In the records of Ethiopian music, few stories are as pongiant or resonating as that of Getachew Kassa. His journey from the humming markets of Merkato to the animated nightlife of the Bole neighbourhood embodies a story of artistic devotion, personal loss, and an enduring legacy.

Getachew's life was a symphony composed of high notes of joy and low pitches of sorrow, a melody that began in the late 1950s and found its coda in 2024.

After a decade-long sojourn, his return from the United States in the late 1980s was a homecoming filled with bittersweet moments. He cherished "Buhe", a holiday celebrated with "Hoya-Hoye" songs that echo across the highlands, marking the end of a season. His sister, Genet Tsegaye, fondly recalled the spirit and unbridled enthusiasm with which Getachew participated in these celebrations, his voice adding a unique timbre to the family’s collective memories.

However, this period of reunion was marred by tragedy with the sudden loss of his younger brother. It was an event that profoundly affected Getachew and precipitated his eventual return to the United States, his sanctuary of solace, where music remained his steady companion.

"He slowly detached himself from us," said Genet.

Music was not merely a part of Getachew’s life; it was the essence of his being. From his childhood in Addis Ketema district, where he first fell under the spell of an Italian song “Azmarina,” to his final performances in the clubs of Bole, music was his refuge and sustenance. His story was one of relentless pursuit, defying his conservative father’s wishes by running away to join the Harar Police Orchestra and crafting his first hit, "Emegnalehu."

His father, Tsegaye Mekonnen, went to the radio station to get the music taken down. With a dilemma between family and music, Getachew made a life-altering decision. The defiance was symbolic of Getachew's character; a man whose passion for music led him to forsake his family name in favour of his girlfriend's surname, Kassa, marking a definitive break from tradition and setting him on a path to musical renown.

Getachew’s ascendancy in the music scene from the 1960s through the 1980s coincided with an era of limited technological access, when live performances were the primary medium through which artists connected with their audience. Venues like Wube Berha (Patrice Lumumba), Sombrero, Venus clubs, and hotels such as Aksum, Shebele, and Hilton were stages that bore witness to Getachew’s rise, his mastery of the drums and keyboards and his unique stage presence — one hand on the microphone, the other clenched in a rhythmic fist, embodying the passion and energy of his performances.

Beyond his performances, Getachew played a principal role in reviving the Tizita genre, infusing traditional slow tracks with his distinctive golden voice and progressive beats. His influence transcended generations, cementing his status as a genre-defining maestro whose music captivated hearts. He spurred a collective nostalgia for the depth and richness of culture.

The latter years of Getachew’s life were marked by a poignant return to his homeland and a reconnection with the stage alongside longtime friend and colleague Girma Beyene. They both played atGize Bar & Restaurant. Despite his stature, he approached each performance with humility and respect, never taking the stage unless he felt fully prepared. This period proved his enduring passion for music and commitment to his craft, traits that left an indelible mark on his peers and fans alike.

Getachew's final act, his farewell song "Amesegnalehu," was an ode to his life's journey, reflecting the years spent in the United States and the enduring love for his homeland and its music. His passing on February 20, 2024, and subsequent burial at the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church marked the end of an era for Ethiopian music and culture. Yet, in the echoes of his songs and the memories of those who knew him, Getachew's legacy endures.

A lone wolf in life, his music remains a lighthouse for the enduring power of artistic expression and the unbreakable bonds of cultural identity. Music was an anthem of his life and he dared to live it on his own terms.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 02,2024 [ VOL 24 , NO 1244]

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