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It is getting quiet in here!

It is getting quiet in here!

Given the city’s status as the headquarters of the African Union and the special attachment that the country has with reggae artists, which they publicize in their songs, one would expect A-list artists would be flocking to Addis Ababa to perform all the time. But, that is not the case. To the contrary, a number of concert bookings and schedules are being canceled and postponed in recent years, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.


Concerts are becoming rare phenomena in Addis

The British rock star and songwriter Roderick David’s a.k.a. Rod Stewart’s fan base extends all over the world. Many slow rock lovers know the song, “Have I Told You Lately” and “Forever Young” by heart. Apart from his famous songs, Rod Stewart is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest live concert ever to to be held.

He was able to draw 3.5 million audiences for a New Year’s Eve 1994 performance at Copacabana Beach in Brazil. Instead of opting for a traditional venue he staged the concert at Copacabana beach for free, giving it more of a music festival vibe.

In various parts of the world, festivals are now becoming part and parcel of the urban culture. These concerts/festivals are strongly attached to summer time attracting thousands of music fans. In some instances, the fans go through extreme conditions, forced to stay in tents sometimes for weeks to see the biggest rock, jazz or hip-hop stars.

The biggest of those festivals are held in Europe where fans go on their annual pilgrimages to attend their preferred festivals. Some of these festivals include Glastonbury in England and the Californian Coachella which brings more than 175,000 audiences every year.

Apart from Europe, “Rock al Parque”, South America’s largest rock music festival attracted a crowd of 226,000 over three days in 2010.

In Africa also festivals such as the four-day “Essaouria Gnaoua” in Morocco, which has an audience of up to 500,000 every year, the “Sauti Za Busara” festival in Tanzania, “Lake of Stars”, which is held on the stunning shores of Lake Malawi, “The Firefest Route” in South Africa and “Festival au Desert” in Mali draw thousands of fans, making Africa the destination of music festivals.

While concerts and festivals are abundant in various parts of the world, in Ethiopia, concerts and outdoor festivals are quite rare. Some of these rare occasions include the annual Selam Festival and Acacia Jazz Music Festival.

The fifth year edition of Selam Festival was able to bring international musicians such as Alpha Blondy, the ancient Mali Griot (story tellers) and various alternative musicians.

Though this festival was successful in putting a vibrant show, the organizers do not deny how it is challenging to bring international artists to Ethiopia. With these rare happenings, one can count how many big artists have ever performed in Ethiopia.

While many renowned international artists performed in the neighboring countries such as Kenya it creates a question of why there are only few concerts here. Even with the few concerts it is common to hear renowned international artists cancelling, rescheduling or not showing up for their scheduled appearance. Some of these mishaps include the recently rescheduled Jah Cure’s concert on grounds of visa complication; the cancellation of the highly publicized Yassin Bey (Mos Def) over passport problem; P-square which were paid 200,000 dollars but decided to re-schedule the concert for a week; the cancellation of Damian Marley and Nas and the cancellation of another reggae artist Capelton.

Given the city’s status as Headquarter of the African Union and the special attachment the country has with reggae artists which they publicize in their songs would lead one to believe that A-list artists would be flocking to Addis Ababa to perform all the time. But, that is not the case. To the contrary, only a few artists such as Beyoncé Knowles, R-Kelly, Rihanna, Ludacris, Shaggy, Sean Paul, Ja Rule, Wyclef Jean performed live in Addis Ababa so far sponsored by Sheik Mohammed al Amoudi. These artists performed during various holidays throughout the years. In recent years, these annual concerts have become few and far between.

Sisay Mengiste, Selam Sounds General Manger, says that with a potentially large audience and few concerts, Addis Ababa is a chosen destination for concerts. Though he says that, looking at it from the organizers point of view, there are many challenges such as lack of sponsorship, lack of access to standardized musical equipment and financial challenges, the city is till the preferred destination for concerts.

According to Sisay international artists and their managers demand high quality musical equipment, staging, lighting, brands and specifications of musical instruments which are hard to find Ethiopia. 

There are only a few suppliers of musical equipment which according to Sisay might not fit with the specification of the international artists and are also very expensive.

“Usually, the suppliers of the equipment might not have the whole package of equipment. So, we are forced to bring from the various suppliers or tell the artists to bring their own equipment,” Sisay says.

Technical difficulties are also becoming a cliché in many of the events. Apart from that, some of the issues have got to do with the limited venues which can accommodate tens of thousands of people. Most of the festivals and concerts in recent times are held either in Ghion Hotel, Tropical Gardens or at the Millennium Hall; and many promoters and organizers of concerts are heard complaining with the inaccessibility of even some of these venues.

Apart from the technical aspect, Sisay says that international artists’ backstage demands are vast and luxurious which is difficult to handle for Ethiopian organizers. As far as backstage demands of artists go a lot of stories regarding ridiculous requests by artists are heard in the music industry. According to Mail online, some of the artists such as Paul McCartney requested nineteen leafy six feet. plants, four leafy four feet. plants and vegetarian catering; Mariah Carey on the other hand is rumored to have requested Crystal champagne, one box of bendy straws, one special attendant to dispose of used chewing gum, tea service for eight, a hone bear pack of honey, two air purifiers, puppy and kittens.

Whereas Beyonce requested Pepsi products only, honey nut cheerios, ginger root, a two-man love seat, constant temperature of 78 degree Fahrenheit in dressing room, toilet scrubbed with disinfectant, no sweets, chocolate or crisps in dressing room.

The backstage requests of these artists are very specific, which ranges from rose-scented candles to organic honey bans. Nevertheless, according to Sisay, artists’ requests are not backstage requests only; in fact he says it starts from the airplane sitting arrangement and accommodations.

Apart from their demands, the price of these artists is also very expensive, reaching up to a million dollars/concert.

According to Forbes list of the world’s 25 highest paid musicians, U2, Bon Jovi, Elton John and Lady Gaga lead the pack this year. It states that U2 were able to collect 195 million dollars. By the time U2’s two-year trek ends this summer, the band will have sold 700 million dollars worth of tickets over two years and played to more than 7 million people.

On the other hand, Bon Jovi earned 125 million dollar for his show. The band grossed 200 million dollars playing 74 shows over the past 12 months and released a greatest hit album.

Ethiopia is no exception to this, according to Sisay. These artists ask very high payment, professional fees and per diems, he told The Reporter. “They usually travel with a huge crew. So, we have to fulfill their every demand such as luxurious accommodation, professional fees and other facilities which piles up the cost of the festival,” Sisay says.

Sisay does not hide the fact that their backstage requirement is also a headache. Hence he says few sponsors and the lack of funding make their festival to compromise with choice of artists.

Finance has been a challenge to many of the concerts in Ethiopia. Even after artists arrive here, there were issues of payment. One example was the Trinidadian singer Marlon Asher’s concert which happened around ten years ago.

Renowned with his single “Ganja Farmer”, Marlon Asher had a contract with the organizers to perform at Shoa Entertainment around Bole. After singing one song the organizers could not pay him what they agreed so he left the stage with only a few minutes of stay on the stage.

Apart from that, one of the issues is to get approval from the Mayor’s office. Since all indoor, outdoor public gatherings and events need approval, concerts need to get proper approval before setting a date. According to Sisay, Selam also applied for to get the approval early this year. Since they could not get approval on time, they could not promote it on various media outlets, disseminate fliers or put a billboard; and that affected the turnout severely, Sisay told The Reporter.

Cultural and religious festivals such as Meskel and epiphany are popular in Ethiopia.  These are some of the popular events which bring together thousands of people outdoor. Though the society is accustomed to outdoor events, for Eyob Alemayehu, Yisakal Entertainment managing director, the main challenge is lack of audiences in outdoor festivals and live music concerts. For Eyob, who has been in the business of organizing music concerts and festivals for over a decade, the turnout of outdoor events is disappointing.

“Many organizers worked hard to bring festivals and live music concerts; but the culture of going to such events is not yet developed,” Eyob says. Looking back, the concerts they did such as Pras Michel, one of the founding members of the critically acclaimed hip-hop group, the Fugees, which, according to Eyob, did not get high turnout.

“It is not about the lining up of the artists. The society does not like to pay for music events. So, without sponsorship ticket sells does not cover the cost of concerts,” Eyob argues.

Eyob also says that with these challenges, many of the organizers do not sustain it rather they leave the business after doing one or two concerts. On the other hand, Eyob does not hide the fact that the gaps from the side of the organizers are also significant. He says that sometimes organizers announce the artist’s name without finalizing the deal or other important details such as visa issues and payment issues with the bank. In some instances, Eyob says the industry does not have a proper channel.

“Some international artists re-schedule the concerts or cancel the concerts even after payment. When that happens, there is no consequence. So they think they can get away with violating agreements,” Eyob says.

For the renowned pianist Samuel Yirga, who performed in festivals such as Glastonbury Festival in front of more than 180 000 people, the problem lies with the lack of professionalism from the organizers side.

According to Samuel, in many of the international concerts and festivals, it takes more than a year to organize it but in the Ethiopian case it is not more than two or three months. “They even contact artists to perform in such short notice and that is the why show gets canceled,” Samuel says.

For Glastonbury Festival, for example, the organizers contacted Samuel some eight months prior to the concert requesting details on his technical ride (a document which specifies the type of equipment to be used the staff to be provides and various business arrangements).

In Ethiopia, he says that many of the artists are asked when they arrive at the spot. Additionally, in the international festivals, there are backstage spaces for each artist, whereas in Addis Ababa, he says that there is only one tent for every artist and no privacy. Unfortunately, he saw women artists having difficulty to change due to this.

Apart from that, he says organizers should learn how to start small and he mentions the example of Glastonbury which only started with hundreds of audiences. “These are not only merely festival rather a social and cultural platforms for the community. We could have created this if we plan it with a purpose,” Samuel adds. “There are many festivals in Africa and many tourists go to these festivals. If we organize these kinds of festivals the tourists will also pass through our festivals,” he explains. Apart from those issues bureaucracy of securing venues and lack of venues are some of the issues he mentions. In those cases he suggests using alternative venues such as football stadiums.

From all these, the biggest issue would be how many of the organizers in Ethiopia are only focused in making profit. “Their only motive is making money; so it affects their judgment. They choose cheap equipment, even damaged ones, that is why we do not see good concerts,” Samuel says.

For Samuel, professionalism on how to manage a concert and doing concerts with a purpose are compulsory issues; and he says that that is also the reason how many of the international festivals became successful.