In the sunlit afternoon of the 1970s, a top-tier vintage Dodge elegantly approaches Arat Kilo, an old district nestled in Addis Abeba, adjacent to the Grand (Menelik II) Palace. This peculiar scene paints the backdrop for an enchanting story, a narrative immortalised in a timeless ballad by the virtuoso Ethiopian musician.

The story unravels as a dapper young man, dressed in tight-fitting Levi's jeans, leather cowboy boots, and sporting an afro hairstyle, was captivated by the sight of a stylish young woman manoeuvring the Dodge. Spurred by his enthralling interest, the young man engaged an elderly taxi driver, known for his mastery of the city's routes, to follow the Dodge in hot pursuit of the captivating woman.

This colourful narrative is woven into the fabric of Menelik Wessenachew's ballad, a poetic depiction of the romantic trials and tribulations of a young man from Arada. The plot oscillates between the intriguing young woman, the smitten young man, and the wise taxi driver. Reflective of the zeitgeist of the Arada district, Menelik's song speaks to a generation steeped in style and culture, offering a nostalgic perspective on urban love pursuits in Addis Abeba during the 1970s.

With a career spanning over half a century, Menelik's musical journey began at the Haile Sellassie Theatre Orchestra, now the National Theatre on Churchill Street. He honed his skills, nurtured his talent, and built a foundation to see him rise to stardom here. This period was crucial in his development as an artist, providing an environment to experiment with genres, and tone vocals, and cultivate a deep passion for music.

Menelik's aptitude was recognised early, and he was earmarked for a career in opera as a tenor. An American Opera troupe had once extended an invitation for him to join their ranks, an opportunity he later regretfully recounted was squandered by his superiors. His extraordinary range and voice character were affirmed by musical experts such as Nersis Nalbandian and Sertse FireSebhat, who suggested his vocal attributes were suited for an Opera tenor.

Despite this setback, Menelik continued experimenting, working with renowned bands like the Ras and Walias. His unique ability to blend Folk, Jazz, and Mambo with the Ethiopian pentatonic scale showcased his versatile talents. This eclectic mix of styles also demonstrated his cosmopolitan approach to music, which appealed to international audiences while retaining its distinct Ethiopian flair.

Menelik's musical narrative often mirrored his life experiences, offering an autobiographical element to his music. He grew up in Addis Abeba, in the old market zone of Merkato. He attended Alliance Ethio Francaise, a French school in the capital, and spent his formative years in Arada, becoming a fitting voice for the district’s stories. His music served as an outlet for the happenings in his life, providing a platform for his fans to connect with him.

His time at the theatre was filled with cherished memories, deep friendships with fellow musicians such as Merawi Sitot and Awlachew Dejebe, and comedic moments later recounted in interviews.

Menelik was also a songwriter composing lyrics and melodies and playing the piano. Some of his songs have an actual story element to them. One notable example is the song "Fiker Ba`marigna", written by Awlachew, a playwright and poet. A romantic affair with a woman inspired it, as their courtship could not flourish due to a language barrier. In the only version of the song on records, Menelik performed the song on stage with a full traditional instrument band, giving the piece an unforgettable and nostalgic theme that is highly cherished and timeless.

A particularly memorable incident involved a performance of his popular song, “Sequar.” During the show, an enthusiastic member of the audience, compelled by the rhythm, hurled a shoe at Menelik. In true Menelik style, the incident was taken in stride and incorporated into the performance, affirming his quick wit and charisma.

Another performance required Menelik to change to a rural outfit, removing his luxury Swiss wristwatch and putting it backstage in his tuxedo pockets. The watch remained in the tuxedo pocket as he forgot to put it back on his wrist when changing for a follow-up performance. In the commotion after fans broke onto the stage to show their appreciation, a thief approached Menelik and slipped his hand in the pocket and snatched the Zenith timepiece.

Menelik saw the pickpocket slip away with his spoils as he performed until the end. The crowd applauded and whistled for the performance while he helplessly saw a robbery from start to end.

An unexpected turn came for Menelik in the 1970s, marked by Ethiopia’s political turmoil that prompted him to flee his native land. During his exile, he lived in Sudan and Djibouti and subsequently relocated to the United States. Despite the geographical distance, Menelik’s music remained rooted in Ethiopia, reflecting his unyielding attachment to his homeland.

In his lyrics, Menelik explored the Ethiopian psyche, reflecting on societal issues and expressing his observations and criticism of the times. A prime example is his controversial song “Ethiopia Hagere,” which conveys his despair for Ethiopia’s state and longing for better days. He possessed an extraordinary ability to articulate his emotions through music, which led to his songs resonating with many, establishing a deep connection with his audience.

His lyrical content transcended the conventional Ethiopian songwriting pattern, encapsulating the essence of societal issues and emotional depth. This novel approach and his exceptional storytelling ability catapulted him to fame. He quickly became a beloved figure in the music industry.

Menelik's melodies transcended the generational divide, continuing to reverberate in the Ethiopian music scene. Despite the rise of modern music genres like hip-hop and pop, his songs retained their popularity, resonating with the older and younger generations.

The essence of his music has been preserved through various mediums, including vinyl records, cassette tapes, and digital platforms. A testament to his enduring influence is the sheer number of covers of his songs by contemporary artists, eager to pay homage to this musical maestro. Menelik's music has survived the test of time and crossed borders, making its way into international platforms. His music has been featured on various compilations, including Buda Musique’s “Ethiopiques” series, which showcases the Golden Age of Ethiopian music.

A beacon of the Ethiopian music scene, his music echoes Ethiopia’s diverse and rich cultural heritage, reminding us of the timeless power of music in uniting people across generations and borders.

The sunlit Dodge continues to traverse the streets of Arada in the minds of many Ethiopians, a memory immortalised by the unyielding spirit of Menelik. His music, a testament to a generation’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs, continues reverberating, filling the air with the rich and enduring sound of the Ethiopian spirit.

Menelik breathed his last in December 2008, leaving behind a legacy of enduring melodies that continue to resonate with many. His fans bid farewell in a heartfelt and solemn ceremony. The crowd, draped in traditional white attire, gathered under a clear sky to pay their final respects to the icon who, through his music, had become a part of their homes and lives. A profound sadness hovered in the air, mingled with an undercurrent of pride for the legacy that Menelik had left behind. Tears flowed, mirroring the outpouring of grief experienced across the country.

The ceremony was attended by a slew of renowned musicians and figures from the entertainment industry, each of whom had been impacted by Menelik’s music. Though melancholic, the atmosphere was also imbued with respect and admiration for a life that had significantly shaped Ethiopian music. Through the solemn procession, his melodies were sung, resonating with the raw emotion that his songs had always evoked.

Amidst the sorrow, there was music - Menelik's music - filling the air, a poignant reminder of the maestro who had profoundly influenced the Ethiopian music industry. His lyrics echoed through the crowd, uniting everyone in grief and celebration of his life, serving as a testament to his undeniable influence.

In the hearts of many, Menelik will forever be remembered driving his Dodge through the Arada neighbourhood, embodying the golden age of Ethiopian music. His lyrics, often imbued with a sense of longing and melancholy, reflected the shared experiences of his listeners, adding depth and relatability previously unexplored in Ethiopian music. Menelik's spirit remained unbroken despite the geographical and political distance from his homeland during his exile. His resilience and artistic brilliance added a new dimension to his music, marking him as a revolutionary figure in the industry.

His passing undoubtedly remains a great loss to Ethiopian music. However, it is also an opportunity for reflection on the extraordinary life of Menelik and the lasting impact he has had on the music industry and Ethiopia as a whole. Even in his absence, his influence remains palpable. Aspiring artists strive to emulate his lyrical prowess and the emotional depth he incorporates into his music. His life, though marked by trials and tribulations, serves as an inspiration to many.

The sunlit Dodge might have halted, but its journey, fueled by the spirit of Menelik, will forever continue in the hearts of Ethiopians and music enthusiasts across the globe.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 03,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1205]

Bereket Balcha works in the aviation industry and is passionate about fiction writing and can be reached at (

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