The odyssey of a keyboard virtuoso
Many recognize him as the founding member and chairperson of the board of the Ethiopian Musicians’ Association and as a relentless fighter for the respect of copyright laws. One of the legendary musicians, Dawit Yifru, has been the face of the association for more than 12 years. This iconic musician has been in the music scene for the past 54 years in various calibers as a keyboardist and a music arranger. Born in the Dejach Wube neighborhood of Addis Ababa in 1952, his music career started at a young age. Growing up with grandparents, according to Dawit, gave him the freedom to pursue his passion for music. Dawit’s music odyssey started at the National Theatre and later established historical bands such as Dahlak and Roha. Many music experts say Roha was able to set a trend that shaped the country's music. Throughout the years, Roha was able to record and feature more than 250 iconic albums and musicians including Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessesse, Hirut Bekele, Alemayehu Eshete, Muluken Melesse and others.
Behind all these memorable music works, the creativity of one humble musician’s arrangement is in evidence. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter recently caught up with Dawit Yifru to discuss his decades-long presence in the Ethiopian music scene. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Your involvement with music is more than four decades long. When did it all start?
Dawit Yifru: It all started as a summer pastime. I remember I was in third grade, and during the two-month school break, I decided to register in a music class at the National Theatre, formerly known as the Haileselassie I Theatre. I first tried my hand as a vocalist to be part of a choir, then later on, a proper music class started. They trained us on how to read music notes and also on how to play musical instruments. Luckily, I was trained in how to play the piano, violin, and guitar. In addition to that, the renowned Armenian musician Nerses Nalbandian trained me in music arrangement. That was the start of my arrangement career. After that, I arranged countless songs for various musicians in different genres.
For how long did the summer school program continue?
The music program was designed not only for music; rather, the idea was to include it as part of the regular curriculum. During that time, the basic subjects were mathematics, English and Amharic. After the completion of this program, they promised to send us abroad in order to pursue further studies in music.
We were around 120 students aged 10 to16. The program did not go as intended as it did not include compulsory subjects. Rather, around 16 students were chosen as a second band for the Kedamawi Haileselassie Theater. That is how Dawit Orchestra was established. For almost three years, we only focused on the music and the compulsory subjects were left aside. Later on, they understood that they had to enroll us in other school programs. I was tested to determine which grade I fit in even though my schooling was interrupted in the 3rd grade. I was told that I could automatically be upgraded to the sixth level. I attended school up to the eighth grade at Shimeles Habte School. My result in the national exam at the eighth grade was good, and that opened a door for me to join the Commercial School of Addis Ababa. Back then, advanced programs, which were offered at institutions of higher learning, could be given for students who completed eighth grade. After four years of schooling, I graduated in accounting. In addition to that, I graduated from the National Theatre with a certificate and from the Yared Music School with an advanced diploma.
I was not far away from music. I was part of the orchestra after school hours and during weekends. We performed at different occasions such as weddings, parties and holidays, and we got paid doing that. The money at first was something like 20 birr a month, and eventually was increased to 60 birr.
How was the music scene back then? What kind of bands existed?
That was a time for big bands to flourish. In one band, there was a keyboard, two guitars, four wind instruments, a drum and dancers. There were iconic bands such as the Kibur Zebegna (Imperial Bodyguard) Orchestra, the Police Orchestra, the National Theatre, and Orchestra Ethiopia and Yared Orchestra. Our orchestra was also a big band and it served as a replacement for Yared Orchestra, which was a big band performing at the Kedamawi Haileselassie Theater.
Genre-wise, what kind of music did your band play?
The music we played is commonly known as modern music. Musicians such as Melkamu Tebeje and Tesfaye Belay started their career with our orchestra. After obtaining my accounting diploma, I joined the Awash Agro Authority. We did not leave music. We rather established our own band -- Dahlak. We started performing at Venus Bar located in Piazza in front of Gebre Tensay Pastry; and later it moved to the basement of Ambassador Theatre. When we became famous, we started performing in hotels such as Wabi Shebele and Ghion. We recruited prominent singers such as Menelik Wossenachew, Muluken Melesse and Redi Ibrahim, the latter renowned for doing English cover songs. It was during the eve of the revolution of 1974 that Dahlak started getting prominence. It was a turbulent time. There were demonstrations, protest rallies and killings and in one incident a bomb went off at Wabi Shebele Hotel and that was the end of our stint there.
During the reign of Emperor Haileselassie, many music stores were owned by foreigners and it was later on that the likes of Ameha Eshete were able to penetrate the music market. Could you share your impression of that period?
The music scene was not vibrant. The Ethiopian society despised singers, songwriters and denigrated them with the word azmari, a derogatory term for a vocalist. Contrary to that, the big orchestras such as Kibur Zebegna, Police and Orchestra Ethiopia that were supported by the government were given due recognition and respected. Naming and shaming of individual musicians was quite common. Actually, musicians who passed through that trial and tribulations for me showed persistence. The fact that Yared Music School was established showed the importance the government had attached to the development of Ethiopian music.
In addition to that, in Police Orchestra there was a symphonic orchestra, which is one of the first in Africa.
This is five decades ago and it is very difficult to expect people to like symphonic orchestra. Since there was resistance when it comes to Ethio-jazz, how was symphonic orchestra or classical music received among Ethiopians?
Some of the government officials and others who went abroad for schooling, got exposed to jazz, ballet, classical music and pop. The trend here at first was copying anything that was western. In the music field, officials in higher position wanted to see the music incorporating western elements. Especially Brigadier General Tsige Dibu, the commander of the police force, was highly fond of symphonic orchestra. He supported the symphonic orchestra financially and helped bring musicians from abroad in order to train Ethiopian musicians. However, ordinary Ethiopians did not understand symphonic orchestra; even quite a few government officials did not get it. When I was part of Dawit Orchestra, we played symphonic orchestra featured by the Police Orchestra. We played it for Emperor Haileselassie and his officials. Unfortunately, Emperor Haileselassie could not finish our program; he and his officials walked out mid-way through. That was heartbreaking. We had studied the symphonic orchestra for a year, and the king could not stand this, and what could be more heartbreaking than this. I think that is also the end of our symphonic orchestra career. We then completely shifted to pop music. The Ethiopian diaspora liked the western type of music, and many Ethiopians also appreciated traditional music, and we were all part of this.
That generation was highly influenced by classical music and is it safe to say that your music only catered to the educated “elite”?
Yes, classical music is a foundation if one chooses to go to various genres such as jazz. Still, at the Yared Music School, the foundation is classical music. Yes, our music only catered to the elite. Our music was for townspeople, specifically for the educated ones. The rural parts of the country were completely forgotten.
How was the music scene when you were playing with Dahlak band? Were there many bands around?
There were bands like Ibex, Walias, Shebele, Ethio Star and some others that had yet to achieve recognition. Compared to the size of the population then, there were many bands. In Addis Ababa, the population was less than 500,000 and all over the country, it was about 25 million. We used to attract a huge crowd when we were playing at Ghion Hotel. There were long queues; and on weekends, people paid up to 15 birr, and that was a lot of money four decades ago.
How was the transition from Dahlak to Roha?
Dahlak band existed for about ten years. Many youths were fleeing to Kenya, Djibouti and Sudan, and the latter was musicians’ chosen destination. The country was in turmoil and many chose to escape that. The making of the Roha Band became a reality in 1979 with the disbanding of the Ibex and Dahlak bands. The founding members, Giovanni, Selam and Fekade from Ibex and me and Levon Fondachi (son of one of the 40 Armenian marching band members who came to Ethiopia during the 1920s), Tekle Tesfazgi (drummer and vocalist) from Dahlak came together to establish Roha. The band took its name from the ancient name of Lalibela (a town in northern Ethiopia). Levon Fondachi gave the name to the band.
Roha Band was able to release more than 250 albums (2500 songs) and it was the force behind the boost in audiocassette sales, which increased from 1,000 to 100,000 copies. How was that possible?
Before the establishment of Roha, Ibex was recording and arranging music. When I was with Dahlak, I arranged for musicians such as Hirut Bekele, Muluken Melesse, Teshome Wolde, Melkamu Tebeje and others. We arranged and featured them live in the recording of the music. Therefore, Roha brought two strong forces in the music industry. Following that, all the musicians were lining up for recording. After a while, we became selective of the musicians we are recording and producing. The reason we became popular was that we were able to do everything such as arrangement, recording, featuring. The other thing was musicians’ works, which were done in our studio, became successful in the market. Since the music scene was filled with propaganda materials, the albums we recorded were entertaining people. There were stories of soldiers in their barracks buying our works as soon as they received their salaries. It overwhelmed the urban scene and sometimes 100 thousand copies of cassettes were sold. Publishers were also benefiting financially. Musicians swarmed up our studio inside the Ghion Hotel. We performed two nights a week. The other days and nights were reserved for music recording, rehearsing and arranging.
How was the recording done back then?
All recording was done on a single track in one sound system. There were multiple microphones for various musical instruments. It was mono recording. The cassette is recorded live and if a single mistake was made, we had to do it all over again. Sometimes one song might take more than a week to record, and when mistakes were found, we were disappointed. It was tiring but we also perfected the final product.
Which were the most iconic albums for you?
I remember the albums through the musicians. From the get-go to them being established artists, we backed them up. Muluken Melesse’s songs such as Nanu nanu ney, Wasa megena,; Mahmoud Ahmed’s Yager betua, Ashkaru; Tsehaye Yohannes’s Yaz yaz; Neway Debebe’s Yetikimit abeba; Ephrem Tamiru’s countless albums; Teshome Wolde; Hirut Bekele; Kuku Sebsibe; Alemayehu Eshete; Tilahun Gessesse. It is countless.
So, you took the role of keyboard player and arranger in the cassette recordings, is that right?
Yes, I arranged many songs and played the keyboard. One thing that has to be clear is music is a teamwork and Roha band performed collectively. I cannot say I did the arrangement alone.
This period marked the end of big bands and the birth of chic chica (Ethiopian pop) sound and how was the transition for you?
When it comes to chic chica style, the contribution of Mahmoud Ahmed and Muluken Melesse is significant. Their music was transformed from traditional music into the new sound. This actually enabled the audience to do traditional eskista (dance) with this new Ethiopian pop music style. Big bands focused on American and European music style, and that means the dancing were chacha, Waltz, Tango and Twist. This completely transformed traditional music, and it was fused with western elements and eskista was possible. This was not possible with a big band so we reduced it into a six-member band. The public loved their songs, their eskista and that is how chic chica was also loved and continues to be loved.
During the Derg time, censorship was tight. There was also curfew. How did that affect musicians?
The musicians wanted to be far away from the political scene. There was an obligation when it comes to doing propaganda music especially when it comes to institutions. As a private band, we focused mainly on romantic and such other topics. The cassettes we produced were sold in their thousands daily.
It was a time of war and terror so people sought solace in music. Therefore, nightclubs were the chosen venues, people dancing all their worries away.
Unfortunately, that is how one of the band members, Tekle Tesfazgi, passed away in a car accident while rushing to make it before the curfew kicked in?
Nightclubs played a big role in the development of music. Many of the nightclubs were located around the Dejach Wube area (endearingly referred to as Wube Bereha – the Desert), and later the hangout spot became the Nifas Silk area or and discotheques cropped up here and there, and transforming many old villas into nightclubs.
These nightclubs used vinyl recordings and later on band music took over. Nightclubs became stepping-stones for bands that later progressed to the hotels. Nightclubs are still a very crucial place for music and musicians. The government wanted to use the music as a propaganda tool and musicians were not forced to enlist in the military. Usually, the revolutionary guards move around the nightclubs and hotels to arrest those who were suspected of being anti-revolutionary. When the revolutionary guards crashed into the clubs, the dim lights would be switched off, and normal light would be switched on. They then would arrest suspects. Even if they did not make any arrests, they would put a damper on an otherwise jolly atmosphere with such worn-out slogans, "Ethiopia or death!," "Down with the reactionary!". After that, they would walk out dramatically, and the audience would clap and the performance would continue.
According to Semeneh Betreyohannes's thesis, entitled “Music and Politics in Twentieth Century Ethiopia: Empire, Modernization and Revolution,” cultural isolation from the west during the socialist government led Roha and a few other active bands to seek inspiration from indigenous music. Was that the case?
During the time of the Derg, foreign songs were still played at nightclubs. It was a time when we focused on incorporating traditional Ethiopian music. We wanted to introduce a new style of music that is Ethiopian. In addition to that, the replacement of vinyl records by cassettes also encouraged people to purchase music, which encouraged us to do Ethiopian pop songs. I do not think it is cultural isolation that made us shift to indigenous music.
How did Tekle Tesfazgi’s death affect the band?
He was one of the founders of the Roha band. He played drum, Tigrigna, Arabic and Sudanese music. He was one of the loved characters. The accident happened after performing at a wedding. We finished around 11 p.m. and we left. Since he had a close relationship with the groom's family, he stayed behind for half an hour or so. Curfew was at midnight. He was driving a Fiat 125. Driving fast from the Old Airport neighborhood of Addis, he just bumped into a military car. He died instantly. After his death, so many conspiracy theories were bandied about on how the government killed him. I do not think the government had any hand in Tekle Tesfazgi’s sad fate.
What was the reason for the conspiracy? Was he suspected of being anti-government?
During that time, being Tigre (a person originating from the northern Tigray region) was not easy, let alone singing in Tigrigna. One cannot merely perform Tigrigna songs. The lyrics have to be translated into Amharic and then pass censorship. Sometimes there is a mistake in translation and Tekle's songs would wrongly be interpreted as being politically motivated.
There were also Tigrigna singers who were popular such as Kiros Alemayehu. How was it possible for him to pass the censorship?
He also suffered from censorship. He could not release cassettes for a long time. He was imprisoned and tortured. His songs were also viewed as having double meanings. Censorship also applied for Amharic and Oromiffa songs; the latter were translated into Amharic before a review. It was a time when many musicians were imprisoned, including Tilahun Gessesse.
You were also imprisoned for a couple of months. Can you tell me more about that?
It happened right after the fall of Emperor Haileselassie. After it was recorded on reel tape, a work would usually be sent to Greece or India to be published on vinyl. At that time, I arranged a song entitled ‘Lomi Tera Tera’ for Telela Kebede and was published in India. Since it was a time of transition, we thought authorities would be lenient. Nevertheless, that period passed and during the sale of the vinyl, government officials expressed their displeasure with the lyrics. They said the lyrics praised the ancien regime. Though I do not remember the exact lyrics, we could not escape imprisonment. Therefore, along with the singer, the lyricist and the publisher I was put in Maekelawi prison among high-profile criminals. I was pardoned after four months and was not imprisoned after that.
So why did Roha disband?
I think everything has its own time. Roha band exclusively performed in five-star hotels and we kept that standard for so many years. Our last major tour was in 1990 during which time we performed in 20 American cities. At that time, Roha entrusted our young protégés -- the Axumite band – with the task of fulfilling our obligations at the Hilton. When we came back from the tour, the Hilton administration demanded an amendment to the contract, asking us to perform for less money. We did not want that so we went our own way. In addition to that, there were many reasons we could not continue as a band. I did not stop performing, and I kept on playing at Concord Hotel, China Restaurant, and Dessalegn Hotel.
After performing on my own for a couple of years we established a new band called Four Star 15 years ago. I love performing. Currently, we play smooth, standard jazz once a week at Jupiter Hotel. Somehow, jazz is actually taking over the music and the band scene in the two decades. I think this is all got to do with the returning of many diasporas who love jazz.
In your five decades of performing, which stages are memorable for you?
After the 1984 famine, university students were participating in a resettlement program. During their stay in a remote area, the university students asked for Roha band to entertain them. We were invited to perform in the Pawe resettlement area, which hosted more than 10,000 university students. We slept in tents for about two months while performing for free. It was one of the highlights of my career. It was beautiful. There were many memorable occasions. I love performing to people who can appreciate music.
Could you tell me a little something about the types of audience over the years?
At the time I began performing to audiences, they took what we gave them. With the advancement of technology, people became more discerning, and started listening to our music critically. During the old times, they focused more on lyrics and contemporarily they focuson the music. If one key goes wrong, one cannot get away with it because there are many in the audience who are music literate.
Another thing was that people wouldn’t readily dance back then. It was taken as a shameful act if one danced; but nowadays people dance at the slightest of excuses.
Who do you most appreciate among contemporary musicians?
The current musicians like the old music. They dig music that we do not know about and try to do cover songs but unfortunately, most of them are not creative. Musically they can arrange and they can do good songs. Some of the songs sound so foreign and one might doubt if it is Ethiopian. It is only a few who were able to create their sounds but most of them cannot get their sounds. It sounds like dubbing. I like the old musicians more. But let me refrain from naming any individual.
Do you still arrange music?
No, I do not arrange music any more. It’s been a while.
So you currently focus on the music association?
For almost 12 years now, I’ve been heavily involved in the association. Especially, right now the association is getting momentum because the young musicians believe in working collectively. They are fighting for their rights.