Part One: Exclusive Interview With Ethiopian Legend Teshome Mitiku

From left - The drummer Tesfaye mekonnen (Hodo); guest singer from Asmara police orchestra, Teshome Mitiku & Bass and sax player Fekade Amde Meskel of Soul Ekos Band. (Courtesy photo)

Tadias Magazine
By Martha Z. Tegegn

Published: Thursday, August 5, 2010

Washington, D.C. (Tadias) – Teshome Mitiku has not returned to Ethiopia since his abrupt departure in 1970. In a recent exclusive interview with Tadias Magazine, the legendary artist who is scheduled to make a historic appearance accompanying the Either/Orchestra at the prestigious Chicago Jazz Festival in September, talks about his extensive music career, his memories of Ethiopia and his famous daughter, the Swedish pop star Emilia.

Teshome burst into Ethiopia’s music scene during a period in the 1960′s known as the “Golden Era.” He was the leader of Soul Ekos Band, the first independent musical ensemble to be recorded in the country. The group is credited for popularizing Amharic classics such as Gara Sir New Betesh, Yezemed Yebada, Mot Adeladlogn and Hasabe – all of which were written by the artist.

Prior to settling in the United States in the early 1990′s, Teshome spent over 20 years in Sweden, where he continued to hone his music skills, earn a graduate degree in Sociology, and witness his daughter grow up to become a Swedish ballad and pop music singer.

We spoke with Teshome Mitiku over coffee on U street in Washington, D.C. in what the artist says is his first exclusive interview since his hurried journey out of Ethiopia 40 years ago. The soft-spoken and humorous artist, who sprinkles his answers with sporadic laughter, discussed with us his distinguished career spanning four decades and three continents.

Here is part-one of our 3-part series, which will be published in weekly installments.


Teshome Mitiku, courtesy Photo.

You began your career as a teenager in an era known as “Swinging Addis.” What was
the music scene like in Ethiopia at the time?

It was fantastic. It was an upbeat time. The 60s was an era where things developed from one form of life to another. So it was a transitional period for the whole country. New ways of thinking and doing things were emerging in singing, playing, and producing. The big band era was giving-way to small bands including groups such as the Soul Ekos band, the Ras band, etc. Music instruments were changing as well. Everywhere you went there were groups playing, clubs were packed. I was still in high school at the time, but I was already playing in different clubs with several settings. Then we ended up forming the Soul Ekos band. For the last two years of the late 60′s, I played with this band, which was the most popular band in Ethiopia. Although more such bands have flourished, I don’t think anybody could replace that group.

You were one of the founding members of the band. What are your memories of Soul Ekos?

My memories of Soul Ekos band is just full of love. We were ahead of our time in many ways. We were very organized, disciplined, we had a manager and each guy in the band loved his instrument. There was no question of when to rehearse or how to rehearse it. We were playing in clubs, touring and taping. Our ideas of bringing about modern ways of playing music was getting popular. We did the recordings like Gara Sir New Betish, Hasabe, Yezemed Yebada, Mot Adeladlogn and many many more. Each one of us loved playing together. So what we did was that we rented a big house in Entoto, which had nine bedrooms and a giant living room.

So you guys also lived together?

(Laughs) Yes that is how much we enjoyed each other, we lived together. Each one of us had our own bedroom though (more laughter). We would get up at 7 o’clock and by 9 we were on stage in the living room for rehearsal until 1 o’clock, and we take lunch break until 3 and get back and rehearse until 6 then we go home. But home is where we practice so everybody did whatever they wanted to after 6. We saw too much of each other, but it never felt like that at the time.

Were you making enough money to support yourself?

We were the highest paid band. But we never placed money at the center, the music was our center. But we had income. I mean we were playing on weekends at Kangnew station in Asmara (then part of Ethiopia) and we used to play at hotels, clubs, schools, universities so the income was there. We were booked everywhere. We were flying left and right nationwide and internationally. We went to Sudan, Kenya all kinds of touring. We were a busy band.

Do you still keep in touch with some of the band members?

Yes, Teddy (Tewodros Mitiku) the saxophonist, is my brother, so we keep in touch. He lives in Maryland and I live in Virginia, so we meet and we call every now and then. I also keep in touch with Alula Yohannes, the guitarist we call each other on the phone we are even thinking of performing together. There was sort of a small reunion way back in 1995 but that reunion wasn’t really a soul Ekos reunion it was a reunion of guys playing in the 60s. So we got together and played at the Hilton here, it was the relaunch of my carrier in music. So, we might do that again. But some of our guys have passed away: the singer Seifu, the trumpeter Tamrat, the drummer Tesfaye. Among the original Soul Ekos band, only four are still living: Teddy, Fekade, Alula and I.


Members of the former Ekos Band: from the left Alula Yohannes, Tesfaye Mekonnen, Tamrat,
Amha Eshete (band manager), Teshome Mitiku, Feqade Amdemesqel & Tewodros Mitiku. (CP).

When did you start playing music?

I started playing music in zero grade. At the time they actually had zero grade (laughter). When you pass zero grade then you go to first grade. Zero grade was where you learned your ABC’s and after you master the basics then you pass to first grade. Otherwise, you can stay in zero grade for a long time. It is after completing Kes temhirtbet, fidel and Dawit that I landed at Haile Selassie day school (Kokebe Tsiba) in Kebena, where they put me in zero grade. When I got there, I already loved singing. I loved music. I remember while getting ready to pack for school I would listen to songs on the radio, and I would just stand there and listen to the music and be late for school. I had that much love. I especially loved begena and kirar instruments. I used to stand there and listen. I also remember some of the zebegnas (guards) in Aswogag Sefer area where they used to play accordions, flutes, washint and stuff so I used to sit there with the zebegnas while the class was waiting for me.

You have made up your mind then?

Yes, early on– and I used to drum around the village. So, when I came to first grade I had a chance to study under a Danish music teacher named Paul Bank Hansen at the Haile Selassie day school music class. They gave me an entrance exam on singing, rhythm, and the concept of music and I passed it. And Mr. Hanson, who was my teacher then, said to me he would like me to become a member of a group he was building. So, there were about 40 to 50 students selected for music education. My brother Teddy Mitiku was one of them, and some of the guys from our band Tamrat Ferendji and Tesfaye Mekonnen, etc, most of them are from there. So, my teacher’s wife, Margret Hanson, started teaching me piano. I went to her once and asked: “Mrs. Hanson, can you please teach me how to play this thing.” I was referring to the piano, the grand piano in her house. She was shocked by my question and said: “Oh I will do that but you also have to promise me something. You have to keep time and come everyday from 4pm to 5 pm and I will teach you piano.” So she used to buy me candy, cookies, there was a Coca Cola and other some soft drinks. I sat beside her and started playing. That’s how I started playing the piano and went on to learn trumpet, violin, and drums. But the trumpet, my father didn’t like it. He said it will probably hurt your lungs. But I used to get up at 6 o’clock and go to school at 7 to raise the flag, so the entire neighborhood will hear my trumpet. Then in the afternoon I will blow my trumpet again and put down the flag and return it to the director’s office and go home. I used to do that on a regular basis.

You are also a song-writer. What is the writing process like for you?

The writing process for me is based on happenings, what happens in your life. All these songs didn’t come out of the blue, each one of the songs got their own history and their own rhythm. Even right now too, writing is based on situations and conditions. It is the state of mind I am in. Most of the songs that I wrote are really a reflection of the condition that I was in at the time. Like Gara sir new betish, for example, is about our house in Kebena where I grew up. When I wrote it the title was kebena new betish, that was the idea. And the house where I was born in and grew up in Ethiopia was just right under the hill (gara) and Kebena river is right under the bridge very close to the water. So I was in a state of mind where I was unemployed at the time because of a disagreement I had with the owner of the clubs. So I used to stay home, sit at home on the balcony and drink Saris Vino. My mother used to say, “Teshu what are you doing? “and I would say “just thinking” my mother would respond “don’t worry everything will be alright.” That’s when I sat down and started writing about our home, school and the girls at school and everybody that I know around me. So I wrote kebena new betish and after I wrote that song I went to the band and said lets hook this up. The band loved it. Then I started working at a club again, when we started playing the song and everybody at the club loved it. I mean the whole setting was different, the orchestration was different, the beat was different and the singing style was different. And it just became tremendously popular, even today. A legendary song. I don’t think they can replace that song.

It’s been re-recorded so many times by different artists. How do you feel about that?

I love it. I love the young generation. You know, that is the reason we recorded it so the next generation can pick it up and change the style and play it in different modes. I really appreciate them. Other radios talk shows have asking me about it and I said it is good. I wish all Ethiopians were like that. We should renew the style and do it again. The song is very open and you can add anything you want to it. One just needs to invest a little time on it.


Related:
Part two: Exclusive Interview With Ethiopian Legend Teshome Mitiku
Part Three Exclusive: Teshome Mitiku Plans to Return to Ethiopia

Listen to Gara Sir Nèw Bétesh – Tèshomé Meteku (Ethiopiques)

Swedish pop singer Emilia (Teshome Mitiku’s daughter)- You’re My World (2009)

35 Responses to “Part One: Exclusive Interview With Ethiopian Legend Teshome Mitiku”


  1. 1 Ezra Aug 5th, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    This is just fab. Your efforts are one more step to reclaiming our often squandered and neglected cultural heritage. Thanks a lot. Keep up the good work.

  2. 2 Amsale Getahun Aug 5th, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Wow, Gara ser new betish brings tears to my eyes, beautiful memories of my country, the best of Ethiopia really. I am so happy to see Teshu alive and kicking with gusto after so many years. I shall be in Chicago with my grown up children! Thank you.

  3. 3 wossen Aug 5th, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Teshe we love you, eventhough we didn’t have chance to see you in our generation. Please we need your new music before it’s too late:)

  4. 4 Fassil Aug 6th, 2010 at 12:38 am

    It so good to hear Gara Sir again. I remember you and Soul Ekos at a club near Atiklit Tera where the late Sifu was the lead singer. I can only afford a single beer for all night but I danced all night holding my beer. I also remember walking in the wee hours alone back to Ledata after the club is closed. Once I was almost attacked by a pack of dogs near Teklimanot church. I still came back again next week to see you and dance again with my $1.50 (ETH) for my single beer. Thanks for the memories. If you and Alula get togther again do it in LA.

  5. 5 Yohannes Aug 6th, 2010 at 1:45 am

    I wonder, is the photo in the video his mom?

  6. 6 Sebene Aug 6th, 2010 at 1:49 am

    Fassil,

    I think you got your map coordination wrong. I don’t remember any club near Atkilit tera. Why would anyone open a club in Atkilit tera? Although there were few after hour places and speakeasies in Lideta, but again I have no recollection of Soul Ekos playing there. They played at Zula club and Ras Hotel, etc. I don’t know but maybe Zula was in Atkilit tera. Maybe I am the one who is confused. Frankly I was drinking too much vino at the time too. Anyways, the main point is they used to play at Zula and in fact their name used to be Zula before they became Soul Ekos. Zula used to be owned by an Eritrean-Ethiopian business man named Eisenhower Geb. I have no idea why they called him Eisenhower but that was the name everybody used to call him.

    I raise my glass to Teshome for keeping the legacy of Zula, Soul Ekos and the tense yet creative 1960′s and for paying homage to his home and his generation. Salute!

  7. 7 Joseph Jamene Aug 6th, 2010 at 4:07 am

    This was my first time to listen to Emilia.

    YOU are my world
    BIG BIG WORLD

    All of them were great and Emilia stands as a great vocalist as any. All of us look forward to hearing more from Emilia.

  8. 8 Öiechà Önî_Öné Aug 6th, 2010 at 11:32 am

    “The Good Old Days” for sure are Old But seldom Good. The way Teshé recites:”They Were Really Good” I know because I was/am a living witness. Teshé painted a vivid picture of Kokeb Tsibha school, Mr. Hansen, the music scene and some more. I hope someone from Qebena Nada, that was the soccer Team of the School, would come up to complete the Painting of Nostaligia began by Teshé.

    Those were a very decent days/TIMES and Teshé and his group were decent and brilliant kids. And remained so.

    I am so proud to be part of that school. I am proud of Teshomé and the rest of that crowd.

    Long Life for the Living and Nirvana for Those who Departed!

  9. 9 Ataklit Aug 6th, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    I agree that you must have had too much vino. There is nothing wrong with Ataklit Tera.

  10. 10 Yared Tibebu Aug 6th, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Teshe,

    Where are you? Our Friday nights are not the same since your departure from the DC music scene. I wish Meaza or some other comfortable venue will have you on weekend nights so that we can shade the pressure of work and life itself, and rejuvenate with the sound that comes out of your inner being. Teshe, We miss you so much, and lately my wife’s single agenda has become to open a place where you, Teddy and Nebeyou perform together. I hope she will realize her dream and see you on stage again here. My own dream is, as I expressed to you time and time again, is to visit home and do a performance at the Meskel Square along with your beautiful daughter. Bye for now my friend.

    TADIAS! Thank you for sharing this Ethiopian jewel to your reading public and beyond.

    Cheers!
    Yared

  11. 11 Fassil Aug 6th, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Sebene,

    The club I was refering to is Zula and it was near Atkilt Tera. You are right about them being called Zula band prior to Soul Ekos. I could not remember the name of the club last night. It must be the vino then again I could not afford it then so what do I know. Thanks !

  12. 12 Kebede Abera Aug 6th, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    I appreciate you dear TESHOME MITIKU that all your interview is based on fact and history.

    Teshu not only GOLD but DIAMOND i remember you always and gara sir new betish.

  13. 13 Getish Kassa Aug 6th, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Dear Tadias,

    I am searching for the right word to compliment you. Ezra already said it correctly that “your efforts are one more step to reclaiming our often squandered and neglected cultural heritage.” You are a mini cyber-museum yourself, preserving and sharing these cultural icons to your wide-readership to the younger generation.

    My heartfelt thanks.

    Yours truly,
    Getachew
    P.S. I look forward to your feature interview with Teshu’s daughter Emilia too.

  14. 14 Kerchele Aug 6th, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    I found no den in the wide world to hide my feelings. I listened to your music and the whole earth is made of glass. Thank you Teshome for throwing me under the feet of time and bringing the joy that I missed for so long.

    Stay blessed.

    Kerchele

  15. 15 Chekole Aug 6th, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Just for laughs…If you are from Kerchele prison, anything good especially music would make the earth feel like glass :-)

    In a more serious note, I think there is some good music going on in Addis right now. There is no doubt in my mind that Tesh would be pleasantly surprised not only by the music but by the amount of love that Ethiopians will show him. But it has to happen in his own time under his own terms, and calling. Things happen when they happen. And most of the time there is a reason for it. I believe Tseh’s music jam of his life has not happened yet. It is waiting to happen. But most importantly though, there is nothing more healing than visiting family. I speak from experience that I returned home after 34 years four years ago. I have never felt more energized, renewed sense of purpose in life, a much keener appreciation of small things in life. I do believe it has a healing power.

  16. 16 seifu mekuria Aug 7th, 2010 at 1:03 am

    Dear Teshome,

    I am so glad someone got you out in public again. My little brother thought the original Gara Sir Naw Betish was done by someone else. You see he did not know about you. I had to tell him. It was one night in a restaurant where I heared a CD playing, you singing it. Oh how my brother was disappointed about not knowing you. I told him everything about you, Seifu, Tesfaye “Hodo” Tamrat “ferenj” and the rest. I also mentioned the day we spent at the Red Cross festival in Janmeda “Ethio-GOGO” tent, dancing to the Soul Ekos music. AH, it was good era of music and partying. I was one of the best fan, cause one of my best friend, Melaku Mengistu was your schoolmate @ Kokebe Tsibah.

    I am glad you’re here to be heared again. This is like my generation is back on stage now. Thanks a lot to Tadias!

  17. 17 Kerchele Aug 7th, 2010 at 7:29 am

    Chekole,

    Indeed, I am from Kerchele prison and was there for decades. During the deafening silence of Kerchele that which came nearest to expressing the inexpressable was “Gara Sir new betish”. It tickled my muscles and stretched my soul. I listened to it motionless and still; And carried away with it up the hill. I must admit that for a moment I was released from Kerchele and wandered freely around the land of my birth. The chief trouble with “Gara Sir New Betish” is that there is not enough of it; even if you listen to it a million times, it will still force you to wipe your tears and never lets you get to the bottom of the hill – Ke Garaw Sir.

    Kerchele

  18. 18 Rahel Aug 7th, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    mechem yemayetegeb zefen (timeless song). Have you guys heard the band’s first album. It is called Dabo, literally meaning bread. It is so tasty and delicious.

    Tshome Mitiku, ye agere Anbessa, was born in Qebena, he is a Qebena Lij. Those of us who grew up in downtown also claim him as our own a piasa lij, he is also the Haile Selassie First Day School lij, he is a Kokebe Tsebaha lij. The Anbessa is ye Addis Ababa lij. For me, above all, he is ye Etopia Lij. Betam Ewodihalew…I love you!!

  19. 19 Major Doctor Aug 7th, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    I was a young cadet at the Haile Selassie 1st Harar Military Academy when this song came out. Ethiopia was indeed at crossroads at the time, even though the country would later take the wrong road straight down the cliff under the banner of communism under a leadership of an average soldier who was my subordinate. We are still trying to climb up the grara (hill) ever since. I was in Paris when the news broke that this particular soldier had muscled his way to the highest power in the land.

    But, that aside, Teshye is back with a new message of light at the end of the tunnel for our children for the next generation which Emilia represents. When I was her age, not that much older, I was sent to Europe on a scholarship for further study abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris. Believe it or not during my years in France, my Hungarian girlfriend’s favorite music was Gara Sir new Betish, thanks to Amha Eshete’s records which I made sure to pack in my bags. Eva and I danced to the song in Paris, yes drunk, made love, had three wonderful children and have been married for 37 years. Thank you Tsehye!!

  20. 20 Gelila Aug 7th, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Here is what makes this song special to Ethiopians. The lyrics and rhythm speak to a unique Ethiopian experience that can only be truly understood through fluency of Amharic and the Ethiopian culture and way of life. It is about being in love and being young, it is about home, it is about nature’s beauty, it makes you dance, it makes you cry, all depending on your mood. You can listen to it when you are happy, you can listen to it after you break-up, etc.. That’s why it is an Ethiopian classic. As Tehome said, “They can’t replace that song.” But its hidden beauty also lies with the fact that the beats are universal and they speak to everyone with love of music, regardless of generation, border or passport.

  21. 21 Semeon Aug 7th, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    Hey Teshe! I have listened to most of them, from Bach to Beethoven, B.B.King and The Beatles, but that song of yours “gara ser new betesh” will always remain my favorite song of all times! I was only ten or so when I first heard it! Oh! how I so wish that Yared’s wish comes true and we see you perform at ‘Meskel Square’. That song has a life of its own as it were! The longing of us ‘lost souls’ of the diaspora is perfectly portrayed! But then you had no idea that it would come to this, did you? The accolade from a former Sorbonne student is heart warming! But then we expect that and more! Hey Teshe, have no fear, your beloved nation’s children are saying, in a thunderous voice, “Our time has come, our nation will rise”!!

    Live long and prosper “ye wenzay lij”

  22. 22 nur Aug 9th, 2010 at 7:08 am

    He is has been outside of Ethiopia since 1970? {Long time…}

  23. 23 Leeshan Aug 10th, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Dear Tadias!

    What a great public service you have provided us with this interview! Thank you and and well done Martha Z Tegegn on a great job interviewing Teshome Mitiku. I can’t wait for part 2! The words, the music and THE VOICE of Teshome Mitiku is like a bridge, a bridge over the troubled and tempestuous waters of contemporary Ethiopian life. For over 30 years his art has transported us safely back and forth enabling us to look at what is going on and who we are as people at different points in time. Each of Teshome’s tunes is a time capsule capturing the moment and mood of the era. And here he is still going strong.

    If Ethiopian time/ contemporary history had a sound, it would be the sound of Teshome’s music and poetry. Many have shared with us their beautiful endless dreams but only Teshome has interpreted our dreams for us and described our day to day reality in his songs. All his songs, and in particular his love songs have the bittersweet taste of Ethiopian love and Ethiopian life in modern times, in troubled times… and in sidet…I love Teshome Mitiku and hope Tadias keeps focused on this poetic and musical genius because we need to give him this well deserved and overdue recognition for an outstanding, almost spiritual Ethiopian talent. I have no doubt that Teshome’s CD Yegna Neger is engraved on every Ethiopian soul that has heard it and the words of Iyoot Sileyayoon is engraved on every Ethiopian heart in Ethiopia. Teshome’s music is a chronicle of our life and times. Long may his pen record our Ethipian journey and his long may his voice echo our hopes and fears. Thank you Teshome.

  24. 24 Yared Aug 10th, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Teshome Mitiku is great musician and songwriter of our time. His songs are still popular and irreplaceable. If you have not seen Teshome live you are missing one of the most interesting entertainer of our generation. If you want to go back in time for a treat, please make time to see him or buy his CD. May God bless Teshome & a long life like Matusala.

    Teshome is truly a wonderful person.
    Yared

  25. 25 Cookie Aug 12th, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Fabulaus!

  26. 26 Ephrem Aug 19th, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Dear Teshome is not only an artist, musician and writer but he is also a friend to all forever.

    Your bro
    Ephrem

  27. 27 Temesgen Feb 6th, 2011 at 10:12 am

    I was born and grew up in Ethiopia. I have been listening to all the songs by “Teshome Mitiku” and I like most of them. But I never knew who Teshome Mitiku is and I didn’t know those songs I like were his songs. What I am reading from the interview made me feel stupid that I didn’t know him. Thank you for introducing me to the great Ethiopian artist whom I didn’t know though I know very well his great works.

  28. 28 Girum Feb 10th, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Dear Tadias (Martha),

    Thanks for a well written report.

    I have to admit that I was taken by surprise when I read how much this legendary signer is loved and admired. Given my younger age, I heard Gara sir new betish as played by Teshome (The blind guy who sings with a keyboard) about maybe 15-20 years ago. I loved it then. I loved the song even more when I listened to the original and learned that Teshome Mitiku wrote and composed it. Very nice composition, Amazing vocals!! It somehow makes me long for a time I have not even been a part of. In any case Tenana Selam Yistilign; can’t wait to listen to Teshome’s other albums.

    peace.

  29. 29 Gigi Sep 24th, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Konjit,

    Good luck on your journey and for keeping our culture and the legacy of our country.

    For your daughter Emilia, she’s a beautiful singer too.

    Wish you all the best and God keep you safe!

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