By Abel Merawi
November 28, 2019 (Ezega.com) -- The spirit of brave Ethiopians in battles with their valorous deeds has been written in volumes and it has been the source of pride for Ethiopian through generations. But the battlefield was not the only frontier for Ethiopians. Music has also been another one that was rescued by brave visionaries. It is common to hear both the young and the old praise Ethiopian music from the 1960s to the 90s. They are classical works that serve as a paragon of music for the generations that followed. Even though the music has been celebrated, the story behind it has not been widely known and given recognition. It is a marvelous story of struggle, without which Ethiopian artistic expression would not have had world-class recognition.
It all began with the visionary Amha Eshete, the sole music producer in the 1960s. He has been working in Asmara, Eritrea, when he was first exposed to the world-class musical masters with their blues, funk and other exotic music genres. By importing music equipment and various music records, he set up the first music shop in Addis Ababa. Such endeavor was easily considered at the time, yet everything sold out in weeks. People even lined up on the streets outside of his shop, just to listen to the tunes that resonate from the speakers. Had he limited his work to selling these international music records, he would have been just another businessman rather than a visionary. Yet, he envisioned the establishment of an Ethiopian music industry similar to the ones that existed in Europe and America.
In those days, there were no independent artists. Musicians were just civil servants, working under the Emperor with meager monthly salaries. Their music belonged to the government or ‘the people’ and they did not exercise any right over their artistic works. Most felt, as do now, that the artist had to be free from any control, be it the government or the society. Such control kills the artistic spark and ends up destroying the soul. Thus, we can imagine how stunted Ethiopian music would have been if things had continued in such a ruinous path. It was during this time that Amha Eshete stepped up to the center stage and began to shake the system. He started discussing his vision with musicians such as Alemayehu Eshete and Mahmoud Ahmed. Though there was some hesitation on the part of artists – who can blame them during that period – there were some who shared his vision. At the time, Emperor Haile Selassie had a declaration regarding the music industry to release songs that could be used as an advantage. Amha set up a record label and began recording artists, and within a short time, it resonated through the air of the capital city.
The bright days of the music industry were short-lived, however. They were followed by the darkness that enveloped the nation in the political arena. Things reached their climax with the overthrow of the Emperor and the Derg regime setting up a military government. Like everything else, the music industry was suffocated and Amha Eshete left the country and began a life in the US. The artists were either working on music that promoted governmental agendas or working in other professions. Some even ended up in prison. Everything went down a spiral, and it seemed like the short, but glorious, life of the Ethiopian music industry had come to a halt. But as the expression goes: when one door closes another door opens. Ethiopian music had already traveled to Paris, France, and a radio station was playing it. Francis Falceto, who at the time was sort of experimenting with all sorts of music and producing them, heard Mahmoud Ahmed’s music playing, and was possessed by it. He went up and down, to know from where this music came from and who the artist is. His journey led him to Ethiopia. He wanted to get all the works of Amha Eshete and fly the musicians to Paris to perform there, as he has done with artists from across the globe.
Little did Francis knew that the country was under a dictatorship that did not give a hoot to music, and it was suspicious of any foreigner. Taking artists to America was out of the question since Ethiopia was then a socialist country and considered the US as an imperialist. Anyone who travels to such a country was deemed as a conspirator and a traitor. This made the vision of Francis almost impossible. Finding the situation in Ethiopia helpless, he traveled to the US and met with Amha Eshete. As a last resort, Francis wanted to have access to the music records by making a deal with Amha. This could not be carried out since Amha Eshete had a firm stand regarding loyalty. He was not willing to sign any deal without the consent of the artists. However, he promised Francis that they could commence their work if and when the situation in the country changes for the better.
In the course of time, Amha Eshete made arrangements that took two years to develop. He made an agreement with Derg officials in a clandestine manner. He arranged for about 10 artists, including Mahmoud Ahmed and Girma Beyene, to travel to the USA and perform. Their first performance had a handful of people, yet they played their hearts out as if they were playing to a stadium filled with people. This attempt on a music tour was also temporary. It all came to an end with some of them remaining in America and some traveling back to Ethiopia since they had social responsibilities, like taking care of their family.
As everything came to an end, so did the Derg regime. Amha Eshete came back to the country, but he found the country in a different, gloomy spirit. Yet he didn’t give up and neither did Francis. As things settled down, they kept their promise of contacting the artists and they began their work in earnest. Thanks to their vision and perseverance, Ethiopian music recordings were successful and reached world-class fame in Europe, America and beyond. The Ethiopiques music records have reached 21 and they continue to be a source of pleasure across generations. The story of such struggle and triumph is important to remember because it is an inspiration to everyone. We are all indebted to this type of people for they are a testament to the free human spirit, be it in music or any other endeavor.
Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. He can be reached through this form.
Other articles by Abel Merawi:
Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group
The Value of Work
The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System
Intellectuals and the People
Where Are Our Pathfinders?
The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders
The Truth Behind Humanity
The Seven Virtues
The Seven Deadly Sins
What is the right thing to do?
Building National Identity
Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change
Living the Truth as a Human Being
Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others
The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them
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