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Taking Ethiopian reggae across the Mediterranean

Ethiopia remains at the heart of many reggae enthusiasts around the world as it features in several songs by legendary Jamaican artist Bob Marley, the genre's biggest star. In Ethiopia, there are a number of reggae artist that have managed to leave their marks in Ethiopia and they are set to take it to the global stage, writes Samuel Getachew.

As Ethiopia modernizes the status of its dwindling Rastafarian population by transitioning them from second class status but one with rights and responsibilities within Ethiopia, the country is about to showcase their rich influence in Ethiopia as a marketing tool to lure tourists and promote its cultures to thousands of people.

Whenever the world and Ethiopians think of Rastafarians, one thing comes to mind – Reggae music. Reggae music swept around the world in the 1970s and then subsided slightly in most places. In Ethiopia, the situation was not any better: reggae was considered 'underground' and therefore did not feature on the Ethiopian airwaves, nor did it receive much attention in the live music venues in Addis Ababa. Despite the lack of proper promotion, reggae's hypnotic rhythms and conscious message engulfed the hearts of a few artists who were keen on promoting the genre. 

Now, in Benicassim, Spain, various local Ethiopian artists have been invited to perform in front of a rare international audience to help promote their efforts and bring the collective sound of Ethiopia to the mainstream at a 10 day Rototom Sunsplash Reggae Festival. A United Nations Educational and Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) endorsed festival; the festival is known to attract thousands of fans in an open concert.

The artists invited are Hailemichael Getnet a.k.a. Haile Roots, Henock Mehari, Yohannis Bekele a.k.a. Johnny Ragga, Samuel Berhanu a.k.a. Sami Dan, Tsedenia Birhanu (Tsedi), Yohanna Ashenafi (Yo Yo), Yohannes Wubeshet (Ras Jahnny), and Chelina Yeshiwondim.

With a commitment to bring together via foreign sound, Rototom has hosted thousands of artists from around the world, and with the exception of famous Ethiopian international artists such as Aster Aweke and Mohamud Ahmed, this is the first time Ethiopian artists have been invited to partake at the festivities.

This year, in addition to the local Ethiopian artists, emerging talent and the children of African legends are to take part. Seun Kuti, son of the creator of the Afrobeat and son of Fela Kuti and the daughter of Lucky Dube, Nkulee Dube, the daughter of the murdered South African reggae legend are to take part. International super star, Youssou Ndour of Senegal and one time Senegalise Culture Minister is also one of the headliners.

Since the inception in 1994, the festival has attracted millions of fans and hosted 15,000 artists from 120 countries. It has also extended to 14 various countries and Ethiopia is to be its latest addition next year, becoming the first African hosting nation of the festival. “We partnered with Ethnopia because we wanted to show the organizers of the festival that we are capable of hosting the festival in Ethiopia in January 2018,” Yohannes Tilahun, CEO of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO), said.

With little exposure of the Ethiopian sound to the outside world, the invited artists are to be the ambassador to the introduction of a unique sound to thousands of people.

The artist are be backed by the famous Mehari brothers and Henok, one of the leading arrangers in Ethiopian music. Cultural sounds of Kirar, kebero and Masinquo are to be incorporated throughout the performances. The brothers are also expected to back David Hinds, the famous Grammy award winning voice of Steel Pulse.

The idea to bring the Ethiopian artists to the festival was conceived by Walter Rizzi, one of the founders of Rototom and International Promote and Addis Gessese, the Quincy Jones-like producer who discovered the youthful group,  Jano Band and steered them to stardom. According to Addis, “this was to be an introduction to a unique culture, sound that is still undiscovered and deserved to join the mainstream sounds that are often enjoyed in the world”.

“Ethiopian music is isolated therefore such kinds of opportunities will allow us to introduce our country’s music and culture to the world”, Walter acknowledged.

All the artists have been practicing at Villa Verde eatery; a posh restaurant found in the capital and hosted exclusive concerts. “As part of my participation on the upcoming Rototom Sunsplash Reggae Festival on August 2017 in Spain, I will be performing at Villaverde, Sami Dan said on social media. “Road to Rototom”.

The local artists are expected to take the Lion stage for two nights and have them be part of a future planned concert in Addis Ababa early next year at a still undermined venue. The Steel Pulse act are expected to be the headliner – in a concert coined - ‘Rototom Come To Ethiopia’.

“Ethiopia will play a special role in the Celebrating Africa edition. Rototom Sunsplash pays tribute to the African country, considered the cradle of the Rastafarian movement, by launching a new musical and cultural initiative called “Ethnopia”, the organizers said. “A project that this summer will bring to Benicassim, the essence of the Ethiopian culture through its music and, at the same time, will lay the foundation of a collaborative projects that will help to jointly undertake new paths in the next few months, beyond the strictly musical aspect.

The effort has the support of Ethiopian Airlines, Heineken and Garden of Coffee and the Embassy of Spain in Ethiopia. The Spanish ambassador, Borja Montesino told The Reporter how this would be a huge chance for the local artists to tell the Ethiopian story. While he acknowledged he was a fan of the famous Ethiopian pianist, Girma Yifrashewa, he hopped the successes of the participation of the Ethiopian acts will help promote better friendship between Ethiopia and Spain.

The Ethiopian Tourism Organization and Ethiopian Airlines are to have a booth at the festival to promote tourism and trade throughout the festival.