Saturday, April 21, 2012

THE PHENOMENAL! THE LIKEBALE, THE POPULIST, THE QUESTIONABLE


 Partygoers filled Laphto, a multipurpose fitness, entertainment, and shopping facility, on South Africa Street, a commercial centre adjacent to Bisrate Gabriel Church, to the brim in mid-January 2012. It was a concert by Hailemichael Getenet, fondly known by his fans as Haile Roots, whose first album Chiggae was an instant hit.

The concert drew an overwhelming number of fans, some had minor confrontations with police officers deployed at the gate, when they were told tickets were all sold out and space was not available. A little over 1,500 people were dancing to the tune of a vocalist whose brand is blending reggae with chikchika, a genre of music with roots from the north-western part of Ethiopia.

The crowd had on wait for the unscheduled appearance to the stage of what is today the most sensational musician of contemporary Ethiopia to be electrified. Fans of Tewodros Kassahun, a.k.a. Teddy Afro, were thrilled, while thousands of hands stretched to the skies.

The deafening roar muffled the music. Silhouetted on the glittering stage lights, he chanted his signature intro, “Addis Abeba . . . Ethiopia . . . Asmara . . .”

The intensity of the yell was amplified inside the hall. The fans complied with the signal he gave. With the microphone pointed at them so that they would sing, in unison, to the verses he started but left unfinished.

“Never have I seen a crowd go so wild,” said a middle-aged man who went on to see the concert mainly to accompany his two teenage sons.

A teenager of, perhaps, his sons’ age jumped over to the stage, took off his shirt, and hugged Teddy in full force. The stage bouncers rushed to jerk him off of the singer, who composed himself, instantly, and finished his first song.

A crowd far above the ground called his name for a minute long, again in unison, as if superbly composed by a professional conductor.



“Teddy was in good shape at that concert,” a known music critic recalled. “He performed well.”

Whether performing at places he is least expected or at his own concerts, Teddy Afro is now familiar with entertaining rather enlivened fans, both at home and abroad. Tens of thousands of his fans mumble his songs as well as a national anthem. Although rare, there are incidents where a few have fainted at such concerts. It is to such a devoted fan base that Teddy Afro releases, today, April 14, 2012, his long anticipated fourth album, dubbed Tikur Sew, loosely translated as Black Man. Ever since the release of his controversial and hit album Yasteseryal, in 2005, Teddy Afro has lived in the minds of his fans for reasons of music and personal tragedy. Of course, there have been a couple of singles released during this period, although none were enough to keep his admirers content.

The talk about his plan to release a new album has been on the offing for some time, now. The making of a new album dates back few years ago, according to a close friend of the singer. He often composes some tunes only to throw them away a few days later, dissatisfied.

Finally, he chose around 25 songs and selected 11 of his favourites, says his friend.

“He changes the lists of the songs every other week,” the musician friend said. “I do not even know the songs that are now included on the new album.”

But, an earlier plan to release the album during Ethiopia’s New Year in September was pushed to Christmas and finally the eve of Easter, while the title for the album kept changing from Meharebe to Fiorena and, lastly, to Tikur Sew.

Tikur Sew is dedicated to Emperor Menelik II, the father of modern-day Ethiopia, who thwarted Italy’s colonial ambitions over Ethiopia. Indeed, Teddy, in his new song praises Menelik’s iconic victory at the Battle of Adwa, in March 1986. It is considered a “turning point in modern African history,” where an army from black Africa defeated a modern European colonial power for the first time, a historical significance believed to have inspired many blacks to fight for their freedom.

The flagship song in the new album, Tikur Sew, was arranged by Abegasu Kibrework Shiota, a respected composer, producer, and arranger, while Michael Hailu, a rising star of 24 years, playing superb guitar, arranged and composed eight of them. The unofficial poster on a social networking website had it that other arrangers, such as Girum Mezmur and Kamuzu Kasa, added their fingerprints to the album. Indeed Girum Mezmur, cofounder of Afro Sound Band, a band from which Teddy picked his nom de guerre, accompanied him to Chicago a year and a half ago, to produce the album.

“He had a plan to make his album in the United States,” a musician and close friend of Teddy told Fortune. “He wanted to record the album on a band and studio there.”

The shift was also witnessed in his choice of record label company. Teddy moved away from his album distributor, Electra Music Shop, which reportedly paid him around a million Birr for his last album, to an emerging event organiser and album producer, Adika Communications & Events Plc and its partner Belema Entertainment. Having successfully organised and promoted Teddy Afro’s music concert in Addis Abeba in 2009 and his subsequent North American tour, Adika inked a distribution rights and promotion deal with the singer, two months ago, for what industry sources disclose was a contract worth 4.5 million Br.

The deal enables Adika to distribute Teddy’s album throughout the country and to the international market, with the first round consisting of 300,000 audio cassettes and half a million CDs. This should have a total turnover of close to 15 million Br in sales.

Ashenafi Zeleke, general manager of Adika Communications & Events Plc, declined to confirm how much his company agreed to pay Teddy, citing the confidentiality clause in the contract. The millions that Teddy is to bag from the deal is what no other singer has ever been paid in the Ethiopian music industry.

Teddy and Adika have also jointly signed an exclusive sponsorship deal with Meta Abo Brewery SC, a domestic brewery, which Diageo Plc, the world's biggest liquor maker, recently acquired for 225 million dollars. Meta’s sponsorship has been slotted on radio and TV commercials, while its logos have appeared on billboards, posters, and promotional fliers.

Adika prepared 50,000 posters and 20 different types of billboards, which have lately dominated the scenes of Addis Abeba’s major avenues, including the giant steel structures erected by Alliance Media, a leading provider of outdoor advertising across Africa.

“After the release of the album, we will add 10 more billboards in Addis Abeba and one billboard each in the main towns of the country,” Ashenafi disclosed to Fortune.

Adika has developed strategies to minimise piracy. In addition to the existing distribution channels, the company has a plan to introduce sales points, producing CD racks and putting them in supermarkets, cafes, and selected outlets in regional towns.

It also has plans to capitalise on the features of the original album to attract more buyers. The cover of the album and pictures of Teddy have an appealing impact on the audience, the company believes.

The aggressive marketing and promotion move goes as far as introducing the sales of ringtones, available for mobile users through a local SMS service provider, 4MT Mobile Technology Plc. The company, a subsidiary of US-based 4Info Inc, prepared a ringtone platform, after it started its operations in Ethiopia in August 2011, but remained inactive until Adika approached them with Teddy Afro’s songs.

“We hardly hesitated to begin the service with Teddy Afro’s songs,” Samuel Alemayheu, general manager of 4MT, told Fortune. “He is not your average artist that needs persuasion to convince people.”

Teddy’s Afrikaye, translated as My Africa, is the first song officially offered for sale to mobile subscribers who dial 8080, in Ethiopia. For a price of two Birr for each download, 4MT uploaded the song to a website and opened it for downloads last Sunday afternoon. To date, 4MT has sent Text message to eight per cent of the 11 million ethio telecom subscribers.

“The response is overwhelming,” says Samuel. “By Sunday night, there were 55,000 hits.”

The number doubled in two days. 4MT expects the number of ringtone downloads to reach two million within a few days of the release. The company has prepared 35-second versions of an additional four songs, released everyday, starting from Wednesday, disclosed Samuel.

The IT company will also introduce another pioneering service for Teddy’s fans. It plans to make Teddy’s photos available on the release date of the album, as wallpapers for mobiles and smartphones. Four video clips of the new album, from 30 seconds to a minute, will go online.

In all of these platforms and products available, 4MT targets reaching 20pc of mobile subscribers in Ethiopia that can access the Internet, using their gadgets. Subscribers with mobile devices able to access the Internet account 76pc of the ethio telecom customer base, according to industry estimates.

4MT and Adika also devised a way of collecting views from Teddy’s fans through calls made to 8080. They choose a single word and invite his fans to send comments to Teddy, Samuel told Fortune. Such comments will be collected and delivered to the artist through Adika.

Adika’s Ashenafi is “amazed” at the pace of ringtone downloads as well as forwarded comments.

“It is one way of promoting the album and maximising your revenues,” says Ashenafi. “It is a good start. Actually, it is going well.”

By midday, Wednesday, 4,500 fans had sent their messages to the singer.

Some of Teddy’s fans and a number of players in the music industry question the phenomenal promotional drive. Taking into consideration the singer’s established name in the music industry, such promotions are perhaps too “exaggerated,” many agree.

Teddy’s fans include those who are anxious about an emerging expectation to high to meet, while others fear that such a marketing onslaught might rescue a work that is “below par.” Others are not comfortable seeing it and find it offensive that an adored singer associates himself with an alcoholic drink on his promotional posters and billboards.

Those in the music industry are critical of the manner in which promoters released a couple of his songs from the new album, in their bid to create anticipation among members of the public. Available on YouTube website and played by FM stations in the city, the singles are characterised by critics as “poor in quality.”

“I am embarrassed to hear what he has released, so far,” a music critic said. “They are below Teddy’s capacity and the standards he has attained.”

But, the songs so far played are a “mix of completed work and recorded melodies during practice time,” a guitarist told Fortune.

Nonetheless, Des Yemil Sekay, loosely translated as Sweet Agony, the first official single released from Teddy’s upcoming album, is not immune to criticism. The singer used too much tuner, an audio processor employed to alter pitch in vocal and instrumental performances, according to an acclaimed music critic. Teddy’s pitch in the single is “imperfect” and that showed a lack of sufficient practice, he said.

“A vocalist needs freedom to interpret his music before he goes to recording,” the critic told Fortune. “Teddy recorded these songs only with patterns, lacking harmony. That is why the songs seem devoid of life.”

If the single released last week is to serve as any indication, the public would be better off not expecting anything new or even a unique voice, says the critic.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, any of such shortcomings are only visible to an adept ear and would have little impact on the market.

“The audience loves Teddy,” the critic admits.

He recalls the long queue he saw on the third day of the release of Yasteseryal - literally translated as Redemption, an album that remained at the top of  music shops’ shelves for seven consecutive months.

He is from Merkato, and he knows how to sell himself and when to say what, according to a music expert with many years of teaching experience at Yared Music School, now under Addis Abeba University.(AAU)

“He is a man of intellect, if you will,” says the musician from Yared.

Indeed, Teddy is many things, all at the same time. He is a vocalist as much as he is a lyrics writer, a musician as much as he is an activist promoting and taking positions on issues of public interest.

"If there is someone who understands the business side of music in Ethiopia, that would be Teddy," agrees Elyas Mulu Kiros, commenting on a blog,

One of the many blogs and social media websites enthusiastic about the new album, the owner of this blog highlighted fives reasons why people should buy the album. Teddy invokes emotions, He is an activist and a critic he takes risks against copyright piracy; and it is his first album since his relase from jail.

His arrest, in 2008, and subsequent conviction by a Federal High Court on manslaughter charges for a hit-and-run crime is still viewed by his fans as a deliberate concoction by his detractors.

Adika’s Ashenafi acknowledges popular affection for Teddy Afro, who is very illusive for the media. He has been unavailable for interviews, despite days of effort by Fortune while developing this story.

The pop singer has produced good music, which he projects to be an instant “hit,” Ashenafi, however, believes.

More than a popular vocalist, Teddy Afro is a symbol of defiance of the rich and the powers that be and a populist activist, invoking inspiration among many of his young fans that are rather restless. He is very conscious of his association with events and personalities resented by popular views, while he is perceptive in listening to the pulse of the many.

A research paper by Kristin Skare Orgeret (PhD), associate professor at Oslo & Akershus University College in Norway, which analysed Teddy Afro’s last album in the context of political discourse, discovered that the singer is clever enough “in taking the stock of the nation’s pulse” and winning people’s hearts.

Titled, When Will the Daybreak Come? Popular Music and Political Processes in Ethiopia, the paper stated that, in a socially conscious manner, music can be used as a vehicle for conveying messages and may play a role in fragmenting and contesting political authority. The writer sees several of the tracks in the album dubbed Yasteseryal as lucid examples of a popular voice challenging the ruling political discourse.

“Although some of the texts, at least from an outsider’s perspective, do not seem very radical or politically challenging, the songs apparently hit a national nerve at a decisive moment in Ethiopian history,” writes Kristin in her paper published in 2008 in Nordicom Review, a journal prepared by Nordic Research on Media & Communications. “The symbolic value of the songs was probably as important as a source of popular and political resistance, as were the actual lyrics.”

Hardly is it, thus, surprising to see the Ethiopian music critic attribute Teddy’s popularity mainly to the singer’s “revolutionary messages and related activities.”

I have no doubt that Teddy has  talent, but I think he is quite calculative, which makes him a commercial artist, rather than a genuine artist like people from the past who sang for the sake of singing," says Elyas on eweketworldpress.com.

Whether a real or pseudo name, Elyas is perhaps an exception in criticizing Teddy openly. The singer's growing influence beyond the entertainment industry has created a climate of apprehension among those who dare to speak out in public and on record during interviews to criticise him. Almost all in the entertainment industry insist on talking on condition of anonymity. Some openly admit that they cannot afford to bear the pressure of the public after they make remarks considered not in his favour.

Ironically, one of the songs in Teddy’s new album has a theme about popular fear.
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