A New Ethiopian Sound via Teddy Afro
By Samuel Getachew
A noted blogger was once asked to describe music by a certain Ethiopian musician after hearing it for the first time. He explained his first reaction as feeling as if he [had] died and returned from the dead. He said it took him on a journey of “deep bass, some jazz/rock funk mixed with Ethiopian melody (tizita) from a distance future.”
This is a wonderful compliment for music that has yet to be discovered by the rest of world. The fact is that Ethiopian music has been undiscovered partly because Ethiopia was never a colony of the outside world. While there have been superstar Ethiopian artists such as Mohamud Ahmed and Aster Aweke, their success remained within Ethiopia and did not translate onto the international market.
The young and gifted Ethiopian artist Tewodrose Kassahun (a.k.a. Teddy Afro) might just be the one who can help introduce Ethiopian music to the world. His latest CD, which is entitled Tikur Sew (Black person), is perhaps the most anticipated, controversial and scrutinized album in Ethiopian music history. In just one week, it sold well over a million copies and took Ethiopian social media by storm.
The CD has 11 tracks and includes songs arranged by the Ethiopian Japanese producer, Abegaz Kibrework Shiwota as well as the artist himself. Teddy Afro’s music is an anthem of many causes and among them is black power, African pride, love, country, and relationships are some of the themes. In the title track — Tikur Sew — he pays homage to an Ethiopian famous Battle of Adwa and its hero Emperor Menelik II in Amharic as well as in Oromiffa.
Des Yemel Sekay (Happy misery) is a wonderful dance hall track with impressive lyrics. In Africaye (My Africa), Afro offers a wonderful tribute to the continent of Africa, while in Hail (Power) he mixes powerful words of his own with those from the late playwright laureate, Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s great poem Feran coupled with beautiful Ethiopian Orthodox church hymns.
This album is expected to cement itself not only in the heart of fans, but also in the history of the Ethiopian musical journey. Similar to African music that is now known all over the world — Mariam Mekebe and Lucky Dube of South Africa and Youssou N’dour of Senegal, for example — the music of Teddy Afro is on the verge of being discovered by an international market.
It was his second album, Abugida that made Teddy Afro a household name in Ethiopia. A collection of tributes to Ethiopian greats, such as long distance running champion Haile Gebreselassie and the late Emperor Haile Selassie, with an ultra-accessible mix of reggae, funk, and Amharic music, it was this second album that made him an instant star.
His sophomore album, Yasteryal, took him four years to produce. While it was enormously popular, his socially and politically conscious songs were highly controversial. Some of these songs were banned and never heard on the radio in Ethiopia.
Teddy Afro’s youthful, and noble messages of social change in most of the songs (which included both love songs and dance songs with dance hall beat) resonate with fans, in particular young people. However, the music, persona and talent of Teddy Afro have been a wedge issue among Ethiopians. Either he is liked or despised. However, his latest effort deserves the attention it is getting, though most of the songs sound very similar to his older songs. It may not gain him new Ethiopian fans, but will solidify his devout fan base. As long as his song writing talent is concerned, he joins the elitist group of Ethiopian talented song writers such as musician Neway Debebe.
Tikur Sew consists of many excellent songs by anyone’s standard. If his latest effort is any indication, Teddy Afro will indeed become a real international superstar, and be the one artist to bring Ethiopian music to the world.