In the 1970s, Ayalew Mesfin became the spiritual father of Ethiopian funk. He became a world star in his own country, but also got into trouble with the socialist Derg regime after the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie. Mesfin was sentenced to three months in prison and a 13-year ban from making music. In secret he always went on, but in the end he chose a quiet life in the United States. During Le Guess Who?, he will perform in Europe for the first time, with the American ensemble Debo Band.
Written by: Dirk Baart
It has become a good practice at Le Guess Who? to invite living legends who, until recently, everyone seemed to have forgotten were actually alive. Musicians who released a beautiful record in the second half of the last century and became a world star in their own country. Musicians too, who have often rarely performed outside their own country because they disappeared into obscurity after their breakthrough until their music was recently rediscovered by a new generation of music lovers. In recent years, Le Guess Who? has welcomed Turkish singer Selda Bagcan, American New Age pioneer Beverly Glenn-Copeland and Brazilian samba queen Elza Soares.
This year, Ayalew Mesfin will make his debut on Dutch soil. The nearly 80-year-old Ethiopian had his heyday in the 1970s, when he became the authority on Ethiopian funk. Mesfin largely ignored traditional Ethiopian instruments such as the washint, the krar and the kebero: he preferred electric guitars, drum kits and effects pedals. Mesfin had soulful hit songs that James Brown would have envied, but he also mastered the ballad form tezeta and gave a psychedelic twist to Ethiopian folk.
Mesfin developed more or less simultaneously with fellow countrymen such as jazz icon Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed and Getatchew Mekuria, the saxophonist who collaborated with Dutch punk band The Ex. Their international breakthrough came when their music was released in 1996 as part of Éthiopiques, an extensive compilation series on which a French musicologist collected Ethiopian music from the 1960s and 1970s. Ayalew Mesfin, whose music first appeared on Éthiopiques in 2000, remained under the global radar until 2009. Then his music was discovered by the Californian label Stones Throw Records, which is best known for its releases by the influential rapper and producer Madlib, but which also released music by J Dilla, Sudan Archives, and Dutchman Benny Sings.
In 2009, Madlib's brother Oh No sampled Mesfin’s ‘Libe Menta Hone’ in ‘The Funk’ off his album Dr. No's Ethiopium. It prompted Stones Throw boss Eothen Alapatt, an avid collector of Ethiopian singles, to start looking for Mesfin.
His quest runs through saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, leader of Debo Band, the Boston-based collective that mainly plays Ethiopian music and that will accompany Mesfin during Le Guess Who?. Mekonnen grew up in Texas as a child of Ethiopian parents and thus became acquainted with the music of Ayalew Mesfin in his youth. “He was slightly younger than Mulatu Astatke and Getatchew Mekuria and gave a modern twist to Ethiopian music”, says Mekonnen. “My ears may have been influenced by my Ethiopian roots, but they developed in the United States. That's why I was quickly drawn to Ayalew's music.”
Mesfin is therefore one of the first musicians the members of Debo Band ‘study’ in the early days of the ensemble. The group even covers one of his songs, ‘Gedawo’(‘The Hero’). “We didn't necessarily have a plan yet, but we just met regularly with about fifteen people to eat Ethiopian food and listen to Ethiopian music. Many bands that now make so-called 'world music' or bring back the attention of music from the past have been formed by record companies, producers or bookers. They quickly make an album so that they can be booked by venues or festivals. It was different for us: it took almost five years before we made an album and really went on tour. Before that, we mainly played at parties in Boston’s Ethiopian community.”
In that community, Mekonnen gets to know Ayalew Mesfin's son. He turns out to be a colleague of Bruck Tesfaye, Debo Band’s singer. Together they travel as photographers across the country to capture Ethiopian weddings. Mekonnen and Mesfin Junior become friends, but Mekonnen doesn't get to know Ayalew himself at first. That only happens when Mekonnen gets a call from Stones Throw's Eothen Alapatt years later. He not only wants to have the sample used by Oh No approved, but also to release a compilation of Mesfin's music on his reissue label Now Again. “I then gave him Ayalew's wife's number,” Mekonnen says. "Ayalew doesn't speak English very well himself."
The compilation will eventually be released in early 2018, under the name Hasabe (My Worries). “After the release, they wanted to organize a short tour and we were asked as a backing band,” explains Mekonnen. “The performance at Le Guess Who? resulted from it.” Mekonnen speaks with admiration about Mesfin and the way he takes care of himself. “He is still very active and young at heart. He doesn't drink, doesn't do drugs. And his voice is still so smooth that we rarely have to adjust the key in which his music was originally written. What I find most special is perhaps his humility. He hasn't forgotten anything, but he doesn't spend all day telling stories about the past."
That past, that is the time when Ayalew Mesfin still lived in Ethiopia. The singer has been living in the United States since 1998. He initially immigrated to Minnesota, then moved to the West Coast and eventually ended up in Denver, Colorado. There Mesfin lives a quiet life. He doesn't perform much, partly because Denver doesn't have a large Ethiopian community. For that he would have to go to cities like Washington D.C., New York or Seattle. “I think his time in the United States has allowed Ayalew to recover from his life in Ethiopia,” Mekonnen said.
Mesfin's time in his homeland did not only contain great highs, but also deep lows. The singer saw the light of day in the 1940s, in the northern Ethiopian city of Weldiya. Against the wishes of his father, Mesfin moved to capital Addis Ababa at the age of eleven to pursue his big dream: to follow in the footsteps of the musicians such as Tilahun Gessesse and Tamrat Molla, icons he had heard on the radio.
In Addis Ababa, stardom is not up for grabs. Mesfin works in chic hotels, as a porter for example. Later, he even completely abandons his musical career and joins the republican guard of Emperor Haile Selassie, who is revered in Ethiopia as a Messiah and who is praised for the modernization he brought to the country. At the same time, the emperor is criticized by human rights groups, including for the persecution of the Muslim Harari’s that took place under his rule.
Mesfin's military career will not last long. After meeting Gétatchèw Kassa, another such icon, he leaves the guard and joins Kassa's Soul Ekos Band. Later he opens his own venue, The Stereo Club, and his own music store. There he sells recording equipment that he imports from Germany, beautiful sound systems and all kinds of instruments. And records of course, by Mahmoud Ahmed, the Sudanese singer Sayed Khalifa and the Nigerian afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, but also by Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and James Brown.
Ultimately, Mesfin founds the Black Lion Band with Tamiru Ayele, Tamiru Wolde A'b, Teshome Deneke, Tamirat Ziltini, Tekle Tesfaezgi and the Italian musician Giovanni Vincenzo. As frontman of the formation, Mesfin turns out to be a true entertainer. Soon, the Black Lion Band are playing sold-out shows all over the country. The collective become one of the most important exponents of the period, which is still regarded as the golden period of Ethiopian music.
In 1974, a year after the founding of the Black Lion Band, that period comes to an abrupt end. After ruling the country for more than 40 years, Haile Selassie is overthrown by the Derg, a socialist military junta, during a famine. A year later, the former emperor is strangled to death at the age of 83. However, the Derg soon faces uprisings: the civil war that ignites will last 15 years and kill hundreds of thousands of people. A famine in that period kills another million.
Ayalew Mesfin is initially supportive of the revolution unleashed by the Derg. He is convinced that something has to change in the country. But when the country ends up in the hands of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, Mesfin turns his back on the Derg. He is not thinking about emigrating yet: instead he joins the resistance. He does not take up arms, but expresses his critique of Mariam in 'love songs' such as ‘Libe Menta Hone’ ('My Divided Heart') and 'Ewedish Nebere' ('I Loved You'). executed on a large scale. The Black Lion Band are more productive than ever.
In 1977, Mesfin is silenced after being betrayed by one of his best friends. The singer has distributed 4,000 cassettes of resistance propaganda for free and is sentenced to three months in prison, although he is never told exactly how long he will be in prison. In addition, his studio, instruments and Mercedes are seized and he is sentenced to thirteen years of house arrest. He may not enter any concert hall or record store and his music may no longer be played on the radio. “It could have been much worse”, Danny Mekonnen knows. “A lot of people were just killed. He was also regularly mistreated in prison, but fortunately there was no lasting damage.”
Not that Mesfin's house arrest has the desired result, by the way. He continues to record the work of activist artists in a secret studio. And when the Derg regime falls in 1991, Mesfin doesn't mince words when he doesn't like the rule of the new Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EVDF). He releases the album Peace for Ethiopia and gets back on stage for a unique concert in the Ethiopian city of Adama (also known as Nazareth). There, Mesfin is nearly killed by an electric shock from his microphone. He sees it as a warning sign from the EVDF, who remain in power in Ethiopia to this day. With a heavy heart, Ayalew Mesfin leaves for the United States.
There he enjoys – as mentioned – a fairly uneventful old age, although the show that Mesfin will play at Le Guess Who? with Debo Band might change that. Danny Mekonnen hopes that the concert will not be regarded as a trick, a one-off spectacle that is especially fun because 'world music' is in vogue. “I can imagine it feels like a kind of spectacle if you've never seen anything like it, if you're used to western bands or DJs. But remember, you often love those acts so much because you've been able to follow them and because you've had so many opportunities to see them in action. ‘At first they sounded like this, but now they have this album and everything has changed.’ An hour with Mesfin is really just a snapshot, because he has made enough music to fill five hundred cassettes.”
And in the foreseeable future, Mesfin's oeuvre may be expanded even further. Reportedly, the singer has started working on a new album after the release of his compilation. And as befits an eternal revolutionary, Mesfin would not shy away from social criticism. “I am going to attack Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia,” he says in this recent Pan African Music article. “And all African leaders who steal from their own people to enrich themselves.” It should be clear: Ayalew Mesfin's mission has never been completed, but above all it has never changed. Decades after his breakthrough, his source of inspiration still corresponds to the title of the compilation released last year: Hasabe. My worries.
Ayalew Mesfin & Debo Band will play on Friday November 8 at 22:30 in the Ronda of TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht during Le Guess Who?. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation..