Yeshi Demelash of Ethiopian Idol fame walked in the same shoes as contestants of the show on Wednesday, December 28, 2011, as formed she held a pre-release review for selected songs of her debut album Quine at Hilton Addis Abeba Hotel.
The Gojam-born artist, 28, got the judging job on Ethiopian Idol a year after graduating from Addis Abeba University’s Yared School of Arts where she majored in flute and minored in piano.
It is this musical knowledge that Yeshi constantly displays on Ethiopian Idol, along with the other judges Sertse Fire Sebehat, a musical expert, and Dagmawe Ali, composer and bassist. on using it to judge contestants’ performances.
Simon Cowell, the famous judge who used to be on American Idol and a similar British show Pop Idol, once said that idol spinoff shows just try to replicate the interplay of personalities created on their American counterpart where he was the tough caustic judge and Paula Abdul, a pop personality from the eighties, played a soft judge who would complement the clothes people wore if she could not say anything nice about their voice.
The three Ethiopian judges with ample musical background however, have managed to make the show unique, more educational, and less about personalities, informing non-musical audiences about the Ethiopian scale, the nuances of pitch and tone, and other musical terms.
Yeshi and Sertse sometimes even demonstrate how songs should be vocalised, making many wonder why they do not sing instead of judge.
Yeshi took the first step in this endeavour, preparing an album with 12 songs, most of which were penned by the artist herself.
“I have always wanted to be a musician,” she says.
She was exposed to music at an early age in her mother’s bar in Lumame, 261km northwest of Addis, where she grew up as a middle child of six siblings.
The artist came to Addis Abeba when she was 12, by which time she had completed middle school.
“There was no high school in my town,” explains Yeshi, who said that her brothers learned in Debre Markos 299km northwest of Addis Abeba. “I was too young to be living alone in Debre Markos, so my father sent me to live with his brother in Addis Abeba, where I have stayed ever since.”
Attending Yared, Yeshi had thought that she was going to learn how to sing. “I did not know then that it was more of a classical training that delved into the science of music, when I applied there.” she told Fortune.
Yeshi did not leave upon finding out that vocal lessons were not given, however.
“The school picked only 25 of us out of over 400 applicants, so I knew I had to take the opportunity,” she said.
She is now grateful that she took advantage of it because it has helped her a lot in her work.
“In the beginning, I forgot about singing and concentrated on the courses. However, by my fifth year I remembered my initial dream and why I was there at Yared,” Yeshi recalls.
She started recording songs at that time. However, it took a few more years, in which she changed record labels and landed the job for Ethiopian Idol, before the album could be finalised.
Before the album could be released, however, the judge’s work had to undergo a review process by an audience compiled of people in the music industry. In the audience were singers like Fikeraddis Nekatebeb, actors like Aster Bedane, and lyrical experts like poet Abebaw Melaku, producer of the Addis Zema programme on FM Addis.
Yeshi did not find it difficult to relinquish the role of judging to others.
“I think input and criticism are very important.” she told Fortune. “It is unusual in our country to have such kinds of reviews prior to the release of an artist’s work. However, it should be encouraged.”
The fact that it is unusual was, perhaps, a disadvantage for the live review process, which did not see much audience participation. Attendees were encouraged to speak out their thoughts after each song and, in the end, to write whatever views and comments they had on a paper provided to them.
After introduction by representatives from Adika Communications and Events, the sister company of Adkia Tour and Travel, who has signed the artist and is to handle the sale, distribution, and promotion Yeshi played five songs that she selected from her album, starting off with the title song.
Quine is a slow jazzy number accompanied by guitar tunes with Michael Melesse. Like almost all of the songs in the album it was composed by Robel Dagne, a young talent, who used to be Yeshi’s classmate at Yared. It is a love song that tells of a little spark in the heart that grows into something larger. At the end, the artist does a vocal riff that shows the musical capacity of her voice.
As she did with all of her songs, the artist sat down in a chair, bobbing her head to the music, with a laptop in front of her that was connected to a big projector, which displayed the lyrics.
After the song was over, the audience was urged to give their opinion of the music. However, members of the audience, who were no strangers to public speaking for the most part, were reluctant to come forward. Even Tsersefere, her colleague at Idol, who was present did not comment.
After being prompted to no avail, by both Yeshi and representatives from Adika Communications and Events, Yeshi proceeded to play the second song.
The song was entitled Tikusena Berad, which translates as Hot and Cold. This song was also written by the artist herself as a love song.
The song tries to do something new through the combination of a Western rock beat and a local anchihoye scale, according to Yeshi.
Again, the audience was reluctant to share their opinions for the second song, so it was decided that the rest of the songs would be played back-to-back, and the stage would be open for review after all the selected songs had been heard.
Hager, an ode to Ethiopia, accompanied by a masinko, the local single string lute; Melkamena Kifu, whose lyrics contain a moral tale about reaping what is sowed; and Fano, a local folk song unusually done with a fast beat accompanied by trumpets and a trombone, were played in succession.
All selections were played twice so that the audience could pay attention to details to help them in their review. After these songs were played, Abebe from Addis Zema took the stage and provided comments on all five songs.
“When hearing the way she expressed herself on Ethiopian Idol, I thought that if Yeshi wrote she would be a good poet,” he said. “She did not disappoint.”
However, Melaku picked on some of her word choices in her lyrics, which he said were either repetitive, out of context, or unusual. For instance, Yeshi described her country as a friend instead of as a mother, as is common, in her song Hager.
“I would have preferred it if Yeshi explained why she chose that term in her lyrics. Motherland would not require an explanation but describing a land as a friend does,” he said.
Yeshi countered that a friend made more sense to her as she would tell things to a pal that she would not ten her mother.
The judging was a little different from Ethiopian Idol. There it is the judges that sit while the contestants stand up and present. For Yeshi’s review however, chairs were not provided for the audience, which stood through two runs of all five recordings.
As Yeshi’s harmony teacher, Yared Abraham took it upon himself to admonish this oversight when he got up on stage to review her work after Abraham. He appreciated Yeshi’s album, however, saying that the songs could be listened to again and again without tiring their audience.
His only fear was that some of the songs are not be marketable, because Yeshi tried to do something new.
“Of course, being commercial is important, but it should not limit us from doing something new or putting out a product that we believe in,” Yeshi told the audience. “There is a reason the I asked professionals from the industry for this review. It is because they will appreciate new genres and notice the nuances in the music.”
No other audience member got up to give comments, and the programme ended with just two vocal comments. The other audience members submitted their comments through notes.
“I like how the whole process went. Even though not too many people spoke out loud, I got many comments that were invaluable and very encouraging,” Yeshi later told Fortune. She had made minor changes based on comments that she believed were justified. “I accept their opinion and appreciate it.”
After the programme was over, Sheger FM owner Binyam Gebreyes was impressed with Yeshi’s debut album.
“I think she has a good idea of what will work because she is involved in the profession,” Binyam said.
Pre-recording reviews are not a new thing for Binyam who had also attended artist Fantahun Kochew’s review programme, where the artist put up his whole album for review.
“I chose the five songs that were representative of the whole album,” Yeshi said. “Her favourite song, however, was not included in the review. Titled Kokeb, the song is a tribute to a person she knows and admires.
DJ Lee from FM Addis liked all of the songs. She especially liked the rock beat of Tekusena Berad, saying it will become an instant hit. However, she is worried about the marketability of Quine, because it is so new.
Yeshi is not as fearless when it comes to the wider audience, however.
“My exposure in the media has been rewarding but also limiting,” she said. “Those who know me from Ethiopian Idol must expect a lot, so it took me time to prepare work that would live up to their expectations. However, at some point I had to say that this fear should not stop me from my dreams.”
This album is not just a debut for Yeshi but also for Robel, who composed nine songs.
“I previously composed single releases for artists like Michaia, but this is my first experience in making an album,” he said.
Before the start of the review, Yeshi also announced that Adika would help produce a new album for the small 16-year old Ethiopian Idol sensation Dawit Alemayehu, who seemed excited about the prospect.
“I would love to work on an album. Yeshi has been a great help and role model for my musical aspirations,” Dawit, who says he will use famous lyricists if he makes an album, told Fortune.
The date that the album is to be released is not certain yet. The artist would prefer it to come out within this week.
However, her promoters at Adika suggest that she do a couple of music videos, which could be handed out with the album for the first few buyers.
“It is yet to be seen which course we will take, but I hope that it will come out soon" she told Fortune.