Tsegaye Birhane, actor, met Alemayehu Eshete in the most unorthodox of ways. It was not at an event or work. Neither did they run into each other. It was the passing of Alex’s, as Tesgaye calls him, father circa 1972 that served as a catalyst.

A long time admirer of his music, Tsegaye had lived in Addis Abeba for about a year before he learned that Alemayehu's father had passed away. He wanted to attend the funeral of a person so dear to his favourite musician, known for his deep voice and characteristically slicked-back hair, and asked for where his house was located.

Tsegaye was told it was on Shola, on modern-day Kenenisa Avenue. He could take the number 10 Anbessa bus – a numbering system for identifying routes – which he did. The area was forested at the time but off to the side of the street was a well-lit house, where Alemayehu lived. He sat on a sofa on the patio, welcoming guests that came to console him. It goes without saying – he was sharply dressed.

“He became notable in an age of the likes of Mahmoud Ahmed and Menelik Wessenachew, but he was one of a kind,” says Tsegaye, who remained friends with him for the next half a century after that encounter. “He lived as proudly as he died.”

Indeed, Alemayehu, who passed away on September 2, 2021, from a heart complication at 80 and was laid to rest at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, was well aware of his place in the world. He never walked but strutted, his chest puffed and head held high. When he talks to people, he meets their eyes from the bottom of his chin.

“It’s not an ego thing; he is just self-assured,” says Tsegaye.

He also hated arguing with people. He was once out to buy a sheep for a holiday, had his eye on one at a market but did not want to haggle over a price. He called out to the seller.

“Ye’enate lij,” he called out, roughly translated to “my mother’s child,” which is how Alemayehu used to refer to most people. “I will pick a sheep that I like; you will tell me the price and I will pay.”

The seller seemed to agree but when Alemayehu picked one, the seller started, “well, I brought that one from …” unconsciously preparing to haggle.

“Stupid,” called out Alemayehu and left right there and then.

His self-assertive demeanour, sharp looks and deep voice gave him the nickname “Ethiopian Elvis.” It is considered a fitting moniker in that, like his American counterpart, he helped pioneer a modern age as Ethiopian music moved away from its traditional roots.

Like many of his peers, he began performing in a police orchestra band and had a healthy output in the 1960s and 70s. The time marked the beginning of what later came to be known as the “Golden Age of Music.” It saw the likes of Girma Beyene, Mahmoud, Mulatu Astatke and Tilahun Gessesse come to prominence. In a slow-moving and often uninspired music scene of the country, the output of these musicians defined nearly everything that came after it, especially for those in the Amharic language.

The era was characterised by combining modern recording technology, heavy piano and saxophone use, and an imposing vocal representation. Alemayehu, one of the most enduring faces of this time, had a fairly deep voice, which he used to contribute around 400 songs to the music industry. Buda Musique dedicated the ninth volume of its Ethiopiques series to Alemayehu’s work in 2001.

Notably, he chose a wide range of themes to express in his songs instead of the prevalent romance and heartbreak songs that make up the discography of most musicians. One of his most famous songs, for instance, is Addis Abeba Bete, aka “Addis Abeba My Home,” which alludes to Piassa, Gulele and Merkato, some of the oldest neighbourhoods in the capital.

Another is Tikur Gissela, aka “Black Jaguar,” a song dedicated to black freedom fighters. He sings of whites as poisonous snakes biting jaguars who wanted to live in peace and asks why it was as such.

Perhaps his most ubiquitously heard, including in TV commercials for private colleges, is Temar Lije, a jazz-inspired emphatically pro-education song with a deeply affecting lyrical content. It is about a father that chides his son to take his school seriously, but with the suggestion that the advice was never heeded.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 10,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1115]

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