in charge of their works.
“Currently, it is up to the musicians to set the standard as opposed to the previous one’s having a regulatory institution. The autonomy has created quality variance between the artistic works,” he says. Girum prefers to consider the technology, period in time and facility difference between the two generations in order to compare and contrast.
He doesn’t see the problem in covering oldies music as long as singers add value to it. As a global phenomenon, he believes cover songs can be relevant in reintroducing old hits. “As long as a musician takes the initiative to add value to the old hits and cover the song in a professional way, I see it as a way of transporting this generation to the previous one,” he states.
In his opinion, it is common to cover songs in a way that they will be germane to a different generation. Be it in changing the music genera or style, cover songs can be appealing as long as the musician does not intend to imitate the original singer. “Completely imitating the singer’s voice and style is degrading. I would rather listen to the original version. But we can’t generalize all the cover songs are the same, since there are responsible musicians who produce an appealing version,” he stresses.
In terms of remaking old songs, he also mentions artists who release an album of their renowned songs in a such a way that they fit to the current audience. The newly released album of Netsanet Melese- Doju and Ephrem Tamiru’s Reunion can be good examples.
Simeneh Betreyohannes’ thesis for Yared Music School explores the music of 20th-century Ethiopia within its broader historical, sociocultural, and political contexts. He describes Ethiopian music in terms of content and style over the years stating from Azmari (a solo performer who plays the traditional music instrument Masanko or sometimes kirar).
In the introductory section of the paper he asks “were the late 1960s and early 1970s really the Golden Age of contemporary Ethiopian music, or was that a term coined as a ploy to market tons of relatively hassle-free archival material?”
He highlights the importance of the military bands and theatre houses in terms of producing quality music. Especially concerts held in theatre houses for holidays like that of Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year), played an important role in the music.
He describes one of the influential theatre houses of the time as “Despite its short life, the Municipality Theater played an important role in the music scene. For example, its 1950 event hosting a number of international communities for a musical competition led to the long tradition of a New Year’s music festival held by the military and the theaters.”
Simeneh adds, the then Emperor HaileSelassie I Theater (now the Ethiopian National Theater) emerged on to a very fertile music landscape that had been cultivated by the pioneering veterans and institutions which brought about lots of musicians. He also mentions the Kinet (performing groups organized for politicization after the 1974 Revolution) and the well-known People-to-People tour.
Concerning the audience, Eleni Kassa, 27, and Alemu Adugna, 67, are fans of Ethiopian oldies music. Despite their age difference, they find those hits more interesting. Eleni says, “I relate to the oldies songs despite not living through that era. I feel like the music is lyrically close to people’s heart. I appreciate how much work they put into the music.”
According to her, she can’t help but have goose bumps every time she listens to oldies songs. She believes this is a result of the music being made sincerely. Alemu agrees with her and says he can identify with the songs since they touch up on socio-economic and political realities of the country. When it comes to cover songs, he says it is hard to come across a cover that topes or is even close to the original version.
Habtamu Sileshi, 30, disagrees with Eleni and Alemu, stating every generation is entitled to a unique artistic color. “I disagree with people who believe the musical quality has degraded. There are unforgettable, classic oldies songs as there are terrible ones. It is the same with this generation. There are musicians who put an effort to their songs as there are singers who are simply income oriented.”
He appreciates music of this generation, especially in regards to blending different kinds of music and trying to get wider acceptance. He believes going back in time and revising oldies is acceptable as long as the musicians find and stick to their own identity along the way.