Ethiopia: High Hopes for Ethiopia's Rising Classical Music Stars

Addis Ababa — One evening last month, the sounds of classical Spain could be heard in an unlikely place: the Ethiopian National Theatre in Addis Ababa.

Onstage were the talented students of the Yared School, Ethiopia's only institute of higher learning for music; directing them was Silvia Sanz Torre, conductor of the Metropolitan Orchestra of Madrid. And in more ways than one, the performance ended on a high note.

"This concert has encouraged the students to continue studying and working a lot," says Yared School director Tadele Tilahun. "In Ethiopia, there has not been an orchestra concert in the last 30 to 40 years purely formed by students or teachers of Ethiopia."

Around for over four decades, Yared, which is part of Addis Ababa University, has become a special spot for budding musicians, often fresh out of secondary school. To enrol, candidates must all demonstrate musical talent. But aside from that, each student's story is unique.

Inspiration from horticulture and Yanni

Take, Eyuel Mengistu. He plays double bass, though this wasn't the 24 year old's first instrument of choice. "I used to play the krar, a traditional instrument," he says about his primary school days. In fact, Mengistu hadn't even realized he wanted to pursue music until he had already begun a three-year study in horticulture - that's when he started on the keyboard and that's what led him to Yared.

"When I got accepted, I wanted to study piano, but there were too many students with the same preference," he recalls. "Then I chose trumpet. But after six months, I decided to play double bass."

After five years, Yared students are expected to have completed their studies, earning Bachelor of Art degrees. Most students are reported to find jobs as classical musicians.

Selamawit Aragaw is a case in point. "I have been an assistant at the Yared School and ... will start being a lecturer," she says. "But apart from that, I give a lot of violin private lessons and I have a quartet with which I play in different hotels."

Aragaw's career also began at Yared. "When I was 16 years old, I used to watch a programme on the TV every Saturday with a big orchestra conducted by the Greek musician Yanni," she says. "From that, I knew I wanted to be violinist." As the now 27 year old explains, around this time an ad for the Yared School caught her eye. And the rest is history.

Looking ahead

Mengistu, the bassist, has yet to complete his studies. But when he does, he, too, plans to pursue teaching. "Also, I would like to be a composer and start playing the double bass on stage in jazz places," he says.

Until then, he is reliant on Yared. "Me and my friends can only study in the school, because the school lends the instruments, but we cannot bring them out from there," he explains. Those, like Mengistu, who cannot afford the full tuition of 25,000 birr (about 1,000 euro), can take out a government loan, which they are expected to pay back once they begin working.

The school director notes other limitations. "The challenges are still big," says Tilahun, "the students cannot afford acoustic instruments, which are expensive and difficult to find, so it is the school who needs to provide them. Also, the manpower is limited, so the quality and quantity need to be improved in order to maintain the increase of interest in classical music in Ethiopian society."

But if the students at Yared are any indication, Ethiopia's new generation of classical musicians has sweet-sounding career prospects. According to Aragaw, the violinst: "If you are active, classical musicians can work in different things in Ethiopia." Her to-do list includes nothing less than giving solo concerts, going on tour and "finally to have my own music school".

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