19 August 2017

Ethiopia: Cult of Teddy Afro


I am not a huge fan of Ethiopian music. There are songs I like, tunes or melodies I may find myself dancing or strutting to, but no one would catch me listening to an Ethiopia album.

I do not mean to disparage. We all have our tastes, mine is just generally geared to instruments, like the guitar, or the drum, instead of vocals, which is the mainstay of Ethiopian songs. I do admire good vocals - I like Robert Plant, or similarly gifted Ethiopian musicians such as Menelik Wossenachew - but I also do not believe vocals should be the centerline of songs, as vocals are usually melodic, instead of rhythmic.

But the fact that I do not much follow the Ethiopian music scene does not mean I have not listened to every single song on Teddy Afro's latest album, Ethiopia.

Named, simply, for the country, the album is more like a collection of songs as opposed to one with a common theme. The title song, which is more than six minutes long, and Atse Tewodros, which seems like an anthem to Gondar, are characteristic of the album's patriotic embrace, nostalgic to a period (which may or may not have existed) where men sacrificed life to country.

The rest of the songs diverge from this theme. Like most Ethiopian songs, they are about loving, or loving and losing, or loving and getting. This album, which came out after the singer got married and had children, though, is more optimistic about the prospects of love.

Other songs, rumour has it, are politically flavoured. I am told they follow the popular Amharic play of words, called Qene, that has a sem (wax) and werk (gold), where a single phrase can have two meanings: one obvious (the sem) and the other implied (the werk). The song Sembere, the most rhythmic, and thus my favourite, with a reggae flavour, may be of this mould.

As I had implied earlier, one does not need to buy the CD, or bootleg the album, to get to hear the songs. This was not because of air time, either in radio or TV, as both mediums gave the album limited to nonexistent coverage, despite the musician's extreme popularity. Teddy also never released a video clip to any of the songs. But still, every single person has somehow become acquainted with most of the songs.

How did this happen?

There is a saying that goes, "you can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy."

This is not to say there is a consorted effort to get Ethiopians to stop listening to Teddy Afro's music. But that, one way or the other, however much his songs may ebb (I am not saying they have) or the lack of local media attention they may receive, it is very hard to free oneself of Teddy's music.

The artist reportedly sold the album for millions of Birr even before the release date had been announced, which is a lot for an Amharic album in a digital age, where music is indiscreetly bootlegged. It is a blessing to see a singer never worry about money, for album sells are usually too insignificant to make a living on.

At the height of the album's popularity, cafes played the album the whole day long. Blue taxis, which almost everyone uses, stopped for a certain time playing any other type of song. Weddings, graduates and birthdays have made the songs something of a soundtrack. For nightclubs, the album became hard currency.

It has somewhat come to the point where it is unpatriotic or dangerous to say Teddy's music is not good. He is considered a musical maestro, with catchy songs everyone can rally behind. He inspires the reverence Elvis Presley might have inspired in the 1950's in the United States.

But it is a little more than Presley too. The rockstar may have stolen the hearts and minds of the youth of his time, but parents never really came on board with his unorthodox style of music, dance or way of life. It differs for Teddy Afro, who commands respect from the older generation as well as the young. He is playing both the entertainer and the sage. He can make a good song for the youth to swing their hips too, and as well give a lesson on love, loss, politics and history. As evidenced by his songs, Haile Selassie (Teddy's best song in my eyes), Tikur Sew and Atse Tewodros, emperors of lore have had the effect of getting the young and the old to agree.

This, by the way, is how cults are born. One minute, he is just a guy, another minute he is a legend.

Teddy has a radical fan base that is willing to follow the artist to the depths of the ocean and the excesses of the earth. This makes him somewhat dangerous, significant and conspicuous to figures in high political, social, religious and economical circles. He can use such fame, and thus power, to accomplish many good things, as well as various ills. With great power comes great responsibility, but I do not doubt this is lost on the singer.

Christian Tesfaye (Christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) Is a Writer/Film Critic Whose Interests Run Amok in Both Directions of Print and Celluloid/Digital Storytelling.


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