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The resurgence of live band

By Samuel Getachew

Piano Bar on Bole road has an extraordinary nightlife for such an ordinarily place. Located in the heart of the capital’s most reclusive area, Bole, it is located in the midst of boutique hotels, an emerging middle class society and the diplomatic corps of Addis Ababa.

Bole is where the rich show off their brand name cars, where the diasporas find a familiar and westernized environment, and where a kilo of prime meat sells as little as 80 birr at a Kebele and at the private butchers sells for about 350 Birr. There is moderate living coupled with extreme privilege exist next to each other. This is Bole.

At Piano bar, this is where anyone can be enriched with an array of music from all genre and experience the cultural diversity of Ethiopia. In substitute of the free entry to the Piano Bar is where the price of beer are priced accordingly and are comparable to five-star hotels for such an ordinary pub, but then again, music is what brought the packed people to this pub.

It is just after 11 PM and the long-awaited star of the night, Tarekegn Mulu is about to take the stage. He is what Ephrem Tameru was to millions of Ethiopians, to his generation – a voice of an era.

Just passed midnight, Tarekegn is on stage belting rich, golden sounds, surrounded by fans eager to plaster his forehead with bank notes. He is smiling broadly, like a struggling artist who has arrived to the big league, but whose journey has made him better, not worse. He is not big enough to tour the world like his contemporaries such as Teddy Afro, but his sound, demeanor and stage presence is world class.

Whenever the crooner sings, he sings like Menelik Wossenachew does, as one who lived every word and gained wisdom from it. He moves the way Tilahun Gessesse used to do, with grace. He is exceptional.

His is a glimpse of why most people are ditching pre-recorded music for live music in Ethiopia. It seems at Piano bar, he is paying his dues for a certain future stardom.

Before he takes the stage, in the midst of opening acts, refurbishing old sounds and recycling the new, there are many good musicians warming up the crowd.

But it is obvious people have come to witness and experience Tarekegn. Some dance, many sing along and lots of people plaster him with banknotes as soon as he takes the stage. He starts his songs, but lets the audience finishes it for him, the way the late artist, Abraham Afewerki used to do.

“He is an excellent artist and he seems more content, more powerful (as an artist)”, Tesfaye, a diaspora from Germany, told The Reporter. “I have seen many concerts in my time, from the great Neway (Debebe), Ali Birra and Eprhem (Tamiru), but Tarekegn is exceptional”.  

“I just wish he would go on tour and let others be exposed to his golden voice”.

At Ramada Hotel, a block away, is a beautiful environment of live music. Backed by the famous Ethiopian-Japanese Abegasu Shiota, the talented arranger and producer, is a young lady who belts a unique youthful sound. She sings the Motown oldies, Steve Wonder and Michael Jackson and Ethiopia’s Aster Aweke.  

 There is no denying that, people are enjoying the atmosphere, the ambiance. 

 “I grew up in Bole, went to school at St. Joseph and came back to Ethiopia as a Diaspora after three decades”, Henok, a former Washington DC resident told The Reporter. “To me, Abegaz, Henock (the famous guitarist) are talented and should be given all the respect that is due”.

Next to him, another returnee from the United States told The Reporter, how much the evolution of Ethiopian music means to him. “For me, Ethiopian music, jazz or soul are the next frontiers to be discovered by the world. We should promote them, the way western countries protect theirs from total extinction”.

“Like coffee and our cuisine, Ethiopia can also be recognized for its music”. 

At Monarch Hotel, it is a busy night of music. At its parking space, there are traditional musicians, with Masinko, playing music and asking for money.  But inside, it is a night of loud, live music and expensive beer.

There is a lady singing the famous Prince Song – Purple Rain, to the amazement of the predominantly foreign faces in the audience. There are goose bumps as the beautiful version is being sung. This song has meant many things and been part of their milestones. “What a beautiful sound”, a man asks, while his partner asks what the name of the unknown artist is. It seems nobody knows her name but the sound is familiar, the song is beautiful and the rendition is superb.

Still within Bole, next to Bole High School, are streets full of pubs, where cheap beer is good business.

This is also where DJs strive. “I love the music of The Weeknd, Beyonce and Rihanna”, a 17-year-old told The Reporter. “I find local live music to be too slow and boring for me”. “Live traditional music is what my parents listen to,” another told The Reporter. “Not me”. All his friends nod their heads in agreement.

There are many billboards of DJs for many occasions but it has not been a brisk business as was before.

 “There was a time, I was overbooked and I had to hire other DJs to fulfill my contracts”, DJ Mike told The Reporter. “These days, I hardly get a contract in a week”.

It is just past the Easter celebration, and Teddy Afro is about to release an album, a milestone to music lovers, and the likes of Aster Aweke and Mahmoud Ahmed are launching open concerts in the capital. There is almost like fever to attend these concerts and be part of live music. Tickets are selling as high as 1000 birr.

What’s more, The Weeknd, the Ethiopian-Canadian multimillion selling artist, is rumored to have a concert in the capital. An artist, whose mere mention on social media is valuable, has spoken widely about his musical inspirations in Aster Aweke and Mulatu Astatke and given their sound, the sound of Ethiopia, instant mainstream recognition.

Within Ethiopia, it seems the Ethiopian live sound is making a comeback. Perhaps, the only issue is that, as the evolution of live music in Ethiopia is becoming the chosen destination, what is becoming the norm is the class element of the evolution, where the rich can afford to spend a fortune to be privileged with live music and the average can only be neglected to the sound of manufactured music, not because of choice, but financial limitations.