“My colleagues and I were regulars in the red light district. Whenever our pockets were full we headed straight for the luxurious spots such as the Ras and Etege Hotels. The legendary Soul Ekos Band that used to play every Friday and Saturday featuring Alemayehu Eshete, Seyfu Yohannes, Slim John, Tewodros Tesfaye were real icons of the time.”
As told by Getachew Debalque. Transcribed by Mina Yirga.
When we talk about modern Ethiopian music the first thing that comes to my head are the 40 Armenian orphans (‘Arba Lijoch’) that were brought to Addis in 1924 E.C. by then Ras Tafari from Jerusalem. It may be because I witnessed the performances and the great works of Nalbandian, the composer of our old national anthem. It was this that formed the base of the Imperial Bodyguard Band (Kibur Zebegna).
Indeed it is one of my remarkable memories to watch the most disciplined marching band comprised of the 40 Armenians led by their bandmaster performing at different ceremonies of Emperor Haileselassie. The Emperor was so impressed by their performance he wanted to adapt the same musical skill in the country.
Musical development at this caliber began when music lessons were begun at Dagmawi Menelilk and Teferi Mekonen schools. This progression, however, was interrupted by Italy’s occupation in 1936. However, after the war was over, attempts were made to restore the bands in a new form.
Following a call for artists in 1939, many artists both in the musical and theatrical fields registered. With the coming of Kagew Radio Station, modern music started to see a revival. New tunes were transmitted and that’s how great artists of our time like Tilahun Gessese and Mohamud Ahmed …got their start and exposure.
Nightclubs and hotels made their fair share of contribution towards the development of modern music in Ethiopia. Artists stared to adapt styles of James Brown, Sam Cook and Nat King Cole. From the unforgettable ‘Wube Bereha’ to the grand night clubs such as Axum, Bella Napoli and Ciero who played tango, meringue etc., the country’s musicians became experts in the new melodies, integrating the local traditions to the Western influenced styles, and became experts in the boogie and the like.
My colleagues and I were regulars in the red light district. Going from one bar to the next became the groups’ unstated rule. But of course we had our own usual spots that really played our songs. Whenever our pockets’ were full we headed straight for the luxurious spots such as the Ras and Etege Hotels. The legendary Soul Ekos Band that used to play every Friday and Saturday featuring Alemayehu Eshete, Seyfu Yohannes, Slim John, Tewodros Tesfaye were real icons of the time.
Though I didn’t go that far with the song writing, I have contributed various lyrics and a few of my old time colleagues such as Girma Negash have played my songs, among them Yene Hassab and Enegenagalen. He was also known for playing Menew Teleyeshegn and was a big time fan of Tilahun Gessese. Later though, he was more known for his vibrant melody, but eventually he became a full time employee at the Ministry of Information.
Who could ever forget Ayalew Mesfin? Ayalew now owns Ayalew Music Shop. Though he is from Yeju, he came to Addis at an early age. Ayalew first was employed in the Imperial Bodyguard Band around 1959 EC. He didn’t stay long and soon started playing at nightclubs such as Asegedech. I can say he truly shaped his talent there. In his early 20’s he joined the Police Music Section. His songs like Enate Nafekshegn have been etched in my mind.
A lot has to be said about the old time great hitmakers such as Bizunesh Bekele, Hirut Bekele and Tamerat Mola. Though not all of it, their works are preserved on recorded tapes or CD. I can say they are fortunate given that their legendary works can pass from the old to the new generation.
Most works of artists like Telela Kebede, Tsedale Geberemariam and Asefa Abate only remain in our hearts and minds since they were never recorded or any recordings haven’t survived to this day. They were indeed sources of our fun and were kings and queens of the stages.
I remember reading one interesting story about Esatu Tesema that told of his ascension from shoe shining to great musician. After he came from Sidamo to Addis, he had a hard time finding a job and borrowed 1.50 birr to buy shoe-shining equipment. He used to serve as a shoe shiner at the Imperial Palace (now the Addis Ababa University Compound) for two years. Eventually, someone from the Imperial Bodyguard found him a job as a police officer. He has served the Imperial BodyGuard both as a police force and a musician for over 15 years and recorded his traditional songs (in Gojam and Gonder) on CD.
Lema Gebrehiwot, was a self-educated man born in Bulga. He was number one in Ethiopian traditional music. During the Italian invasion, he joined the Ethiopian army at a very young age. He was admired for his bravery and for motivating the patriotic crowd with his war songs of fukera and shilela. After the restoration of peace in 1941 he joined the armed forces and later the Imperial Bodyguard as a police officer. But this was not his true calling so he joined the Addis Ababa Municipality music section. He was among those that have worked hard to establish the traditional music division at the Haileselassie I Theater. He also used to teach traditional music and wrote and composed his own songs.
There are, of course, many more that can be mentioned here. Behailu Eshete, Seyoum Amha, Tadele Bekele, Getu Ayele (Tutuyae), Habtamu Shieferaw were the shining stars of my time. Though most have departed this life we still remember them for the legacy they have left for us.