Dissenting voice with songs that mattered
The singer Tilahun Gessesse, who died last Sunday, was a household name in Ethiopia. He sang about everything that mattered: love; unity; peace; the deposition of Haile-Selassie in 1974; the famines of the 70s and 80s; the war with Eritrea. Gessesse had a song for it all. Born to an Amhara father and an Oromo mother -Ethiopia's two major ethnic groups - Gessesse sang mainly in Amharic, though a number of recordings in Oromo exist, reflecting his pan-Ethiopian appeal.
He joined the prestigious Hager Fikir Theatre, the birthplace of modern Ethiopian music, in 1954 and later became lead singer with Haile-Selassie's Imperial Bodyguard Band. At the time, the concept of an autonomous career did not exist, obliging musicians to join one of the institutional bands associated with the various security forces. Gessesse performed for the emperor three times and had a string of romantic hits. His powerful tenor voice epitomised the popular sound of Ethiopia's "golden era" of music. To his myriad fans, including the independent ensembles that began to emerge during the 1960s, he became known simply as "the Voice".
His song Altchalkum (I can't stand it anymore), a thinly-veiled attack on the regime, released in the wake of a failed coup in 1960 in which the Imperial Guard was heavily implicated, became an immediate hit with the Ethiopian people. Not so its rulers. Haile Sellassie, and later, Mengistu, banned it and Gessesse was imprisoned. Nonetheless, he continued to express his outspoken opinions, as lyrically as possible, and endured years of harassment as a result.
Increasingly popular among western audiences, he sold millions worldwide. Two anthologies were produced this decade: one by Washington-based Ethio Sound and the other being volume 17 in the popular Ethiopiques series issued by Buda Musique. Afflicted with diabetes, Gessesse died unexpectedly from heart complications on the eve of his return from America to celebrate Ethiopian Easter at home. His family said he had always wished to die on Ethiopian soil.
Gessesse received an honorary doctorate from Addis Ababa University, and a lifetime achievement award from the Ethiopian Fine Art and Mass Media Prize Trust. He is survived by his wife, one daughter and a son. Born Sept 29, 1940, died April 19.
Updated: April 25, 2009 04:00 AM