As a child, Ansaketch Worku‘s first foray into the Arts came when she purchased her first krar for 25 cents. Little did she know that this would be the trigger that would lead her to the art form she really came to love – acting.
If all you think of when you hear the name of Asnaketch Worku is the timeless classic ‘Ende Eyerusalem’ which she wrote and first performed over 50 years ago, you would be missing much of the incredible story of this giant of the Ethiopian arts. For many of us, the mental picture we get of this celebrated artist may be that of her later years but there was once a time when Asnakech Worku, the diversely talented actress and krar wielding musician extraordinaire, was considered the very epitome of glamour and sensuality in Ethiopian theater. Her intoxicating talent and born sensuality gave her license to place her indelible imprint on some of the most memorable moments of National Theater’s august history.
That she is still thought of today primarily in terms of her talents as a musician is no slight to her contributions on stage, but a testament to the considerable influence she also exerted in the company of the trusty old krar that she purchased as a child for 25 cents.
Asnaketch recalls Sidist Kilo (or ‘Gedam Sefer’ as she refers to it) as being her place of birth around 1926 EC. But no one really knows where she was born or indeed many details of her early childhood since her mother passed when she was only three and the identity of her father is unknown to this day. Eventually, her godmother became her guardian and raised her to be a fun loving child amongst her friends in the neighborhood.
Despite the beginning signs of progressive modernization in Addis, formal education was still in its infancy and for many families, instruction provided by church priests in the neighborhood (Qes Timhirt Bet) was the norm. Asnakech got her first taste of schooling at such an establishment but displayed a hunger for learning well beyond what was available at the rudimentary facilities. Beyond mastering all manner of traditional skills around the house from cooking to spinning cloth and others, she had a strong desire for the more formal training available in the early schools of the time though there was only one school for girls in the city. So she approached the headmistress of the Etege Menen School for Girls – one Wzo. Senedu Gebru who would later become the first woman elected to Parliament in 1957 – to try her luck. Although she was granted permission to enroll, the mandatory requirement that she pass a medical check up meant that she had to ask her sister Elfenesh Marefia for the money to pay for the exam and for her school uniform. After a neighbor cheated her out of the money that her sister had gladly provided for this purpose, Asnakech’s dream of going to school and bettering herself came to an end.
Uneasy Path To Adulthood
Asnaketch’s relationship with her godmother was an uneasy one at best. Her strong perceptions of being treated unfairly eventually led her to move in with her sister Elfenesh. To make a living, she started working at a bar around the Churchill Road area of town. Her fair complexion led many of the bar patrons to initially believe she was a foreigner. But with time, they came to understand that she was one of them and consequently, Asnaketch had to endure many unwanted advances which led her to quit her job in favor of relocating her stay around Doro Manekia. Her turbulent life did not stop at work. Her sister’s neighbors were beginning to talk about the young girl’s associations and the fact that she had been bringing men around the house without Elfenesh’s knowledge. Although Elfenesh had always wanted the best for her little sister and avoided judging her actions, she felt it might be better for Asnaketch to be away for a while and sent her to live with an aunt. Things didn’t work out there either and soon after, Asnaketch was on her way to a different aunt where she finally settled in and found a peaceful home.Asnaketch’s beauty was beginning to attract suitors far and wide. They called on her aunt repeatedly asking for her hand in marriage but it was to be an Italian gentleman who lived in the neighborhood that won over the aunt and in due course took Asnaketch’s hand in marriage. Not yet 20 at the time, the young girl who was constantly inundated with continuing advances from men who were so taken with her beauty and charm, did not handle her marriage very well. In fact she fled her husband’s home on several occasions, sometimes engaging in improper relationships with admiring men who were ever present in her life. On one of these flights away from her husband, she became pregnant from another man. Despite this transgression, her husband agreed to take her back into his home. But while he was out of the country to visit his family abroad, Asnaketch regressed into her old ways and after a night of partying in her old haunts had a nasty fall and was admitted to Ras Desta Hospital. Fatefully, she lost the baby she had been carrying only a few months from when she was to give birth. This was to be a turning point in her life as she abandoned her free wheeling ways and committed herself to her husband and to fulfilling long held dreams of doing something substantive with her life. This was the precursor which led to her rededication to music.
Asnaketch Discovers Her True Calling
The year 1939 is considered to be a renaissance period for modern theatre and music in Ethiopia. The Haileselassie I Theater was under the Administration of the old Addis Ababa Municipality at the time. The Municipality started to train artists from ‘Arada Zebegna’ and elsewhere on three month scholarships. Yofathae Neguse, Dej. Germachew, Ras Betweded Mekonen were some of the names in the theatrical field of the 1940’s to emerge from this program while in the area of music, Captain Nalbandien, Habte-Gorgis Gemeda (Aymeraiw) and Lemma Feysa were the most iconic.
Since women’s participation in the cultural arts was limited at that time, male artists were forced to play female characters masked in makeup and dress. But by the time Tesfaye Tesema took over the the old Addis Ababa Muncipality administrative seat, he started to develop new ways to alleviate such drawbacks. While he was co-authoring ‘Ye Fiker Chora’ (a play about the romantic experiences between two young couples) script with his best friend Asfaw Tefera, finding a female character to play a role became their main concern. It was at this hour that Asnaketch appeared on the scene. She was asked to play the main female character in the play ‘Abeba’. As she was working hard to master the role given to her, Asnaketch began to develop a love for the art form she was to leave an indelible imprint on in the next couple of decades. When ‘Ye Fikir Chora’ opened to the public, audiences wept as her performance in the romantic play elicited comparisons with the timeless story of Romeo and Juliet. With that, Asnaketch introduced herself to an adoring public that would give her its rapt attention for some time to come.
Performing on stage, 1952
Traditional dance at National Theater
Playing the part of an angel, 1949
The ever smiling Asnaketch in her middle age
In 1947, Mr. Françoise Zelveker and his wife came from Vienna to oversee the National Theater. Mr. Zelveker embarked on restructuring the music team into 60 groups and began to teach them contemporary music, theater and art. More women were beginning to be represented in the arts with Telela Kebede, Mulumebet Hailemariam, Askale Amenshewa, Beletu Atenafu, Selamawit Gebereselassie and Zenebech Tesfaye among few of the Haileselassie I Theater pioneer artists that joined the team. While Mr. Zelveker focused on transforming the theater scene, Madam Zelveker used to assist him as a makeup artist and oriental dance trainer. She was immediately struck by the artistic talent of Asnaketch Worku used to spend hours helping her with her stage looks. 1948: As the Hailesselasie I Theater geared up for Emperor Haile Selassie’s 25th year Coronation Anniversary, Mr. Zelveker took an assignment of organizing selected plays for this event. He directed such scripts as ‘Hanibal’ ( written by Kebede Michael), ‘Dawit ena Orion’, ‘Wede Kiber Godana’ (translated by Dawit Abdu) and ‘Tewodros’ (written by Belata Germachew Tekelehawaritat). Asnaketch took part in most of these plays and her role in ‘Dawit Ena Orion’ drew acclaim for her ability to project her character’s image as many viewers did not even suspect that the she was the actress playing the role. Later on, she would go on to act in many other well regarded plays such as ‘Sene Sikilat’ in 1949 as well as leading in Othello as Desdemona. Others included ‘Enana Kifate’ and ‘Enat Alem Tenu’.
At the same time, Asnaketch had begun to establish herself as a talented musician as well. Performing a variety of old standards such as ‘Tizita’ and ‘Ambassel’, she wowed her audiences with a laid back and assured delivery. Considering that she bought her first krar for only 25 cents, she must have thought that it turned out to be a good investment. Her original composition ‘Ende Iyerusalem’ is so enduringly popular, it turned out to become a classic in its own right.
Over the years, Asnaketch remained active in music and on stage and even participated in the one of the great performance tours of Ethiopian music and culture, Hizb le Hizb (People to People). But the demands of a life in the performing arts and attendant late nights started to take their toll on this icon of music shortly after she completed the tour. In 1982 EC, Asnakech finally hung up her krar and retired from acting as well. She lives in Addis today and is today reminiscing on stories of old when she was considered far and wide by her admirers as the epitome of glamour personified.
*** Pictures are used with permission from the autobiography of Asnaketch Worku (by Getachew Debalque) or from the originals at the National Theater.