NYT on International Legacy of Ethiopia’s Music Legend Alemayehu Eshete

Alemayehu Eshete in concert at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park [in New York] in 2008. His admirers compared him to both Elvis Presley and James Brown. He became a swaggering star in the late 1960s, when Addis Ababa experienced a golden age of night life and music. Decades later, he was rediscovered. (Getty)

The New York Times

Alemayehu Eshete, a soulful Ethiopian pop singer widely known as the “Abyssinian Elvis” who became a star in the 1960s when a cultural revolution took hold of Addis Ababa, died on Sept. 2…

For years under Haile Selassie’s imperial rule, Ethiopia’s music industry was controlled by the state. Orchestras dutifully performed patriotic songs at government events, while defiant bands played Little Richard songs at night in clubs. It was forbidden to record and distribute music independently.

“All the musicians used to work for the government,” Mr. Eshete said in a 2017 documentary about the era, “Ethiopiques: Revolt of the Soul.” “When they told you to perform, you had to perform. We were treated like average workers, not like real artists.”

But in the late 1960s, as Selassie grew old and the grip of his rule loosened, Addis Ababa experienced a golden age of night life and music, and Mr. Eshete became a swaggering star of the so-called “swinging Addis” era.

The sound that dominated this period was distinct: an infectious blend of Western-imported blues and R&B with traditional Ethiopian folk music. It was typified by hypnotic saxophone lines, funky electric guitar stabs and grooving piano riffs.

As a teenager, Mr. Eshete was smitten with American rock ‘n’ roll, and his idol was Elvis Presley, so when he started singing in the clubs of Addis he imitated his hero. He sported a pompadour and wore big collared shirts as he gyrated onstage.

.“I dressed like an American, grew my hair, sang ‘Jailhouse Rock,’” he told The Guardian in 2008. “But the moment that I started singing Amharic songs, my popularity shot up.”

He was soon enlisted in the fabled Police Orchestra, a state-run band composed of Ethiopia’s finest musicians, and he began playing with the ensemble at government functions in the city. After hours, he found refuge in the underground music scene.

In 1969, the defiant act of Mr. Eshete and a young record shop owner named Amha Eshete (no relation) galvanized the scene.


The acclaimed “Éthiopiques” album series, begun in 1997, ignited international interest in Ethiopian music. Two releases in the series are devoted to Mr. Eshete’s work. (Photo: Buda Musique)

Amha Eshete decided to found a label, Amha Records, to commit to vinyl the Ethiopian pop music that bands were performing in clubs. Few musicians were willing to flout the law with him until Alemayehu Eshete stepped forward and offered to record the funky tune “Timarkialesh,” and Amha then had it manufactured as a 45 r.p.m. single in India.

Read the full article at nytimes.com »

Related:

Remembering Alemayehu Eshete: Ethiopian Music Legend Passes Away at 80

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