So what does the best Ethiopian musician of this generation have to say about the state of art and music these days...
1. What's in your CD player right now?
A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, Afrobeat music by Fela.
2. How many times have you played MushirayE for the grand entrance of the bride and groom? Do you pray for the tempo, the melody or the lyrics to change by 2015?
60 entrances, 60 X 4 = 240 total (if you count that it is played for dinner, for cake and for sinibit). I think the first thing that needs to go is the miserable attempt of the entire procession to walk as slow as the tempo of the song. I don't think humans are created to walk that slow, and nothing that I have seen so far suggests that anyone has mastered it yet. Melody is great, lyrics are ok although I haven't met anyone who knows what a Weyen Abeba actually looks/smells/tastes like.
3. What would be the title of your eulogy when Seleda's Upper Management banishes the synthesizer from Ethiopian music on January 1, 2015?
"Gone too Soon".
4. Upper Management finally gets its act together on July 2015 and throws a lavish wedding party for its cronies. Unfortunately, they are too busy with stuff to select the wedding partners. Since they are Upper Management, they will be joining not humans but musical instruments in matrimony. Which Ethiopian instrument and non-Ethiopian instrument would you pair for:
(a) harmony? Begena and Sitar
(b) discord? Masinqo and an Oboe
(c) tekebabro menor? Embilta and Trombone
5. Were the late 1960s and early 1970s really the Golden Age of contemporary Ethiopian music or was that a term coined as a ploy to market tons of relatively hassle free archival material?
The 60's....I was not born. And the 70's... I will take a guess. If the decision is made by the number of great musicians on the scene, and the number of upcoming artists, today would be the Golden Age of Ethiopian music because there are numerous incredible musicians all over the place. The problem is that they are all over the place and don't have the opportunity or venues to create as freely. Individual talent is probably higher today than it was in the 70's. But a group sound is virtually non-existent. The 70's and some of the 80's had great bands with distinct characteristics and attitudes that could be discerned within minutes of listening, and for that it could be considered Golden. However, if by some miracle the talents that exist today are allowed to get together for an extended period of time and just create without regard to sales, money, etc, we might catapult into a Platinum Age within minutes.
6. What steps can Ethiopian composers, lyricists, musicians, vocalists, and the public take to inject large doses of invention, depth and playfulness into our contemporary music by 2015? Yes, we are unequivocally saying there's not enough of all three right now.
I think being far away from the source has some effect on the dose of invention, depth and playfulness. Case in point, in the past three to five years, I think there has been more invention, depth and playfulness from works being generated in Ethiopia than those that are produced in the US. Virtually all the accomplished singers live in the US, and that has to bring with it some sort of disconnect from the source. In the modern arena, there are rare cases of genius that pop up here and there but they are either not well accepted by the public (Kabu and Zimita), or the artists will decide to play it safe than accept the wrath of the public. What can be done? Pray...go back to the roots for lyrics that are timeless...live in Ethiopia for some time and really wake up to the fact that the culture of the Ethiopian countryside has always been the source for artistic raw material.
7. We're momentarily in a backward looking mode in a forward-looking column. List the following in the order of your preference. Aster Aweqe, Mary Armide, Asnaqetch Werqu, Muluqen Melese, Alemayehu Eshete, Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessese, Alemayehu Eshete, Bizunesh Beqele. Justify if you feel guilty, strident or nervous:
#1) Aster Aweke
#1) Muluken Melese
#1) Kassa Tessema
#1) Tilahun Gessesse
#1) Alemayehu Eshete
#1) Asnaketch Worku
#1) Bezunesh Bekle
#1) Mahmoud Ahmad
#1) Mary Armede
8. How can we convince ET musicians and restaurant owners that loud does not equal better music?
Walk in with visible, and preferably neon green colored earmuffs!
9. How can we ban drum machines from Ethiopian music? We are very much in a banning mood. That does not augur well for 2015, but that's neither here nor there.
Pay extra whenever you are at a concert where you see a drummer, and make sure that the promoter/club owner knows that you paid extra because you saw a drummer. In the US, I know of only three Ethiopian working drummers. But you could also take placards with a huge sign that reads "Kebero Yet ale???" to all the concerts you attend.
10. What kind of ingredients and synthesis are necessary for the new generation of Ethiopian composers to respond to Mulatu Astatke's groundbreaking and dizzying (gulp!) Assiyo Bellema?
I think there are many capable musicians currently dreaming hard...(hint!) The ingredients: capable musicians need to stay together long enough, and turn the volume down on the current trend for heavy freelancing (at least in the US). I say watch out for the young ones.
11. Is it true "harmony" is a western invention? Didn't our fathers know about it when breaking hard soil in groups while singing lustily? Or are we thinking of 'Call and Response', such as THE song sure to send a tingle down every self-respecting cow's spine - "embua beyilign"?
Go to any Serg, Leqso, Church, Mesgid, Demera, and witness harmony at its highest. You know how the west does it....some dude named Paul Whiteman was supposedly "the King of Jazz".....and Elvis "invented" rock and roll...
12. And speaking of harmony, do you - as we do - have as one of your fondest wishes for 2015, the dream of being able to walk into a group singing a chorus and yell "All of you DONT have to sing at the same time every time!!!"? And then follow with - "anchi zq, ante kef... erswo borchamu demo qeTen..."
13. Describe to us the last time you had a levitation moment at a musical event.
I was playing an HIV/AIDS fundraiser in DC put together by young Ethiopian activists. The night was filled with such talent from traditional to modern, from instrumentalists to poets, from reggae to blues. The fact that the smoke machine malfunctioned and none of us on stage could see each other made it even more magical. Anyways...the levitation part comes here...I had always been a bit squeamish and nervous performing with musicians like Abegaz and Henock...and this fact had shown at my approval seeking glances thrown at them every time I finished playing a solo. On this particular night, I felt like I had given it everything I had, and had no desire to seek an approving smile from anybody (they were both playing). I felt my offering was whole, complete and perfect...and for that particular moment, so was I.
14. What is Ethiopian Music by the way?
Heck if I know! Music is infinite. On second thought, I will answer that question if Seleda folks can answer "What is Ethiopian Literature by the way?"
[Editors respond: heck if we know!]
15. Can you whisper to us [a] young Ethiopian arranger / composer of today that you have an admiration for? And why?
Of the relatively younger ones, Elias Melka, Girum Mezmur, Kirubel Assefa...because they keep searching for their own sound.
16. What drives you crazy about contemporary Ethiopian music/musicians?
If crazy=mad/angry...I have gotten used to most of it. The one thing I still get amused by is when vocalist are having a tough night and turn to me holding their throats as if I was responsible for their predicament.
If crazy=euphoric/ "can't get enough of" (which is the way I usually like to use it) what I love most about our musicians is the greatly refined sense of humor. I can't think of any other profession that has as many jokes, pranks, and Tereb. And as soon as you think you have heard it all, a new one pops up just around the corner...for instance..did you know that I once fell through the stage while playing? Think of the many ways this story can be improvised upon.....
17. What do you think of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church music? And prospects for the year 2015?
I love its intensity. I don't know the meanings behind it, or its evolution since Qidus Yared days. I have a feeling it will stay pretty much the same. If I say more, I will be excommunicated!
18. When Aster Aweqe goes into a trance (remember Kabu?) her wuqabis cut off her linguistic moorings and fling her right next to the soaring Qdus Teklehaimanot and his winged limb, blurring the distinction between the profane and the sacred, the sacred and the profane. Aster transforms words into primeval grunts, moans and invocations! Those of us whose ankles are pinned to the earth by miQeNa balls and chains cannot be enraptured by Aster and her wuqabiwech.. Anger, betrayal and desolation have finally forced us to file a class action suit against Aster because of her refusal to enunciate. We don't want to feel her music. We want to know what she's saying. We have secured a hearing at court on September 11, 2015. In the meantime, could you please tell us if we're on the winning or losing side? Why?
To put it bluntly, big time losers! Try listening with your soul than your ears! You just got to elevate yourself to where she is at, because there just isn't any point in bringing her to you.
[Editors respond... did he just call us loser? Big time, nonetheless? He did? OK, just checking.]
19. Will Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon or Ry Cooder first need to "discover" and "validate" our incredible Dorze polyphonic music before more of our own contemporary composers and arrangers are inspired starting a dialogue with it?
Well...maybe you won't have to wait that long. "I have a dream that one day......."
20. Tizita in 2015. Canonized? Beyond recollection? Overhauled?
It has survived maybe 70+ years. I think it can hang around for another 12. I love the melody, and that the song lends itself for interpretation has made it a great vehicle for singers such as Bezawork Asfaw, Getachew Kassa, Kassa Tessema, Tewodross Tadesse, Muluken Melesse, Ketema Mekonnen, Mahammoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke. But the lyrics are sad, nostalgic; always...I mean always looking into the past. By 2015 a theme for a Tizita-fest could be "Free at last, Free at last..." or "the future is so bright, I got to wear shades."
21. Remember Aster's Ye Shebelew Gubil with Abegazu's solo piano accompaniment? We still shiver all the way down to our sacrum whenever we hear it. Seleda is commissioning you to accompany your ideal vocalist with your saxophone for our 16th anniversary bash on April 1, 2015. Who would be the vocalist? Which pre- existing song would you select?
That is a great song. For the record, I want to acknowledge Abegaz for the gem of a person and musician that he is, and for all he has done to help me grow as a musician. If I had to accompany someone with my horn, it would be Tewodross Tadesse. "Bemela besebeb/Tizita"
22. Copyright: will it ever mean anything to us Ethiopians?
I thought copyright meant: to copy in the right way without getting caught!
23. Muluqen... Do your contemporaries feel like the world stopped when he stopped crooning love songs? And do you agree that his version of "Sewinetwa" should be bottled and sold as a love potion?
Yes, and Yes. There is a web site where almost all Ethiopian musicians have written commentaries on what Muluqen means to them musically, and what his departure represented. However, for those who don't know, I know someone who has kept Muluqen's legacy alive on the stage, and who at times brings forth such genius that he will make you cry with joy. His name is Tewodross Tadesse.
24. If Teddy Afro and TeddyTaddesse got into a fisticuff, who would win?
I would close my eyes.
25. Who is the best lyricist in contemporary Ethiopian verse? An example of his/her work, please?
I don't do best/worst. I don't pay much attention to lyrics but from the ones that come to mind, I like Abraham Wolde.
26. We've heard this story a million times...A very well known aristocrat invites a very, VERY well-known singer to come to the house and sing at his daughter's engagement party. After the revelry, the agafaris approach the aristocrat to relay to him that the singer needs to be paid... Aristocrat: "Mn? Demmo kemechE wedih new azmari be genzeb mikefelew? Eratun ablitachiu bEtu lakut!" Will Ethiopian artists gain their rightful status in society by 2015?
"You have come a long way baby!" I think such sentiments are dying out. The present generation is fanatic in its love for its artists. I have heard stories of audience members paying 10 Birr to stand on a neighbor's shoulder to get a better view of Aster during her concerts in Ethiopia. I have seen people cry out of joy. As far as the few old timers who think they have got it better than the Azmari...they better think again. The Azmari is probably one of the few professionals that makes a living in what he/she truly loves. I am proud to be an Azmari. (Zema„³Zemare„³Azmari)
27. Why did it take a foreigner to make "Ethiopiques"?
He didn't make it, he just compiled it and sold it. It took Starbucks to make the world find out where Yirga CHeffe is. I think whoever did it deserves credit for recognizing the value.
28. What city has the most erudite ETs with a sophisticated music palate?
29. What is the friggin' deal with them ET rappers?!! Shouldn't ye bET lijoch fronting as hard-core rappers be amedachew bunnnnnnn eskil megereffed? Beqa milachew sew indEt yTefal?
Burnt Face has a new album coming out, "Futuristic African Rap Music" check it out. Would you consider Fukera/Shilela to be rap? I think groups/individuals like Burnt Face, Off Track have their share of audience to whom they speak the loudest. In fact, for those ETs born in the US, Ethiopian rap artists represent a much easier avenue for connecting with Ethiopian music than the more common pop music route. Most of the rap artists have immense respect for other forms of Ethiopian music and spend countless hours listening to vintage Ethiopian recordings and traditional instrumental recordings seeking samples to incorporate into their beats.
[Editors respond: Hmm... somehow we don't see the Abyssinian Boyz listening intently to Kassa Tesemma. But Ok, we humbly concede that Burt Face, Afrees and Offtrak are dynamic musicians. Uff! But someone should say "annn'd" to the A-Boyz. Abo!]
30. Pretend it's 2015. Pretend Armageddon is a'and hamoos away because La Fontaine is the biggest act in town. Pretend they come to you and offer you an obscene amount of money to play an over-the-top pain-in-the-ass synthesizer as they sing "Macarena". Will you take the gig?
What happened to question number 30? I couldn't see it on my screen. Oh well! :)