Saturday, June 15, 2013

In Australia, A Star of Ethiopia Shines Anew

After leaving Ethiopia and her music career, Bitsat Seyoum has found her voice again with the help of the Emerge Festival. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
With headlines increasingly dominated by disheartening stories about asylum seekers, Multicultural Arts Victoria's annual Emerge Festival acts as a hopeful counterpoint, celebrating the diversity refugees create here.
Now in its 10th year the festival, which officially launched last month in Footscray, runs over 10 weeks and commemorates the United Nations' World Refugee Day and Refugee Week while celebrating the talents of new refugees and emerging artists who have recently settled in Australia. The festival also aims to help artists and musicians break into the local industry.
Bitsat Seyoum is well known in the local Ethiopian community and to fans of her renowned Footscray restaurant Addis Abeba. But before settling in Australia five years ago, she was a famous performer in the Ethiopian capital. Singing traditional Ethiopian popular songs, she has performed and recorded with some of the country's biggest names: Ethio-jazz king Mulatu Astatke (arguably the country's most famous musical export) arranged her first album, and she has teamed up with singer Tilahun Gessesse, composers Teddy Afro and Moges Teka, and lyricist Mulugeta Tesfaye.
''At home, everywhere I go, 'Bitsat! Bitsat!' I can't walk down street, I can't do anything, because everybody knows me … I was famous. Here, nobody knows me,'' Seyoum says. ''It's difficult, because you have to start again from scratch. And even when [people] might know me, they don't understand what is being said! But I try to show them our music.''


It's an unusual space Seyoum finds herself in: last year, through Multicultural Arts Victoria, she was teamed with local musician Jason Heerah in their Visible program, a mentoring project that partners established artists with emerging talent. Heerah joked at the time that Seyoum had probably played more gigs than he had. But when Astatke next tours here, the pair will perform together.
Having visited Australia as a guest of the Ethiopian community in 2007, when she was invited to perform for the Coptic millennium celebrations, Seyoum sought refuge here after encountering ''a problem with the government'' back home.
''It was a good life, yes, but I had a … political issue, I was working with a party that the government was not happy with,'' she says. ''Life now in Australia is very good. Sometimes, when you are very relaxed and free, you don't remember home.''
For 20 years, Seyoum ran a successful nightclub in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, named Bitsat (her name translates as ''gift of god'' in the Amharic language) where she regularly performed.
''It was a big nightclub and always very busy, with live music every day,'' Seyoum says. ''I was busy - I worked there seven days - but it was very good fun.''
She thought of opening a nightclub in Melbourne, but felt the Ethiopian community here wasn't large enough to sustain a full-time club.
''But if people ask me to have a concert for birthday parties or other bookings, I do sing,'' she says. Tracking down local musicians who can play the traditional azmari (Ethiopian minstrel) instruments she is accustomed to performing with - the krar, a six-stringed lyre tuned to a pentatonic scale, and the masenko, a single-stringed lute famously difficult to play - hasn't been easy.
''It is a big community here but nobody is playing masenko and only few people [are] playing krar, so it makes it hard to do a traditional concert,'' she says.
Seyoum's other speciality at her Addis Ababa club was performing a uniquely Ethiopian style of improvised poetry called ''wax and gold'', in which the words have two meanings - a superficial meaning, the ''wax'', and a hidden meaning, the ''gold''. Popular with lovers sending secret messages to each other or used for fooling censors, its double entendres and wordplay are much loved in Ethiopia. Here, of course, unless listeners are well versed in Amharic and familiar with the cultural references, it's a performance style that's not going to work.
''I know how to sing it in Amharic but I don't know the English words - so if I use it or not, nobody knows,'' Seyoum says.
Seyoum performs at the Emerge Festival's Main Event on Sunday in Fitzroy alongside acts from Arnhem Land, Sudan, Tonga and Pakistan, among others.
It's the third time she's appeared at Emerge, and this year she performs with JAzmaris, an Ethio-Jazz ensemble that plays original material and classic Ethiopian songs.
''The festival is very good for me, and is good for people to learn about Ethiopian music,'' she says. ''I think the African music scene is growing more here. I am very happy here.''