The Arranger

The Golden Era of Ethiopian Music

One thing that makes the Ethiopian music of the Golden Era different than the music of today is the richness of the instrumentation and the importance of the arranger.  The orchestras and bands consisted of musicians playing the saxophone, trumpet, guitars (lead and bass), piano/organ, drums and percussion. Some orchestra’s even had a string section. As for the arrangements that were done in this era, not only are they, in my view,  first-rate; they are timeless.

Girma Beyene and Mulatu Astatke

Girma Beyene, was one of these arrangers.  He was everything most musicians can only dream of being: a lyricist, a music writer, an arranger, a vocalist, an a accomplished pianist and finally a bandleader. To most, if any name comes to mind with the word arranger, it is probably that of Mulatu Astatqe.  Yet, according to Ethiopiques Series producer Francis Falceto*, in the heyday of vinyl records, Girma Beyene is credited to having arranged close to 65 titles, compared to Mulatu’s 40.  Girma left a handful of recordings as a vocalist, but it was as an arranger and pianist that he is fondly remembered today.

Early Promise

Born in Addis Ababa, Girma Beyene completed his primary education at the Nativity Catholic Cathedral School. He started his career as a musician when he received rave reviews for his performance with Girma Bogale on acoustic guitar at the Haile Selassie I Theatre. He was in high school at the time and the critical acclaim he received led him to practice with the Haile Selassie I Theatre Orchestra during his school breaks.  In 1961, Girma Beyene and Bahta Gebrehiwot (known for his song “Anchim Endelela“) were picked to join the Ras Band at the Ras Hotel from a pool of about 70.

The first Ras Band was formed in late 1961. It was led by Tefera Mekonnen (piano, music writer and arranger), Getachew Welde-Michael and later Wodajeneh Felfelu (saxophone), Zewdu Desta and later Assefa Bayisa (trumpet), Tilahun Yimer (bass), Bahru Tedla (drums), Bahta Gebrehiwot (Amharic and Tigrigna vocals), Girma Beyene (English vocals) and Gebreab Teferi (MC and lyricist). Most of the members of the first Ras Band camefrom the Haile Selassie I Theatre Orchestra:  Wodajeneh Felfelu, Assefa Bayisa, Tefera Mekonnen, Tilahun Yimer and Bahru Tedla. The Orchestra was then led by the famous Armenian Nerses Nalbandian (1915-1977), the grandfather of all arrangers of modern Ethiopian music, and perhaps the first to marry traditional melodies with modern, big band brass instruments, as well as the piano, upright bass, Western drums, and guitar. Until 1955, Tefera Mekonnen, Tilahun Yimer and Bahru Tedla were also in the Imperial Bodyguard Orchestra Jazz Symphony under Austrian Franz Zelwecher (1911-1998). As members of the Jazz Symphony, Tefera played the upright bass while Tilahun and Bahru played, respectively, percussion and the drums.  Today,  Bahta Gebre Hiwot, Tilahun Yimer*** and Girma Beyene remain the only survivors.

In 1965, the first Ras Hotel Band renamed themselves The Ghion Band and moved to the Ghion Hotel.  The self taught Girma Beyene (he never had formal training in playing music instruments or arranging music) decided to form The Girmas Band along with Girma Zemaryam on drums.  The Girmas recorded Qurtun Negerign (Tewedjegn Endew) a gem written by Girma Beyene. Girma used the music to Qurtun Negerign to do an ad for Gillette.  The ad was so famous that it is still remembered today by the generation of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  It was soon after that Girma formed the second Ras Band.  The band consisted of Girma Beyene (piano & English vocals), Tesfamariam Kidane (saxophone), Hailu “Zehon” Kebede (bass) Tesfaye “Hodo” Mekonnen (drums), Menelik Wossenachew and Seyfu Yohannes (vocalists).  While with the second Ras Band, Girma Beyene wrote and arranged, Menelik Wossenachew’s  Wub Nat  and Seyfu Yohannes’ Qonjiteye, and Ewedesh Nebere.

Ras Band 2.JPGIn the mid 1960s he wrote and arranged gems such as Tirulign Tolo (Fitsum, Fitsum), Meslogn Neber, Neyna Entchawet, Rocket Besera and Tsigereda.  In 2003, Shewandagne Hailu, did a cover of “Tsigereda.”  In a blatant act of hopefully unintentional misrepresentation, in the U.S. release of Shewandagne’s  album “Sik Alegn,” the producer credits Teddy “Afro” Kassahun as the lyricist and music writer for “Tsigereda.”  Shewandagne Hailu in an undated interview for Addis Live Radio, said that he had asked for and garnered Girma Beyene’s permission before he released his version.

Recording Set Alamenem

In 1969, Girma Beyene recorded four tracks for Amha Records (named after the owner Amha Eshete, who also owned Harambe Music Store) including Set Alamenem (Lyrics by Girma Beyene, music by Girma Beyene and arranged by Mulatu Astatqe). In my view, “Set Alamenem,” is a masterpiece; it’s been reported that Girma actually went through the heartache the lyrics so movingly describe, and perhaps this accounts for both its beauty and its transcendental misery.  The music and Girma’s vocals on Set Alamenem are described in this manner by Joe Tangari on Pitchfork Media:

This is the sound of smoke wafting through the air in some Addis Ababa nightspot– you can almost hear the drinks clinking in the background. The organ could have fit on Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets, but the song’s dark, luxuriant sprawl is different from a traditional understanding of psychedelia– it’s altered states via ancient Coptic churches carved in solid stone, with the bass strangely mixed almost as high as the vocals. Beyene’s whispered vocal delivery burns with quiet intensity and Mulatu Astatque’s vibes wrap them in dense, unhurried atmosphere.

These four tracks were remastered and released on Ethiopiques 8: Swinging Addis:

  • Dawit “Messay” Melesse did a  cover of “Set Alamenem” in the early ‘90’s.  The producer’s failure to give credit to Girma Beyene led the younger generation, and even in one occasion, a seasoned musician to think it was Dawit’s original.  For the record, Dawit never claimed it was him that sang it first.  In fact, he has gone as far as correcting fans of this oversight.
  • Second, Enken Yelelebesh (Lyrics by Getachew Degefu (1944-2000) a famous pianist player who contributed to the Ethiopian Airlines Instrumentals, music by Girma Beyene, arranged by Mulatu Astatqe)  The band Lasta Sound did a cover of Enken Yelelebesh under the title “Ethiopiawit Konjo.” In their liner notes they give Girma Beyene full credit and thank him for his contribution.  It’s said that this song was written for W/zt Sophia Assfaw who had won the first Miss Ethiopia pageant in 1964.
  • Third, Ene Negn Bay Manesh (Lyrics by Getachew Degefu, Music by Girma Beyene, Arranged by Mulatu Astatqe) and finally,
  • Yebeqagnal (Lyrics by Bahta Gebre Hiwot, music by Bahta Gebre Hiwot, arranged by Girma Beyene)  In an a undated interview for Addis Live Radio, Bahta Gebre Hiwot humbly admits that Girma Beyene’s version is by far the better one.

Girma’s departure from the Girma’s Band led to the formation of The All Star Band (1970-1972) and The Alem-Girma Band (1972-1974) respectively.

The All Star Band was formed in 1970.  It members were for the most part taken from two popular bands, The second Ras Band, and The Soul Ekos Band. Members from the Ras Band were Girma Beyene (keyboards), Tesfamariam Kidane (sax), Hailu “Zehon” Kebede (bass) and Menelik Wossenachew (vocals). Feqade Amdemesqel (sax), Hailu “Zehon” Kebede (bass), Tamerat “Lotti” Kebede (drums) were members of Soul Ekos.  Tekle “Huket” Adhanom (guitar) and Girma Tchibsa (percussion) were the only new additions in terms of band experience. Alemayehu Eshete (vocals) came from the Police Orchestra.  Between 1970-1972, the All Star Band recorded a great deal with Alemayehu Eshete and Menelik Wossenachew.  Alemayehu’s releases included, Alteleyeshegnem, Teredechewalhu, Tchero Adari Negn, Addis Ababa Bete, Yeweyn Haregitu, Denyew Deneba, Temehert Bete and Nefas Endayegeban.  Menelik’s releases include Tizita, Chereqa, and Meqaberen Liyew.  With the exception of Tizita (Mulatu Astatqe), Girma Beyene did all the arrangements for the above songs.


The Alem Girma Band & Alemayehu Eshete

Alem Girma Band.JPG

The Alem-Girma Band was formed by Alemayehu Eshete and Girma Beyene. Both shared the taste of music and clothing fashion that was coming from US (James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Wilson Pickett to name a few.) It was during these years that Girma arranged Alemayehu Eshete’s famous songs such as Addis Ababa Bete, Yewoine Haregitu, Teredchewalehu, Man Yehon Teleq Sew, Eruq Yaleshew, Alteleyeshegnem, Shegitu Mare, Hiwote Abate New, Qotchegn Messassate, Telantena Zare, Tchero Adari Negn, Eskegizew Berchi, and Ayalqem Tedenqo. In an undated interview Alemayehu Eshete gave to Addis Live Radio he acknowledges that the band that he felt contributed the most was the Alem-Girma Band.  It is important to note that bands such as the All Star Band and the Alem-Girma Band were session bands.  They were sought after for their creativity in the studio as opposed to being a live band.

End of an Era

The 1974 Revolution extinguished the Addis Swing era. Lead singers such as Alemayehu Eshete, Tilahun Gesesse, Bizunesh Beqele and Hirut Beqele were forced to sing in the military bands. Amha Eshete and other notable musicians fled Ethiopia to save their lives. It was during this time that Girma Beyene joined the Walias Band. It’s members included Hailu Mergia (organ), Moges Habte (sax), Yohannes Tekola (trumpet), Mahmoud Aman (guitar), Temare Harege (drums) and  Girma Chibsa (percussion).  It was here that he composed, “Musiqawi Silt,” a tune that has adorned the Ethiopian instrumental music scene for years and even remade by various U.S. bands including The Either Orchestra, The Daktaris, and Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.

In 1981, while the Walias Band was on tour in the United States, some members including Girma Beyene decided to remain in the US. It was soon after that Girma Beyene lost his beloved wife. Though never confirmed, some say his grief led to his untimely departure from the music scene altogether.

Abegaz Kebrework Shiota, related a story to Kyle Stone** that in the 1990’s, while living in  Manhattan, he and a friend, the bass player Fasil Wuhib, were walking through New York’s Central Park.  To their utter astonishment, they heard the unmistakable sounds of familiar Ethiopian music. They came across a group of young African-American musicians, “kids, really,” playing, and when they finished, one said to the small crowd which had gathered, “That was a tune by the great Ethiopian composer Girma Beyene.”  “It made us realize,” Abegaz added later, “how we had overlooked this gem which was in our midst.”

In November of 2007, “Ethiopiques 22: Alemayehu Eshete featuring Girma Beyene-More Vintage” was released.  The 18 tracks on the CD were recorded between 1972 and 1974.  All of the tracks featured Girma Beyene on arrangments and piano.  Tracks from this CD include, “Ambassel,” “Temar Lidje,” “Gubeleye,” “Hode Fera,” and “Yebeqanal.”  With this release, Girma Beyene’s contribution to the Golden Era is further solidified.

Starting in the late 1990’s and continuing today Ethiopian music is finally basking in a unprecedented degree of international appreciation.  Francis Falceto, the producer of the ever popular, Ethiopiques series (Twenty Three volumes to date),  is the lone crusader who has worked tirelessly to bring the likes of Girma Beyene, Hailu “Zehon” Kebede, Tekle “Huket” Adhanom, Tesfamariam Kidane and Mulatu Astatke to the limelight. Falceto has included meticulous liner notes accompanying each volume, and it is he who deserves credit for identifying these giants of Ethiopian music who would have otherwise remained both faceless and nameless.  Though Falceto unearthed these recordings more than 25 years after their recording, the ultimate appreciation and credit goes to producer Amha Eshete.  His vision to record these gems is the sole reason as to why we are enjoying these amazing tunes today.

Girma Beyene  still lives in the Washington D.C. area.  Though we have not heard from this giant in more than twenty years, it is this author’s hope and dream that Girma Beyene will return to his first love, music, in the near future.

*I’m grateful to Francis Falceto for giving me permission to use the liner notes and photos from Ethiopiques 1, 4, 8 & 9 and his wonderful book Abyssine Swing: a pictorial history of modern Ethiopian music

**Kyle Stone is an independent filmmaker who is filming a historical documentary, “The Days All Start At Midnight: Swinging Addis And Its Music,” on the “golden age” of Ethiopian music in which Girma played such a key part, and is seeking funds to go to Addis and finish production there.

***Thank you to “Sosity” who informed us that her father, Tilahun Yimer, is still alive and well! I was mistaken that Gash Tilahun had passed on.

Girma Beyene at Alliance
Girma Beyene at an event honoring him at Alliance in 2008

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