Bizuye Bekele – Ethiopia’s queen of music – whose untimely death in 1990 cut short the career of one of the most transcendent personalities in Ethiopian music.
Along with Tilahun Gessesse and Mahamoud Ahmed, Bizunesh ‘Bizuye’ Bekele was perhaps one of the most transcendent musicians of our time eliciting near emotional responses from fans and admirers that has not been equalled or surpassed by any other female musician in Ethiopia. So when we refer to her as ‘The First Lady of Ethiopian Music’, we do so more in the sense that she was unquestionably the most popular female artist in Ethiopian Music ever and not in the sense that she was the first (she was not.). While there have been numerous other notable artists that came before (For example Mary Aremeday, Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou to name but a few) and with or after her (Hirut Bekele, Asnaketch Worku, Aster Aweke and many others to date) none of them appealed so universally across generations the way she did. It must have something to do with her combination of beauty, grace, class, siren voice and perhaps the way she was able to bring all of these together as not just a vocal musician but a performer of extraordinary charisma.
Coming of Age
Born in 1936 and possessed of unsurpassed grace, a beauty that belied the powerful voice which she could so effortlessly control (at pitches so high that Francis Falceto once wrote that it “…may be too high for Western ears”) and a larger than life presence that so captured her adoring fans, thousands of them turned out to receive her when she returned home from a medical trip abroad. Performer extraordinaire, Bizunesh definitely was. But why is so little known about her today? Her classics mostly survive on vinyl or tape and at that not enough for it can be extremely difficult to find some of her top tracks. Rarely have we witnessed a female artist who was so universally loved and respected and whose aura was so surreal. But perhaps because of her untimely demise in 1990, she had received little of the bright glare that stardom in later years could bring.
Bizunesh was stricken by the love of music while very young and is said to have started singing in her early teenage years. Inspired by the choirs at the missionary school she used to attend, she kept developing her vocal repertoire but did so more as a playful exercise that she could indulge in with her childhood friends. In fact, the primary reason she joined Kibur Zebegna later on was just so she could be together with her friends who had also joined the band rather than as conscious advancement of her singing ambitions. It wasn’t until she was pushed by her fans to do a tryout for the Tikil Radio entertainment program in 1957, that she became fully aware of the potential for her singular talents given that she was selected to pass through by the program with flying colors.
The ‘It’ Factor
Although she had not even released an album by 1969 when she was interviewed by the ‘Music, Theatre, Art’ magazine (from which the prior picture is excerpted) put together by the National Theatre at that time, she was nevertheless extremely popular already. Indeed, she was already being referred to as the number one star from all of the female singers of her time. So why was she so special? It wasn’t simply one thing or even two but a combination of things you could put your finger on and apparently some you could not. In other words, she had that indefinable ‘it’ factor that many stars aspire to but don’t quite reach. For Bizunesh, it definitely wasn’t just her voice – distinctive across generations though it may be. It wasn’t simply her beauty, grace or superlative style which can still jump out today from magazines published decades ago. It was all of these together and then some. Those who were lucky enough to have seen her perform live enough times speak of her incredible stage presence and ability to capture her audience through inspirational performances. Apparently, Bizunesh could step off a mean twist and still continue with her vocal delivery without missing a single beat or tone. On top of all this, she could also connect with the words to her songs on a level that few others could even approach. Romantic songs were certainly her signature and where she imparted the most impact with vocal delivery that brought every word to life in a surreal way. Some of her seminal hits include ‘Chenik Tibebe Eyalkuleh’ and ‘YeFikir Shemane‘ but there were many others as well. “YeInate Wiletawa” was a song where she departed from her romantic leanings to sing about her eternal obligation towards her mother.
Incredible vocal range and control
The lyrics to this song are inscribed on her final resting place
One of her best known hits
Yet, what endeared Bizuye to her fans and colleagues alike probably had more to do with her personal character than even her transcendent talent as a performing artist. One can easily glean from some of the interviews she gave that she was a soul blessed with humility and graceful self expression that fans identified with and loved. Upon being asked what rewards she had received given her fame, she once replied that she wished for nothing more than to love her children and entertain her fans through the language of music until her last breath. Her colleagues of the time bear testament to her unique character and say that somehow many lyricists provided her with material that intrinsically reflected that character.
Her Life and Loves
Bizunesh’s two children were from her first marriage with Constable Nuru Wondeafrash who was also a member of Kibur Zebegna. He often travelled away for extended periods and in particular while he was serving with the Army in the Korean War, she was known to sing self written tunes of how much she missed him during these times. Unfortunately, these songs were never recorded or released and only survive in the memory of those who knew her closely at the time and heard her humming them. Later on, Bizuyae married Mohammed Edris, a young journalist who met her during a party at which he passed her a glass of water when she began to have a fit of hiccups. “Ye Abo Tebel,” she exclaimed as he gave her the glass of water and he fondly remembers to this day her quirky habit of coming up with metaphoric expressions for so many things. They spent a joyful 21 years together until her untimely death in 1990. While he was a Muslim and she remained Christian, they were amongst the very few couples who were able to sustain a strong and healthy marriage despite this difference.
Many argue that Bizunesh did not want to sing after her trip to the US for surgery to correct problems with her hearing. In fact, she had been told not to perform with loud instruments and even told to control her pitch until she is fully recovered from her illness. During her stay there, she had met several famous artists like James Brown who were so taken with this graceful musician from Africa that they offered to record a CD for her. She declined the offer saying she would return for a second visit soon and would do the recording then but that she needed to return to Ethiopia ‘…pay my respects’ to her countrymen because she knew they would be worried about her. Unfortunately, Bizuye would not live long enough to fulfill this pledge and passed away in 1990 before she was to return to the US for her medical follow up.
Our Very Own Marylin Monroe
One could certainly draw some parallels between Bizunesh Bekele and Marylin Monroe for they were both larger than life figures blessed with talent, beauty and fame but yet lived tragic lives because of them. Bizunesh frequently struggled to deal with the challenges and pressures of the industry she was in and as a result was known to be a heavy user of cigarettes and alcohol. In fact her death came about largely from the liver complications she suffered as a result of her alcohol overuse. Her husband, Mohammed Edris relates that for much of her career, she experienced significant frustration at what she viewed were manipulative efforts by some of those she worked with and would subsequently resort to drinking in an effort to drown out her angst. Although she had largely kicked the habit towards her death, years of abuse had unfortunately taken their toll and doctors were unable to save her life after a long illness.
A Fond Farewell
The immense turnout and intense emotion that was on display at her funeral is still spoken of by those who paid their respects to her on that day as the ultimate tribute of what she meant to those who knew and loved her. The inscription placed on Bizunesh’s grave at her final resting place in Yoseph Cemetery is perhaps as representative as anything else of her character and how her fans perceived her throughout her life and even in death. It is an excerpt of the lyrics to a song written specifically for her by Col. Sahle Degago, one of the preeminent lyricists of the time.