The Keeper of Memories

If you’ve ever hummed the words to the old time (but still popular) hit Enegenagnalen, then you are already – but probably unwittingly – familiar with some of Getachew Debalque’s work.  But there’s a lot more to his story than just writing that song.

In due course of preparing our 6th edition’s article on ‘Bizuye Bekele: The First Lady of Ethiopian Music ’ we had no clue where to turn and who to ask until we stumbled across Abyssine Swing, a pictorial history book on Ethiopian music. Interestingly enough, the acknowledgments by author Francis Falceto credited one particular Ethiopian artist for being “a man of memory, and the vital source behind the book”. This of course grabbed our attention and left us with the great desire of knowing him and exploring his recollections.

Looking forward to learning more about this artist I hardly knew, I went to the National Theater. Not knowing where to check I had to ask a young artist by the corridor “Could you please help me find Getachew Debalque?” “Gash Getachew!!” she had to correct me. “ There you are, right next to…”, she pointed her finger to a red metal door. Feeling ashamed, I knocked on his office door.

Getachew Debalque, the incredible Ethiopian actor, playwright, author and lyricist was sitting behind an old wooden table absorbed with his writing. After a few minutes of silence he stopped his work and shot a quick glance my way. I quickly started explaining my reasons for this unscheduled visit. Trying to steady my trembling voice, I started to confess how hard it had been to find facts on ‘Bizuye’.

Time has left its mark on his face; what was once vibrant youth has now transformed into grace, charm and wisdom. Gash Getachew stood up and walked to his big closet, ‘The Treasure Trove of Memories’, and dug up old magazines from the 50’s and 60’s with pictures and articles of Bizuye and many more artists.

I cannot say my short speech convinced him that my case deserved his unique stash but perhaps he felt my distress and became sympathetic to helping my cause. I uttered a sigh of relief as I had at last found the right source. I began to thank him profusely and left his office. At that moment, I knew I would return looking for more treasures; moments in the life of Gash Getachew Debalque and his astounding archive of records from artists of years long past. And that’s how the treasure hunting began.

The Man and His Works

To those who are new to Ethiopian arts and music, Gash Getachew’s name may not sound familiar. Yet his work has permeated across decades of the performance arts, literature and music like few others in Ethiopian history. From the earliest days of his career when he wrote, directed and acted in numerous plays including the well known Ketefona Menter, Yalaskemetut Wondelatae, Dehna Hugie Arada, to his published books, The biography of Asnakech Worku, and Denkoro Ber, he has left own his gentle imprint and yet been acutely conscious of the need to tell the stories of Ethiopia’s greatest performing artists. As a lyricist, he has worked with almost all of the giants of Ethiopian music penning such all time greats as Yene Hassab (sung by Girma Negash for which he was awarded a prize in 1953 EC) and Aderetch Arada (first sung by Menlik Wosenachew but a timeless classic ever since) and Enegenagnalen (Girma Negash).

gdgroup.jpgBut it seems like his first love lay in theater, which is where his most notable contributions are to be found.  Theatrical concepts started to take a new shape following the profound political, economic and social change brought about by the 1966 EC Ethiopian revolution. With that, Ethiopian theater entered a new chapter and artists that were educated locally began to come to the fore. Along with Laureate Tsegaye G/Medhin and Tesfaye Gessese, Getachew Debalque became one of the pioneers and made important contributions in transforming the performing art of the 60’s.

Ye Faize Doctor (the Mock Doctor, written by Moliere and translated by Tsegay G/Medhin) was Getachew’s first comedy theater and Ha Hu Be Sidest Wer, a play concept which revolves around the fall of the feudal system and the emergence of a socialist regime (written by Tsegaye G/Medhin,directed by Alemu Gebereab and performed along with renowned artists like the late Wogayew Negatu and Awelachew Dejene) are some of his best known stage performances.

Gash Getachew has occupied his office at the National Theater for 50 years. In those years he has seen eras come and go not to mention other artists. Although he was briefly incarcerated by the Dergue regime for having written Lomi tera tera (the song that foretold the coming of a hostile and dictatorial regime), it seems like his picture perfect recollections of the arts in Ethiopia never missed a beat. From the roaring 60’s and the Golden Era of Ethiopian Music through the revolution which dramatically stifled creative arts to the present day when it seems like a renaissance of Ethiopian music can be seen on the horizon. From his vantage point, he has voraciously recorded and kept as much of the history he has witnessed as he could.

Addis Alem – My Country, My Origin

GD 2.jpgBorn in 1928 (EC),  Getachew Debalque hails from the Addis Alem region of Menagesha Woreda.  The third of four children in his family, Getachew began his education at a church in the area (Addis Alem Mariam Church) as was common at the time.  But the return of Emperor Haile Selassie to Ethiopia in 1933 (EC) following 5 years of exile abroad brought with it a decree (awaj) which compelled him and 500 other children from his region to sign up for civic education at the Addis Alem Primary School.

Acting was a skill Getachew showed promise in even at this early age.  Since some of his first ‘Ha Hu’ and ‘Kienae’ classes, he had made several efforts at writing poems and stories. As he went on with his elementary studies he used to be enlisted for participation in class dramas.  Hardly able to keep from laughing, Gash Getachew shared how his first stage performance felt in his elementary school at Addis Alem. It was Parents Day, heralding the end of the school year. Getachew and his classmates were rehearsing a script written for a play about the brutal Wolmera War. Getachew was chosen to play Shewareged Gedlae’s character, one of the female patriots of 1920’s (and the Italian occupation during the 1930s) and who also happened to be the guest of honor that day.  Unfortunately, she was none too pleased that she was being portrayed by a young school boy and what she thought was an amateurish job at that.  She left the school in a fit of anger and it is a memory that Gash Getachew finds both humor and inspiration with.

After completing sixth grade at Addis Alem Primary, Getachew faced a pivotal moment in his young life.  In order to continue his secondary education, he was faced with the prospects of traveling to Holeta Genet or Ambo. Just short jaunts on asphalt today, these distant towns seemed a world away for young Getachew.  His parents, wary of sending him anywhere without  family nearby decided instead to send the young student to Addis Ababa where he would join his uncle.  

The Dazzle of the Big City

To the 13 year old Getachew whose entire life had revolved around Addis Alem thus far, his arrival in Addis was a shock.  The new lorries serving the public (some of the earliest public vehicles to traverse Addis) and their drivers who Getachew believed to be very rich because they collected so many of the shiny new shillings of which he himself owned just one.  The simplest items in the city – such as the golden pens he saw some men carrying which made him think they were very wealthy too – struck him with awe.  A sight he came across one fine Saturday morning around the St. George Church (Giorgis) was to leave a lasting impression on him and that would eventually decide the course of his career that has now spanned over 50 years.

A number of gentlemen were walking around the church all dressed in the same stately manner and with a ramrod carriage and discipline that Getachew immediately longed to emulate.  They were the members of a marching band and he set for himself an all encompassing goal to become like them.

After having spent some time in Addis, Getachew was reasonably sure of what he needed to do to advance his goals.  The Theater and Music School of Addis Ababa City Municipality was known to educate and nurture young artists and musicians and he decided he would try his luck at getting in.  In 1944, he passed a couple of levels of tests and was admitted into the school.  He was only 16 at the time.  Joining him in the same class were artists who would later make their own significant marks on Ethiopian arts – Kasa Wolde, Merawi Setote and Getachew Mekuria.

Growing Up in Theater

The present day National Theater was first established as the ‘Theater and Musical school of Addis Ababa City Municipality’ in 1939. Documents of old files and payroll slips found at the theater center indicate that there were only 20 employees there at that time.  Most had joined because they are pushed by their own inner interest and some of them joined the new institution from Arada Kibur Zebegna in the military.  That year was also considered to be the beginning of a renaissance in theatrical art and music and by 1941 the National Theater had reached an early zenith in terms of having well trained artists in both music and theatrical art.

GD 1.jpgAnd so Getachew got the chance to further discover his hidden gifts. He carefully started educating himself on the works of the well known playwrights of the time such as Yoftahae Neguse and Melaku Begosew (and later on the great works of Afework Adaferae and Senedu Gebre among the many). The young Getachew then started developing his music skills with the aim of being a full time stage artist. Finally, Getachew appeared for the first time on National Theater’s stage to play, Dengetegna Teri (Sudden Call) when he was only 17. With that, the young artist conquered his fear of introducing himself to the wider world of art lovers.  Throughout the many years that followed, Getachew acted in numerous plays such as Othello (pictured here) and many others besides.

In 1948, Addis began to undergo a transformation of modernization to prepare for the celebration of the Emperor’s Silver Crown Anniversary.  Cinema Marcuni (as the National Theater was also known at the time) was also instructed to prepare for a show featuring the best artists in the land and representing the nation’s cultural image.  Indeed one of the iconic images of the time was that of the running beauty pageant to decide who would be crowned ‘Miss Ethiopia’ in front of the Emperor and his Ministers.  An expansion of National Theater’s facilities was also undertaken to bring it to a level of finesse befitting the Emperor’s audience.  There were more than a few skeptical observers who criticized the expense of renovating a theater hall which they regarded as nothing more than a dankira or azmari bet (neighborhood dance or ministrel bar) rather than allocating those same funds to the country’s development.  Nevertheless, National Theater was eventually transformed into what largely remains its present day form and proceeded to deliver a rousing series of performances on the occasion of the Silver Anniversary.  Dawit and Orion by Ras Beitweded, Tewodros by Dej. Germachew, and Hannibal by Dr. Kebede Michael were among the dramas that were played at the time.

Turbulent Times in the Arts and Beyond

Just as its transformation was born in some controversy, National Theater continued to experience difficulties in the decade that followed. Budget cuts were amongst some of the challenges as the municipality discontinued its prior support leaving the institution to fend for itself.  It was around that time that it started screening foreign films to generate the revenue it needed to survive.  Attempts to intervene by the Ministry of Education amongst others and turnover from one government oversight body to another further demoralized the Theater and its stable of young artists.  Many of them started to perform at weddings and other private events to make ends meet.  However, Getachew Debalque, Tsegaye Gebremedhin, Mengistu Lema, Mulugeta Mekbib, Tesfay Gessesse and Girma Zewde were amongst those who displayed unfailing endurance in the turmoil and turned out play after play to counter growing apathy and discontent.  Askeyami Lijagered, Yalaskemetut Wondelate, Le Sew Mot Anesew and Ye Faiza Doctor were some of the notable titles they wrote, produced and performed.

With the beginning of the 1960’s, the arts began to see some level of politicization especially amongst playwrights who were beginning to infuse their works with their reflections of the conditions around them.  Shortly thereafter, the advent of the Derg regime in 1966 effectively subjugated the arts as a political tool for its propaganda dispersion and many artists were forced to serve in military attachments or were imprisoned.

Getachew was not to escape unscathed.  In the period before the Revolution, he had written a song called Lomi Tera Tera which foretold of the coming of a brutal and dictatorial regime.  As paranoid as the Derg was it inevitably interpreted this work as a criticism of itself and retaliated.  From 1967-79, Getachew was arrested three times and tortured on many occasions during these arrests.  But his spirit could not be broken and he still managed to practice his art in some form by organizing an entertainment club for prisoners at the Alem Bekagn detention center in Addis.

Since then, Gash Getachew has continued to quietly ply his trade from the same office in the National Theater that he has occupied for decades.  Of late, his contributions have leaned towards biographies of the great artists from yesteryear and he continues to put out notable works today. 

Longing to Tell The Stories


Having already published Asnakech Worku’s biography, Gash Getachew is currently working on doing the same for Tesfaye Sahlu. And there are many others he intends to write about not least because many of the legendary artists of yesteryear still surviving today, constantly ask him to do so. That he can be so prolific recounting and recording his memories of others yet so reticent in discussing himself may be one of the factors behind why he is certainly not as well known amongst the later generations of Ethiopians. He worries that with many Ethiopian artists of the early years in the twilight of their lives, accurate accounts of their experiences in the formative years of contemporary Ethiopian arts have not been sufficiently kept and archived. How will the newest generations of Ethiopians learn about artists like Wogayew Negatu, Menelik Wosenachew, Hirut Bekele and others? This is no doubt one of the main reasons he kindly granted my request to speak about Bizunesh Bekele and finally, after much prodding, about himself as well.

Gash Getachew’s story is one that truthfully deserves its own book. Until that is written, I hope this will serve to prompt readers to find out more about this quiet, living legend whom you can invariably find relaxing in the sun at his favorite spot in the garden café at the front of the National Theater.

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