The singer and songwriter Alèmayèhu Eshèté, who has died aged 80, was one of many stars of the “golden age” of Ethiopian music within the Nineteen Sixties and early 70s – after which turned a cult hero for a lot of western musicians after his music was included within the influential Éthiopiques CD collection.
A passionate fan of American music – he was well-known for his Elvis impersonations whereas nonetheless in school – Eshèté turned often known as the Abyssinian Elvis, or the Ethiopian James Brown, due to his mix of livid funk songs, passionate ballads and wild stage antics. However he was no mere imitator. His songs had been created from a fusion of Ethiopian types, with the distinctive scales that gave them a generally eastern-sounding edge, together with influences from American R&B, funk and soul. And he constructed up his large following in Ethiopia by singing principally in Amharic, not English.
This was the period when Addis was well-known each for its night time life and distinctive music, very like “swinging London” on the time. However the nation was run by Emperor Haile Selassie I, who could have been a music fan (he beloved brass bands, and was not directly chargeable for making brass a key characteristic within the nation’s music) however was an authoritarian determine who insisted that each one bands and orchestras needs to be state-controlled.
However that didn’t cease them from being aggressive and adventurous. Eshèté was 20 when he was noticed singing within the Addis golf equipment by Colonel Rètta Dèmèqè, and enrolled within the police orchestra (you didn’t must be within the police to hitch). There he was paid a month-to-month wage, like a civil servant, and sang at state capabilities and lodge dances – whereas additionally sneaking off to sing within the golf equipment, with out official permission. He turned one of many stars of the Addis music scene, and on the finish of the 60s, when restrictions had lifted just a little, he was among the many first musicians to hitch younger, impartial bands, together with the Alèm-Girma Band, which he based in 1972 together with his buddy, the composer, arranger and keyboard participant Girma Bèyènè.
All the time a insurgent, Eshèté was additionally the primary to defy the authorities by recording for a then-forbidden impartial label, at a time when the federal government authorities formally held a monopoly on all music gross sales. He was the one musician to step ahead in 1969, when a younger file store proprietor, Amba Eshèté, requested main musicians to file for him, in defiance of the regulation. The outcome was an formally unlawful 45rpm recording of the loping, funky Timarkialesh (launched on vinyl, manufactured in India). The authorities weren’t amused, however the file was successful, and Amba was finally allowed to proceed – and likewise continued to work as Eshèté’s producer.
Eshèté proved to be a prolific songwriter with a powerful vary, from the James Brown-influenced Tchero Adari Nègn to chill, rhythmic ballads akin to Tashamanaletch. And although his lyrics inevitably targeting ladies and love, he sang about African freedom on the driving, upbeat Tikur Gissila (Black Leopard), or the significance of schooling on the massively common Tèmar ledjé (Research, My Son).
However in 1974, every thing modified. Selassie was overthrown, the army junta, the Derg, took over, and curfews ended the Addis membership scene. Many musicians fled overseas, however Alèmayèhu refused to go away – he now had a spouse and household – although he was pressured to play at status reveals for the brand new authorities, even singing in Korean for Kim Il-sung (“which I realized, although I had no concept what I used to be singing”). He remained a hero for Ethiopians each throughout the nation and throughout the diaspora – however went on to amass sudden cult standing amongst western audiences.
The person accountable was a French producer, Francis Falceto, who heard a tape by one in every of Alèmayèhu’s contemporaries, Mahmoud Ahmed, and was so excited that he started travelling to Ethiopia to hunt out recordings from the 60s and 70s.
In 1997 he started releasing the Éthiopiques collection of CDs, which would come with two albums (Vols 9 and 22) solely dedicated to Eshèté. The singer additionally featured on The Very Better of Éthiopiques compilation, launched in 2007. And in June 2008, an Éthiopiques bundle present performed at Glastonbury, after a live performance on the Barbican in London. Alèmayèhu was in superb voice, and even demonstrated a few of his celebrated high-kicking stage strikes, earlier than becoming a member of Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke and the saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya for an excellent, driving finale of Alèmayèhu’s music Addis Ababa Bete (Addis Ababa, My Dwelling).
This “everlasting teen” (as Falceto described him) was born in Addis Ababa, the place his father, Andarge Eshèté, was one of many few official taxi drivers. His mom, Belaynesh Yusuf, was from the north-central Wollo province, the place he spent a lot of his childhood. He attended the Christian Coaching Institute in Addis, a boarding college the place he sang within the choir, first began listening to western music, together with his idol, Elvis, and commenced sporting a pompadour haircut (he had famously lush hair, like his mom).
An avid filmgoer, Eshèté’s first ambition was to develop into an actor. He deliberate to run away to Hollywood with a buddy, and so they made it so far as Asmara, earlier than his father tracked them down and the duo had been despatched again to Addis.
His father was equally livid when the younger Alèmayèhu turned a singer. In response to one story, which can or might not be true, his father acquired a gun and searched the Addis nightclubs for him, threatening to kill him. They had been reconciled after he turned a celeb.
Eshèté by no means gave up eager to carry out, even after coronary heart surgical procedure 5 years in the past, and not too long ago launched a music about Covid. On the time of his demise he was planning a brand new musical enterprise, that includes 50 musicians from totally different generations.
He’s survived by his spouse, Ayehu “Ayo” Kebede Desta, to whom he was married for over 50 years, and by seven kids and 6 grandchildren.