With its mellow sound, Tewodros Tadesse’s music has the ability to touch his audience while leaving a lasting impression.
For more than three decades he has managed to produce music that transcends time. He started his musical career in the church, which gave him a unique way of singing, connecting with ancient sounds of Ethiopia. Born and raised in Addis Ababa, his professional musical career started when he was doing cover songs of famous musicians, especially Muluken Melesse’s ‘Wasa Megena.’ After the release of his first album, ‘Lubanjaye’, Tewodros became a household name. His consecutive albums, ‘Eyekorekoregn’ and 'Sadulaye', also became huge successes. Some of his songs such as ‘Emye Ethiopia’ is sung by many as the national anthem. While residing in the US he released his fifth album entitled ‘Semto Zemale’ even though the album was done before he moved. His sixth album, ‘Zimita’, was more influenced by Jazz. The artist, who has been far away from the music scene, came back recently with a double album entitled “Tilantina Ena Zare”, which consists of different genres including folk, soul and afro-jazz fusion. The 49-year old Tewodros had a concert following the album release. He also came to Addis to do a concert on Ethiopian New Year’s Eve. During this occasion he sat with Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter to talk about his new album as well as his musical odyssey. Excerpts:
The Reporter: This album was recently released after more than three decades of stay. Tell us a few things about your new album?
Tewodros Tadesse: This is a double album compilation of the old ones and some new songs. The 12 new songs have a style of jazz and they are different from my previous works. With the exception of the one I did with Mulatu Astatke, my old ones are more or less folk (traditional) music. With the new ones the music style and also the presentation is different.
Some see jazz as an empty canvass where anything can be done. How did the fusion go for you?
In the history of Ethiopian music, jazz has been tried. Mulatu Astatke’s creation of Ethio-jazz makes jazz not new to Ethiopia. And Mulatu’s composition of old songs by Muluken Melesse, Tilahun Gessesse and Alemayehu Eshete is jazz – a fusion with elements of Ethiopian music. To this day everybody loves them.
However, through time this way of blending it with jazz faded away. With the new trend most of the albums are not done with jazz. The audience’s feeling is not inclined towards jazz music, which makes it difficult for audiences to get used to this “new sound.” My struggle is to be like famous African musicians who are making an impact in the international market such as the Senegalese singers Youssou N'dour and Baaba Maal. I want to make Ethiopian music internationally recognizable. Like that of West African music, Ethiopia’s music could not go far and my dream is to map Ethiopian music internationally and contribute in the world music category. I am also willing to collaborate with other artists. This album was made in India to have an international audience test.
Talking about my album it was done for an international audience. And I have been working with American musicians and they also want to enter the Ethiopian music market. They also have an interest in the music. The language is the same and the cultural element is also there, the only new thing is that it is done with creativity. It needs an effort to bring something extraordinary and it needs a talent. The creativity and talent is given from God. Most of the Ethiopian music that was done has similarity and it needs time to stand out and to give it a different sound. And to step ahead I am working tirelessly and with the coming year I will release a new album. This all happens with God and also being healthy is the most pertinent thing.
If I tell you from my side, like other Ethiopian musicians, our focus was to do music for Ethiopian audiences. Music that can be for international audiences was not tried; the old artists have done it even though there was not continuity. In my coming album there might be collaboration works if there is a chance. To do another album there is need for creativity and for now I will be thinking about that.
What about lyrically? At this point how do you see your music and what kind of message do you want to pass through your music?
My music is my life. If it’s good music let alone people it can be a healer for also plants. I want to pass a message of peace, brotherhood, living in harmony. With my previous works what we did is, I give them an idea to write and they write the lyrics. Now I also did many of the lyrics so I wrote what I wanted to passon.
With this album you wrote the lyrics, arranged and produced the album wasn’t it difficult?
It was not difficult. I was really happy when I was working on this album. And the process was smooth. Most of the lyrics and melodies are mine. Even with the arranging most of them are my works. It is not that I can play instruments well but I have an idea of how my music should turn out. I did collaborate with the Indians in arranging it. My next album will also be like that.
Did the album turn out to be what you expected it to be?
For Ethiopian audiences’ ears this might not be a familiar sound. Even though Ethio-jazz was being done four decades, now it is a different trend. Within this penetrating the music market might not be easy with jazz music. For the next album I might revisit this and produce an album that is not difficult for audiences’ ears.
How is the album distribution going?
We have our own record label, YoYo records, my manager is my wife. We sell it on I-tunes, Amazon, on the international level. And we also have a plan to distribute it internationally. My wife, being manager, is also great since she works like me.
How is living as a musician in America? And did you do many concerts?
I have never done anything apart from music. And my audiences are Ethiopians. In the previous year I toured America and also did a lot of concerts with Jackey Gossy.
The way you got into music is also associated with Gospel singers (Zemari) in church; did that influence your music?
Like many African American musicians, my music also came from gospel music. It influenced me a lot and it is a good influence. It made me improve my music and also shaped my voice, somehow giving me a distinctive sound. It is not only for me but also for a lot of musicians that it has contributed a lot. My childhood was spent by learning church gospel songs. For others who did not start it at an early age, starting at this point is not possible. The old singers such as Frew Hailu, Bahiru Kagne also have a church background. Now the trend has changed. It might not create a problem but it shaped the singing to go in one way.
With the curfew and censorship how was doing music during the Derg regime?
I was part of the keftegna kinet and also kebele kinet. I used to do cover songs of Tilahun Geseese, Alemayehu Eshete and Muluken Melesse. The music was under the control of the government, there were those who controlled the lyrics, the melody and it was very difficult to do music that destroyed the essence of music; being free. There was a big influence on many of the musicians. So it made us confide into a sort of lyrics. My albums were censored, which is dangerous and it affected me a lot. This hurdle also can be seen now.
Is that why you left the country?
It was very difficult to live in music or to exist as a human being. It was a bit harsh and so many of us chose to emigrate. First I went to Europe; London, Amsterdam and went back to Ethiopia and then I got the chance to travel to America and since that is what I wanted I went there. It was in 2007 that I came back to my country and stayed here for some time. And now in 1914, I gave come back again.
When you came here in 2007, did you move here then?
When I came the plan was to move here, but because of health difficulties and some issues I went back and my wife gave birth four years ago and now I have a family.
During your stay here did you have difficulties finding arrangers and a studio to do your music?
That is the big truth; my traveling to India and making music there was because I could not do it here. I tried to work with different arrangers and composers who are based in Ethiopia but no one could deliver. So with that reason I was forced to go to India and make my music there. With my next album I would not go to India, rather I am planning to work with composers and arrangers in America as well as in Ethiopia.
Is it because they did not arrange your type of music or what was the reason?
They did not give it time. They did not plan to take my concept and work on the music, which made me finally lose my patience. That’s why I chose to migrate musically.
For many who live here and there home seems to be a far away place and it becomes an elusive subject, where is home for you?
For me home is a place where you can live peacefully and in freedom. More than anything I want to live here in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a special place in my heart and this is my foundation. Now I have a daughter and she is in America. For the future we have a plan to move here with my family. And for now I thank God for being here to see my Ethiopian brothers and sisters.