Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tilahun Gessesse, RIP

Sad to hear the passing of Tilahun Gessesse, the one and only, the legendary, the irreplaceable Ethiopian singer of the last half century. I have to admit, he was not my favorite singer, but he was probably the greatest Ethiopian vocalist, ever! And, what can you say about this emotional and masterful performance? The fact that he has total control of his vocals while he is in tears is beyond me. Wow!

I had one brief encounter with him in 1984 (September, I believe). I was visiting a relative of mine at Amanuel Hospital in Addis and, lo and behold, Tilahun was being treated in the same ward of the hospital, accross the room from my relative, for a condition that was rumored (since I have no way to confirm it) to be inflicted on him by the Derg regime. His wife, Roman, was sitting right beside him on the bed and my relative, a soldier who had suffered emotional trauma after serving his country in the Red Star campaign of the Eritrean war, was joking with Tilahun. I also saw another great Ethiopian singer in the flesh that day, Alemayehu Eshete, as he was leaving the hospital after visiting Tilahun. Can you imagine what a thrill it was to see two musical legends in just an hour for this seventeen years old lad?

You can find an alternative biography of the late Tilahun Gessesse (PKA Daandanaa Ayyaano Guddata) from Ayyaantuu Oromiyya Portal.



Unknown said...

What happened to Tilahun is what happens to all of us. I feel for his family. But for him and yourself(family of a Derg soldier) I have no pity. I reserve it for those singers like Mahmouod and Ayalew who sang about love and true patriotism. Tilahun was singing "gidelew" when the 68 frist Martyrs were executed and evern when the Emperor who raised him from nothing was strangled to death. And Zenawi's state funeral is more of a liability for him than anything. To me Haileselassie who was never a hero, is more of a hero now because of the insult Zenawi subjected to him than Tilahun who he is honoring.
And finally God willing(the same God Tilahun and his marxist friends killed) lemetezazeb bektual with all those men and women who made him who he was and who were rewarded with his treachery. Igzer nefsun yimarilet indegifu aybekelew. What else can be said ?

enset said...

Hi there!

There is time for everything, and this is not the time for politics, especially since the person we are talking about is not a politician. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity for that. To tell you the truth, I really do not know anything about Tilahun's politics, or lack of it, to refute what you said. My comments were meant to share my appreciation of him as a singer and my brief encounter with him.

Your reference about me is also as tasteless as it is a figment of your imagination. FYI, I am not from a family of a Derg soldier, if there was such a thing. Mohamoud Ahmed and Ayalew Mesfin are very good singers, too, but they are not as gifted as Tilahun was in their vocal prowess. Sorry if I dampened your enthusiasm for them.


Ephrem Madebo said...


You said: “Tilahun was singing "gidelew" when the 68 frist Martyrs were executed and even when the Emperor who raised him from nothing was strangled to death”
Can you substantiate this statement? The 68 officials were executed around Tikimet 1967 eth cal. HIS died at the end of 1968. What are the two songs that Tilahun played on these two occasions?

Wasn’t Tilahun a singer who was imprisoned by HIS and got a lot of warnings from derg for singing “አልማዝን አይቼ” and the ever banned song “ዘንድሮ-ዘንድሮ”? It is easy to throw words at people from the comfort of our living room. As individuals we all are entitled to say what ever we want, but no matter what is said, words will not affect the ultimate hero of Ethiopian music. Tilahun’s place in history has already been decided by what he did in 50 years, and this will not be altered by the few who may not like him. Tilahun is the only Ethiopian singer who sang practically on every aspect of our life. “ዋይ ዋይ ሲሉ” “ቀጠሮ ይከበር” “ገንዘብ-ገንዘብ” “አጥንቴም ይከስከስ” “እንደወንዝ ድንጋይ አሳ እንደላሰዉ” “አመልካች ጣት” “ያም ሲያማ ወገኔ ለኔ ብለህ ስማ” “ኢትዮጵያ የኛ መመኪያ” the ever beautiful song “ሀረካ-ፉኔ/ሰላመካ” and many more. I don’t personally know Tilahun, but I know his songs. Tilahuin never played Gidlew, the only song he played close to gidlew is “ አባረህ በለዉ ያንን አመፀኛ ተገንጣይ ወንበዴ” . Thilahun is not a democrat, sure he is a nationalist, and when he played “Abarhe belew”, Eritrean war of secession was not supported by the absolute majority of Ethiopians and his song reflected the voice of the majority. You may not like Tilahun, and you may have your own reason for this, but you cannot and should not say what Tilahun is not!

Wro. Akalu said...

I used to have a crush on Tilahun. I mean big time. Who hasn’t?
Those days! The good ol’ days before Derge the Emperor was reigning. I think I still have crush on him. LOL! He was one hell of a hunk. Hot! Hot! Hot!
Anyhoo ---O! Boy! Silly me I almost forgot maintaining about his lifetime achievement his extraordinary talent in music. He was genius.
Yes! Tilahun Gessesse will be missed dearly. He was only 68 years old. I know for some of you young folks out there 68 sounds old but not here. Even on that wheel chair he was one hell of a hunk.
Well! C'est la vie

Habtu said...

We all have our favorite Tiahun song(s). In his case, it should be in the plural for his songs have canvassed the spectra of human emotions, the broad range of social milieu, the ups and downs of ordinary life and, of course, the vast arrays of romance. Music a plenty, you might say! But if someone, say a fanatic, points a gun at my head and force me to pick just one favorite, I think at this point in my life, I'll probably go for "Ketero Yikeber". I can't think of think of a more progressive song (in a wider sense) than that. Speaking of "progressive" wouldn't you (Fikru or Ephrem) like to hear Dessalgn's comment - even a critical one - for the passing of an icon?

In my younger years, I'd have fallen for one of his romantic tunes, but at the early years of 40 - mid-life crisis and all that - I should be excused for nor not being wide-eyed anymore. (Wro. Akalu, still?) I haven't seen him perform on stage, even though he had a show about a year ago in a Midwest American city that I live in, but others tell me that even at such not-so-young an age, his voice still has that range that is nothing short of amazing. And in time that crowd-pleasing signature of his would fill the hall: he sustains his voice for what appears to be more than a minute, the crowd erupts in applause, and he keeps on for another minute, and the people shout even more, he is still holding, and ...I'm exaggerating for effect, of course, but you get the picture.

It's true that Tilahun is the interpreter of what had first appered in the minds of other creators. What a great interpreter, though! The songwriters, the composers, the instrument players, the studio recorders and the arrangers ususally labor in vain. But I think their prize and pride is in making the final product an enduring work of art. In a way, the art speaketh for itself. And, ultimately, it's the art that continues to exist. Indeed, in such occasions, it's all too fair to recollect some of them. For instance the lyrics for my current favorite "Ketero Yikeber", I heard as a kid, were written by Asaminew Gebrewold (a journalist?). Likewise, the melodies and the compositions of many of his ballads were , I think, mainly from (Major?) Sahle Degago. Certainly, there are countless others, too. Is it true that the perennial wedding favorite "Yehiwte Hiywot" was composed by a Sudanese? This is not to take anything away form Tilahun's achievements. I suspect that Tilahun probably plays the songs better than what was inside the minds of the people who came up with them in the first place. Indeed the power of his songs are such that even that tiresome peddler of ethnic grievances removed his divisive
mask for the moment and was moved to write a short condolence note to Tilahun's family. Skeptics might think that Meles did this to win the hearts of some, but I prefer to err on the side of innocence: I think it was genuine. Even retrogressive oppressors have an occasional soft spot for an obvious talent.

In that golden era of Ethiopian music, our country has produced truly notable singers, Tilahun and Mahmoud being the most popular. (I just thought of their duet "Lij Siweled' let ", another calssic) . I think Tilahun was the first truly modern Ethiopian singer. The generation before his had Kassa, but he stuck to his Kirar; the one after that had Aster (artist par excellence!), but in the middle and at the top was Tilahun.

We thank him for his gifts.

Natan said...


"Tilahun Legend"? Well I disagree with this. Rather "Tilahun Lucky", will fit him. What most of u have written here have been spoken all the time. What about the other side of the coin? yes we Ethiopians have a culture that will exaggerate all the good for the one that we love. but what about the disgraceful part of our loved ones how do we see it? This can show the all aspect of the personality of the person so that he can learn from his mistakes and others can also see the bad side of the good person and be off jeopardy.

"Tilahun was a good Korkoro" shibhat G/egziabher, sure he put him this way because he didn't have any artistic nature in him other than picking others work and present it well by his voice. Can any body tell me that if he has any songs was written by him? I remember that on one interview that he expressed himself as "Tiru Debeb Neberku". Even in his time my father used to tell me artists who have all rounded talent, this days this will not be questionable any body can pick an artist, there are artists that can see an event and make a music over night which can be sang as a national anthem.
The other memory of him was his family life history, the number wives he vowed to marry and children he abandoned... that everybody knows. However surprisingly everyone didn't want to speak about it. Even i didn't hear anything about the number of children he has or the wives that he married on his life history read on his grave yard,.... try to find the script. Above all these which i couldn't tolerate is, his selfish character. I couldn't remember once from his interviews recognizing other new singers, and his former zema and getem derassi contributes. He has acted to be the only one and taken all the credit of his work for himself. That is why people say that Tilhanun have sang a song of all aspect of life. yes he ecode the good getami ena zema derasian work to the audience with good voice and stage controlling character.

And finally I want the readers and other fellow artists to note that this is not national model to follow though he got the century Ethiopian funeral ceremony which to my knowledge have not been prepared and will not be repeated in short years. That is why i said he is "luck man"

enset said...

Dear Nathan,

I believe you are the first person to comment on this blog from inside Ethiopia! Insight from those of you in Ethiopia is highly appreciated here and I encourage you to keep checking this space.

You point about Tilahun being just lucky is not convincing to me. We all need a little luck (happenstance) to get to where we want to go and some of us get more lucky than others. Tilahun may have received more luck than most, that I do not know. But I am of the opinion that it takes a lot more than some luck to achieve what Tilahun was able to achieve. What Tilahun had was his voice, a voice that is a gift from God. If he had only half the gift and did not work as hard in honing his singing skills, all the luck he had encountered in his long career would not have made him what the Tilahun that we got to know.

Regarding your point about Tilahun being selfish and not giving the credit to his song writers and musicians, I think you may have a valid point. However, since my knowledge of him as an artist is very limited, I will not pass judgment on that score and defer it to those who are well familiar with his work. But, I agree with you (and Habtu) that Ethiopians song writers and musicians do not often get the recognition they deserve from their audience.

By the same token, I do not agree with you when you diminish Tilahun artistic ability as a vocalist and as an entertainer just because he may not have written and composed his songs. This is one of the main reasons why Ethiopian singers do not appeal to me as much. If we were talking about ordinary singers, yes, it would be very nice if they had other musical talents such as composing, writing or playing instruments. But since we a talking about Tilahun whose vocal gifts are undisputed, this is a mute point, I think.

You also mentioned his failings in his personal life, which would be sad if true. However, we need to be careful not to intrude into his personal life to the maximum extent possible, and respect the privacy of his family members who are not public figures like him.

Dear Habtu,

It is good to have your comments as well. I did not know most of the songs that you and Ephrem mentioned, which should tell you how much I know about Tilahun's musical career. Since you spoke highly of the song "Keter Yikeber", a song I did not know, I found it on YouTube and I was very disappointed with the melody. But I agree that its message is as relevant to our time-disrespecting culture of today as it was at the time he sang it.


Unknown said...

You may have valid points about giving credit to songwriters. However, you could have made your point in another way, without damning Tilahun's contribution to Ethiopian music. When Tilahun, Mahmoud were at their peak giving their Ethiopian audience the best of the best music and shows, it was customary by comedian/presenters or Radio DJs to name the songwriters and composers before presenting the star performers. It is not Tilahun's fault that tradition was lost. The way I think about it, it is because the Radio DJs became lazy and abandoned that tradition. Actually when Tilahun and other vocalists of the time were asked by some journalists about the stories behind the lyrics, they were quick in giving credit to the songwriters. It is just that most journalists who interview them do not ask such questions. Otherwise these people have fascinating stories to tell. Hence, Wondim Nathan, it is not fair to accuse Tilahun alone. Why should he become responsible? Even in the developed nations musicians do not go out of their way to state who composed their music ot who wrote their lyrics on every occasions, unless they are asked. Michael Jackson do not mention Quincy Jones's name at every occasion he gets. But when he was asked about the best selling album in history and the songs in it, then he give credit to Quincy. I blame rather our journalists than the performers like Tilahun for the problem you identified. Have they asked such questions as stories behind the lyrics like their Western journalists or DJs do Tilahun or other stars of the era have fascinating stories to tell.
Nathan, like you I also would have liked to see our musicians to be all-rounded with writing their own song & lyrics, playing musical instrument and performing it. One quality I admire in Neway Debebe is that he is a vocalist as well as writes his owwn lyrics. There were the likes of Mesfin Abebe and Tsegaye Mergia before him who used to write their own songs and perform playing their guitars. I have seen on TV Alemayehy Eshete giving solo performance playing piano and I believe wrote some of his songs. Though most of these musicians I mentioned have qualities to admire, no one equates that of Tilahun's. His passion for music or to perform which he followed since he was eleven years old, his vocal gift, his good looks, his ability to connect with his audience and above all to give-it-all-you-have attitude to the profession by singing all kinds of songs makes him stand taller. Most importantly though, the best talents in songwriting of Sahle Degago, Solomon Tesema et al and the best talents in composing such as Nerses Nalbandyan et al was matched by young talented performers such as Tilahun and Mahmoud. It is the fusion of these talents that make that period the golden era of Ethiopian music. The love/passion Ethiopians show for Tilahun then was reflection of the apreciation to the best of best music these talened individuals produced. Note that, none of them made big money as such or translate their fame to financial wealth. Back then, the currency was "give your best" and in return recieve adoration and love from the people, unlike current times where some hit it big in bucks and overnight fame even with mediocre performance. That is the currency they take to their burial grounds as Tilahun's funeral ceremony demonstrated.

With regards to Tilahun's personal life, I only say have you had his fame and passionate feeling from many admirers, would you fare better? I can name numerous celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf, Elizabeth Taylor etc.. whose marriage after marriage fell apart and who may have sinned also in other ways but such failures in their personal life did not take away their greateness.