Saturday, September 29, 2012

On this day in Addis Ababa, a Star was born

On Meskerem 19,1933 E.C. (September 29, 1940G.C.) in Temenja Yazh neighborhood of Addis Ababa, the icon of Ethiopian popular music Tilahun Gessesse was born. No one has left a bigger mark on Ethiopian popular music than Tilhaun Gesesse. What Qidus (Saint) Yared is for Ethiopian sacred music, Tilahun is for Ethiopian pop. He was the most influential figure who dominated Ethiopian music scene for almost five decades. For generation of Ethiopians, he was the first celebrity we know of a humble background. Nowadays, a celebrity (even at times bad notoriety) status is followed by huge sums of financial gains. Tilahun earned love & revered status from large segment of Ethiopians across class, religion, ethnic background but did not translate his celebrity status to large financial wealth. As a celebrity, his adult life was in public domain and subject to all sorts of favorable & unfavorable rumors, inuendoes etc... Until recently not much was known about his early life and how he was discovered.

Tilahun grew up with his grand parents in Welisso, a small town about 120 km South West of Addis Ababa known for its hot springs. Tilahun discovered his calling early in his life. As a school boy in Ras Gobena School Welisso, he was encouraged by Sudanese headmaster of the school who recognized Tilahun's vocal gift that his future is in music. When a traveling musical troupe stopped by Welisso and performed a show at Ras Gobena school, the headmaster asked the leader of the travelling troupe to allow the young Tilahun perform with them briefly. Fortunately, the leader of the travelling troupe Ato Eyuael Yohannes, the then director of Hager Fiqir Theatre saw also the young Tilahun's gift. Ato Eyuael told Tilahun, if he ever makes it to Addis Ababa when he grows up, he can join their group. Tilahun made unsuccessful attempts to run away from his grandparent's house and to reach Addis Ababa. At the age of 16, he finally made it to Addis Ababa and went to Hager Fiqir Theatre. As promised, Ato Eyuael hired him as a singer for Hager Fiqir's Band. Soon after, he joined the newly formed Imperial Body Guard Orchestra as a civilian which was just formed under the leadership of Liutenant Afewerq Yohannes (later Captain), Captain Sahle Degago (later Colonel) & others with Armenia born Nerses Nabaldian as musical director. Together, they made history and Tilahun rose to become a star.
 To learn more about this extraordinary man, follow the links below and read the special tribute article written by Charles Sutton, a musician who learned playing Ethiopian traditional musical instruments while serving as Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s in Ethiopia and who knew Tilahun from the time he rose to stardom or watch the video documentary in Amharic about the life & musical works of Tilahun Gesesse.


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