5 May 2013

Ethiopia: The Making of Ethiopian 'Spice Girls'

Photo: Addis Fortune
Ethiopian "Spice Girls"

The five young ladies have been put through rigorous training, and have to attend dance and vocal lessons as well as going to the gym on a regular basis.

The campaign that is being rolled out by YEGNA gives each of the five girls a specific character thought to represent a segment of Ethiopian society.

The pamphlets are colourful, and the campaign roll-out is unlike one that Ethiopia has seen before in its capital. The streets of Addis Abeba are now home to flyers, posters and billboards clutching the attention of residents. The messages are no simpler than, "When you hear us; you will see us!"

Ethiopians are about to see the making of five aspiring girls in the craze of "Spice Girls", an English pop-girl group formed in 1994.

Te'ref Kasahun is one of these five girls who is not really known by her given name. She is more recognized by the name of her character, Melat: her brand? 'the spoiled brat'. She is a singer as much an actress on a radio drama series, which saw its launch on April 24, 2013. Pulling a crowd filled with luminaries of Addis Abeba, the event took place at the National Theatre, as colourful and chicly as it could get.

It was part of a campaign designed to promote Yegna, literally translated to "Ours", which has become the latest fad in the Ethiopian entertainment industry. It kicked off with a release of a music video by the five girls dubbed Abet, two weeks ago.

A high end production, the video became an instant hit much liked by the young men and women, where 7,000 people visited on youtube, within hours of its lease. It also became near viral on social media.

Teref and the other girls performed the music live at the National Theatre, during the launching ceremony. The live performance was also opened to the public at the Theatre two days after it was launched on radio stations.

It was the same place where Teref first joined Yegna, after a series of four auditions held two years ago, and where she has worked for two years, as an actress. She moved to Addis Abeba from Jimma, after completing 10th Grade in a western town where she was born and raised.

She left Jimma eight years ago, with dreams of becoming a musician.

"I just wanted to sing," she told Fortune. "And do anything related to music."

A public relations leg of Girls Hub, Yegna gives her a platform for music and more.

A continent wide project which was established in February 2010, Yegna was launched with a three-year grant from the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) and the Nike Foundation, a.k.a Girls Hub. The total DfID grant is for 11.6 million pounds, with an additional 1.2 million pounds of in-kind support. Close to half is budgeted for Girl Hubs in four or five developing countries, including Rwanda and Nigeria.

The pledge for Ethiopia to forward this campaign is 154 million Br.

The campaign is designed to introduce behavioural change among girls, targeting those between the ages of 12 to 15. With most parents being protective of their daughters during this period of troubled teenage, many are isolated from the outside world, hence become victims of violence.

"We believe that this is the stage when they begin to be cut off from society and don't know how to deal with the outside world," said Selome Tadesse, general manager of Emerge Leaders Consultancy & Training Plc. "We want to equip them with the tools that will help them when they start going out into society and taking care of themselves."

Campaigners hope they will change this by instilling in girls self awareness, confidence and camaraderie among their peers. It is an exercise to help young girls overcome their reticence and empower them to claim their future.

But first, there is a series of things Yegna team was set out to do in developing a concept and unleashing it through various communications platforms. They want to start by inspiring girls through music, and create models through radio drama, as well as engage them in radio talk-show, before allow them to have the space to practice what they have come to learn and develop life skills.

It is this objective that Yegna was established two years ago to accomplish. Consisting of a radio drama that follows the journey of five girls that represent different segments of the Ethiopian society, it aims to forward Nike Foundation's businesslike commitment to create a catalyst for change on the continent, focussing its efforts on adolescent girls.

And so, Yegna set about to find five young ladies who could be the face of the campaign in Ethiopia. T'eref was selected from 85 girls auditioned by an expert who came from England, and works for the BBC. The talent they were after was those who could sing and act, all at the same time. The audition was given for girls at various artistic institutions across the capital.

"The girl's voices are so different and they are all very talented," Tsedenia Gebremarkos, Ethiopian pop idol who has joined the campaign two months ago as a vocal coach for the five girls, told Fortune.

Tsedenia was one of the many local and expatriate professionals who has provided coaching to the girls, from vocal trainers to creative team.

"They even had to take breathing exercise," said Selome.

Established in 2005 by Selome, a prominent personality in Ethiopia for her reputation as courageous manager at the national TV company, and assertive government spokesperson during Ethiopia's war with Eritrea, Emerge is one of the three companies which formed Yegna Be't, a hub that has been organizing the champagne. It provides the research and insight to the campaign, while Mango Production of Aida Ashenafi does the creative work and Deloitte Consulting was hired to oversee the finance and operations of Yegna.

Yegna was Te'ref's big break, though. She had worked as a tutor, teacher, barber, DJ and even a cashier while she was waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself. As a kid, T'eref sang songs everywhere she went about, whether she was still or on the move. She even joined her neighbourhood circus, just so she could get a chance to perform.

After she came to Addis, she received her teaching degree while at the same time continuing in her passion for music. She even competed in the first round of Ethiopian Idol, a local singing competition that is televised. She only reached the top 40 before she was eliminated.

But this is not for a lack of talent or commitment.

"I had to survive," she said.

Then she joined the National Theatre's troupe in 2009. After taking a three-month training course on vocal, acting and dance, she got the opportunity to participate in some plays there. She was part of the cast for Hindeke, a local play stages at the National Theatre, when she heard about the auditions for Yegna.

At 26 years old, Te'ref finally got the chance to fulfil her dream of becoming a musician.

"Though I didn't know the bigger aim of Yegna at the time, I joined them because I love music and acting," Te'ref told Fortune.

She was not alone.

Lemlem Hailemichael plays a character by the name Mimi: A tomboy covered in specks of dirt and is the face for the not-so well off segments of society, 'The Defender.'

The character and the actor playing her though are complete opposites. Lemlem was born in Agarfa, Bale Zone, Oromia Regional State, where she studied until 10th Grade. She completed her 10+3 studies at Holeta, in animal science and graduated from the Theatre and Arts Department at Addis Abeba University, in 2009.

But, Lemlem's character Mimi is the favourite of Munit Mesfin, the music and creative director for the Yegna project. Munit has been with the project for two years, since its inception.

"She's got spunk," Munit said about Mimi.

Munit, who has been active and involved in various theatrical and musical projects, not only serves the project guiding the story-telling in the music and managing the creative content, but is also a source of inspiration for the young ladies.

Lemlem, 26, is just as enamoured with music as the rest of her band mates but her true passion lies in acting.

"Music was welcomed in our home, but I really wanted to be an actor," she told Fortune.

She spends most of her free time watching movies and listening to music, a far cry from the hard tomboy character that she plays on Yegna. She sang on Hagere Zema, produced by Cool Roods Film before joining the show.

Abegaz Shiota, prominent musical personality, has been closely involved in making the musical dreams of these young ladies come to life. He has watched the five transform themselves musically, and absorb all the training and coaching that has been thrown their way.

It seems that Yegna has massive pulling power attracting some household names from the Ethiopian artistic world: Abraham Wolde, Jalude, and Fikadu Teklemariam were just a few of them.

"I never have imagined that all these giant artists will be around me just to equip me with everything I would ever need," said Te'ref.

Abegazu has seen significant improvements in the way these young ladies were performing.

"I think they can grow some more," he told Fortune. "They've a lot of potential."

Zebiba Girma, the third girl from Lideta District in Addis Abeba, is another talented young lady identified to play the character, Emuye, a 'mysterious' girl in drama.

Zebiba, 21, was a singer and actor in a youth association at her District and also worked with local music bands and educative dramas at a national level. She was taking acting and music training at 'Father's House', an upshot Tesfaye Abebe endeavours, a living legend in Ethiopia's artistic landscape, when Yegna's team came to her school to hold auditions.

Her first audition was the same day she took her 12th grade exams. She succeeded at both.

"I put a majority of my focus on the exam," she told Fortune. "But, I did divert just a little to the audition."

Though her scores had qualified her to join a university, she instead chose Yegna.

"Art is my life," Zebiba said.

Eyerusalem Kelemework, 24, is girl number four who play "the genius" character, Sara. She was working in the of Hindeke play, alongside Te'ref when she heard about the Yegna auditions.

Born and raised in Filwuha area, Kirkos District, Eyerusalem has graduated from Entoto Technical Vocational Educational Teaching, the former Tefferi Mekonnen School's Music Department, in 2012. She started singing and writing poems when she was a freshman in high school. She would read her work aloud in front of her classmates before class started, at her Kimsha.

She is the opposite of her character who has tight reigns enforced by her family.

"Sara is controlled tightly by her family," she said. "Me, on the other hand; I am free as a bird."

Rahel Getu was one that had managed to climb further up the fame ladder than the rest of her band mates. She was working on her own music with a local producer when she heard about the Yegna auditions and decided to try out.

She worked at the Arat Kilo Children & Youth Theatre for six years, since she was 11. While she was attending the Drama School at Addis Abeba University, she moonlighted as a nightclub singer. Her performance experience is slightly more than her peers having performed many plays focussing on women's issues while at school.

She was one of the dancers on Netsanet Melese's 'Bye Bye', Balageru Guragigna and many more music videos.

"I didn't have to think twice about joining Yegna because it was for the empowerment of young women," she told Fortune.

She is 21, married, and recently became a mother, seven months ago.

"I didn't take any time off during my pregnancy," she said, explaining her dedication to the project.

Another hometown breed, she was born around Ambassador Cinema. Her character: Lemlem, 'The Dependable'.

"Our team is now one in spirit, our every step is synchronised and we have become best friends," she told Fortune.

It was after the auditions that the five chosen young ladies met each other, some of them for the first time. Though they did not know each other, they have bonded in their aspiration for music and art. Coming together from such different walks of life, the five started vocal, dancing and acting trainings under Yegna.

But their training does not stop there. Their schedules were rigorous. They go to the gym and swimming at Vigor Fitness, in Laphto Mall.

"It was intensive training, even including Saturday and Sunday, in order to empower them, which is the ultimate goal of Girl Hub," said Aida of Mango Productions, who produced the talk show, dramas and music videos.

Mango, established in 2003, has produced a full album for Jano Band recently. It was also the production company for Guzo, the first ever Ethiopian docu-drama, which received glowing reviews both locally and on the international stage.

Once the group was formed, all five of the young ladies were given characters; characters that were suitable to the theme of Yegna.

"I love my character," Zebiba told Fortune.

She believes in living up to peoples' expectations, especially after the drama and music video went public and she started getting attention.

But the girls do not all have the same opinion about this. Te'ref thinks in a totally different manner.

"People should not expect my character in real life," she said. "My real personality is more like Mimi, Lemlem's character."

The first year was spent conducting studies on the characters in society, according to Selome.

The team has discovered that there are five fundamental types of girls' characters in Ethiopian society, which are manifested in the five girls that Yegna has branded. Each character has its own book based on the research conducted, from which the scripts were written. Out of the six script writers that have travelled to different villages for two weeks, two of them were selected.

The scripts aim to promote trust and confidence among girls and persuade the community around to allow them space for engagement.

"We came up with the idea to achieve these through these girls," Selome of Emerge told Fortune.

The first two firms have been working with their own financing, for over a year. It was after the agreement for representation was signed by the three companies on December 30, 2012, that 5.4 million pounds was pledged by DfID, and to be disbursed in three years, based on performance.

"The three companies have been fused to work together so well, there are no clear lines between them," said Selome. "It is the first ever functional cooperation I have seen between companies."

Such cooperation is now at its onset, with a radio drama of 13 episodes launched on Sheger 102 FM station. Each episode will have its own music video, and its music composed by Abegaz. The drama will be followed by a radio talk show where people are allowed to call-in for engagement. The final product is what campaigners call "Yegna Box", a sort of toolkit where five girls will be handed out games that will help them develop life skill and advance education, Selome disclosed.

This will be piloted in 15 places outside of Addis Abeba, according to Selome.

Add to this a 600 army of young girls brought in from colleges in Amhara Regional State, and designated the title of ambassadors and promote "girls' empowerment" among their respective communities.

"Our society is not open to girls who want to follow their dreams and join the arts or pursuing their education," said Zebiba. "They easily give up on their dreams."

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