Monday, April 30, 2012

Teddy Afro's latest album TIQUR SEW & contemporary Ethiopian music

"...The strength in Teddy's new album 'Tikur Sew' mostly lies on his talent in coming up with deeper than usual themes and lyrics for his songs (and he's got some cool ones) and not in his musical arrangements or vocals that are overshadowed by the overly familiar background music. The musical arrangement on this album is frankly not quality enough for someone of Teddy's stature, and the overly done sound with a bit of creativity here and there is making it hard for me to keep on listening to his songs as often as I would have liked or expected to considering how much we all anticipated this album :-(. Many of his new songs still sound like some of his old ones to my ears with few exceptions here and there. I imagine the radio waves and Taxi stereos back home must be continuously blaring Teddy's songs considering the massive popularity of this album! But here I have to feel inspired to play and listen to the songs myself, and sad to notice I am not listening to them as often as I thought I would. I believe in Teddy's even greater potential, but he is not quite there yet. He sure is enjoying how well his albums have sold, as he should since his album sales are unprecedented, and riding his popularity wave while getting lots of media attention and probably making money in the process. And that is actually awesome, but I want him to push the limit of how music is done in Ethiopia even further, perhaps next time. As a die hard fan, I am soooo ready for Teddy's songs that have quality not just in their lyrics but in their sound as well :-)."
The above quote from a facebook friend Gifti Bedada captured what I wanted to say yesterday when I argued with another friend about Teddy Afro's latest album. After listening together to 'TIQUR SEW' 'FIORINA..' & couple of other songs from Teddy Afro's latest album songs, I said to my friend I recognize Teddy's talent for his lyrics with their deep philosophical touch in them but whoever writes/composes/arranges the musical arangements (the ZEMA) lacks the sophistication and seem to be stuck in terms of creativity. For that I was criticized by my good friend as someone with negative attitude toward the success of another Ethiopian. I explained that critique in arts "HISS" in Amharic should be welcomed. That is how Art grows and should not be taken as negative and it is with that mind frame that I was commenting. I added by saying that we share same interest in Amharic literary/dramatic works and we have agreed in the past liking some works but we differ on this one. We moved on to other subjects by agreeing to disagree.


Coincidentally, I have found this morning among piles of books & articles, a piece written by Ethiopian Music scholar Zenebe Bekele (another fb friend) entitled 'What is Ethiopian Music upto?'. From it, I learned Ethiopian music is rich in its textual or vocal stylistic tradition. Think of the lyric dependent folk Amarigna, Tigrigna, Oromigna, Wolaytigna etc..songs. played by Azmaris & alike. The article also mentions the other stylistic types that exist in Ethiopian musical traditions. These are the Mimes & expressive dances which we see in folk music of Kembata, Mursis, Gurages, Afars etc.. and the Instrumental music styles which we see in the folk music Gidoles, Fugas etc. Because our musical tradition is strong in the lyric dependent textual or vocal style, we see quality in the content of the songs and lately Teddy Afro is the embodiment of that talent. However, his talent in writing songs with deep philosophical undertones or moving historical references are not matched by equally creative musical arrangement. What makes the 1960s and early 70s unique in Ethiopian musical history the Golden era of Ethiopian music is musicians who were so good in channeling the textual or vocal such as Assefa Abate, Kassa Tessema, Mary Armide, GetaMesay Abebe, Firew Hailu, Argaw Bedaso, Abebe Tessema were matched by genius musical composition & arrangement of the likes of Kevork & Nerses Nalbaldiyan and later by people with formal modern music education at Yared Music school or abroad such as Ashenafi Kebede, Tekle Yohannes Zike, Mulatu Astatke or by the talents affiliated with the military bands such as Sahle Degago, Ashine Birru, Lemma Demissew. Most of these music composers/arrangers if not all composed or arranged the popular songs performed by stars such as Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud Ahmed, Bizunesh & Hirut Bekele, Alemayehu Eshete, Tamrat Molla etc.. whose lyrics were written by the likes of Assefa Abate, Tezera Haile Michael, Solomon Tessema, Tesfaye Lemma etc. What we have experienced in the 1960s & early 70s was a symbiosis of talents in singing, song-writing and musical arrangement/composition.


Since the mid 70s or after the revolution some of the musicians known for their talents as singers/song-writers or for delivering the textual/vocal died but there were no shortage of talented vocalists there after at least. What have been missing or seems to have gone forever is the creative geniuses who provide varied style of musical accompany to the songs. The ideology that was adopted after the popular revolution demanded conformity and the musical geniuses behind the creative era of earlier decade conformed to survive by creating dull revolutionary tunes and later retired quietly. Multau Astatqe who was engaged on improvising Ethiopian instrumental music can be considered as an exception in this regard as he was left alone by the new ideologues 'to do his thing'. At one time in late70s and early 80s living in Ethiopia felt like living in Kim Il Sung's Korea or Mao's revolutionary China all one hear on the radio or watch on TVs were revolutionary tunes or military march bands. Once the revolutionary fervor subsided and songs other than the revolutionary tunes began to reappear in the air waves, they were either the old tunes from the military bands or some new tunes by the likes of Aster & Wubshet from bands playing in night clubs of big government owned hotels. The new songs played by Aster Aweqe & others who came after her sounded way different from that of the previous era. What was noticeable in most were the similarity in lyrics as well as in ZEMA, the musical arrangement despite the variety of the artists. Albums after albums that came out to the market with varied artists sounded same. The other noticeable difference from the earlier era was the role & power of commercial studios. Commercial studios such as Elektra, Tango etc.. making safe risk calculation approaching "safe" artists (at times scout for new talents) provide them lyrics from few song-writers (most of the time same individual such as Yilma TekleAb) whose earlier works made them good money and match them with bands such as ROHA etc..
Lately, accompanied by full scale bands such as ROHA had become unnecessary. The latest trend in Ethiopian contemporary musical scene seems to be: artist with vocal talent pleads to few known talented song-writers who have provided for best selling artists before them to write them few lines for songs. Once they obtain that they run to individuals who play synthesized organs and who have accompanied best selling artists in the past. Then they approach recording studios to record them & market it. It does not matter the lyrics and the composition/arrangement sounded similar to the ones performed by other vocalists. No need for that insignia (special signature) in arrangement/lyrics that makes their work unique to them. Think of how the beats, the arrangements & styles of Michael Jackson's, Stevie Wonder's or for that matter our own Muluqen Mellese's or Alemayehu Eshete's or Bahta Hagos's were different from one another as well as from album to album. Nowadays, the driving factor seems to be quick money to the artist, to the studio to all who are involved. That's why we have new names as recording artists almost every month or two. Same factor seem to work in the film industry which I call it the Bollywood way. (That's for another blog another day).

To come back to Teddy Afro, I am not saying here that he operates in the same way. He seems to be talented young man with remarkable song-writing talent and star performer with charismatic personality. I also admire his acumen as businessman for the way he released his latest album. He or his business advisors seem to have touched the right cord among Ethiopians by releasing couple of singles first and once the buzz is created, releasing the whole album for a record sale of millions just in one week. What concerns me is that, the genius of marketing might not do their tricks in the future if his works sound familiar or the same album after album. My humble advice: Find musical talent in composing/arranging that matches your singing/song writing exemplary skills. Same way Quincy Jones's works helped a star performer like Michael Jackson's albums. You deserve your 'Quincy Jones'.

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