I finally caught Getachew Kassa for an interview. Other than listening to his greatest hits on radio and watching him on television, I was able to see him once or twice in person playing at the Jazzamba Lounge in Piazza few years ago, yet when I tried to contact him for an interview, I found out it was not an easy to thing to do. He was elusive. First he wanted to know which media I worked for; radio, or TV. I explained it was a website. He then asked me to call him after two or three weeks. When I did, he would find an excuse to say No this time around. He would say ‘he has a cold, you know the pollution in Addis?’ Finally, with the help of music producer Amaha Eshete, I was able to interview Getachew.
Despite a wall of formality he builds around himself, there’s a warmth and playfulness that seeps out of him. He recounted his recollections and stories, with deep, low-pitched voice, and punctuated with infectious laugh.
Getachew, 67, occupies a unique space in the Ethiopian music sphere, his singular voice and stage act straddling generations. Since he started playing one of his hits “Emegnalehu” with a band called Fetan Band – or Speed Band – at the Patrice Lumumba Bar in Wube Berha in the 70’s, Getachew established himself as one of the most accomplished Ethiopian musicians of the period. His career as recording artist includes tunes such as “Addis Ababa”, “Tiz Balegn Gize”, “Yekereme Fikir”, “Bertucan nesh lomi” “Bichayan Tekze” “Agere Tizitash”. The “Tezeta slow & fast” that he created and popularized when he was playing for various groups, the Sehebelles band, the Venus band, and later with the Walias band, was subsequently recorded by Amha Records. Those records were reissued by the French producer Francis Falceto in the Éthiopiques 1 (Golden Years of Modern Music), collections that he put together to recapture the lost music of pre-Revolutionary Ethiopia. “This Tezeta remains one of the best-selling records ever in Ethiopia, totalling around 5,000 copies, while most hits level-off at 2-3,000 and a few hundred is considered a moderate success. Very people owned record players, but the entire country heard that Tezeta, the first, jangling by an Ethiopia set in motion,” Falceto wrote in the cover. The CD reissue brought wider recognition at home and abroad, generating attention and praise even from Bob Dylan who included it in his anthology CD of favorites for Starbucks coffee chain in 2008, in a series called Artist’s Choice. In the selections of “music that matters to him” Dylan talked about the song “Tezeta” from the compilation album in the Ethiopiques series. Dylan writes, “When I first heard this record I knew nothing about it. There’s this guy named Harold who usually shows up when I play Forth Worth, and he always gives me a bag of CDs. He never writes down what’s on them. I had to wait till the next time I was in Fort Worth to ask him what this track was. I found out it’s an Ethiopian record from this series of records made during that short window of time when popular music was allowed in Ethiopia. But when I heard it I didn’t know any of that. I thought it was some kind of Cajun record played backwards. There’s something great about hearing music that’s so obviously passionate and so obviously good, and not being able to understand the words. I like to imagine this is what my records might sound like to someone in a country that doesn’t speak English.”
Getachew says it was a great honour to receive an admiration from this word-class musician. He was not even aware of his inclusion in the CD until a friend told him about it and gave him as present. “This friend of mine Mike Alazar, who used to sing in English at Wabi Shebele hotel one day happened to hear my music while he was at Starbucks. He asked the personnel at the chain and came to know that it was compiled with other English songs. He hurriedly bought it and brought it to me. I treasure it a lot” Getachew says.
Born and raised in Addis Ababa’s Mercato area from a relatively well-off family, Getachew found his love and dedication for music in his early years. “As early as eight, music was something that just grabbed me. I sang an Italian song called asmarina, asmarina, which was popular then. My parents were separated and I lived with my father. I used to frequent this café in my neighbourhood called California where I used to listen to records of Little Richards, Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte, among others. I started imitating those singers,” he says.
He also started to play drums with a certain Yemen national, Mockbile, who bought a drum and asked him to try it. He played it good. But those years were difficult for him because he never received a blessing on his passion from his father. There were fights at home every single day because of it. “My father even hid the record player that was in our house,” he recalls.
The precariousness of Getachew’s life made it difficult for him to concentrate in school.”I messed up all the time,” he said.Eventually, in his teenage years, he run away to Dire Dawa, hoping to get a job doing music. One night he happened to pass by a bar where there was this person playing accordion solo. “There was drum machine on the corner and no one was playing it. I went to him and I proposed playing the drum and he was okay. I became a good drummer there,” Getachew says. “I met this guy, Solomon, who was in the police army, who was playing saxophone. We went to Harar and I joined Segon Orchestra. With the permission of army officials, he bought equipment and we started playing for different occasions. After a year, I came back to Addis because they wanted to put me in the army,”
While in Harar, he took Kassa as his father’s name than the real one Tsegaye, because his father said he did not want him to carry on his name. “At the time I was in love with this girl Assgedetch Kassa, who was a singer herself. I told her about it and she said why I don’t take her father’s name. I became Getachew Kassa to this day,” he laughs.
In Addis Ababa, Getachew started playing with a band called Fetan Band, at the Patrice Lumumba Bar, which was owned by Woizero Asegedech Alamrew. That was the most important regular gig for him, playing along with Teshome Mitiku, Mekonen Mersha. “Emegnalehu” became very popular and brought him to prominence. “It put me in a whole different place. It was the start of me making a living as a singer.” Tilahun Gessesse used to show up often and do the twist for the music, he says. Getachew was then paid five birr per day. For the following year, he played at Sombrero in Senga Tera, a club where Alemayehu Eshete used to play. He was offered 15 birr by the patron the Seyoum and another of his hits, Sayish Esasalehu was born there. Upon his discharge from the club, he briefly joined Axum Adarash in Gulele as vocalist where he joined Tekle “Huket” Adhnaom, a guitarist from Asmara, Hailu Zihon, who played base, former member of the Police Force. Then Abubakar Ashakih, a composer and former singer for the Imperial Music Department, and owner of Venus nightclub beckoned them to play at his club which was first located in Piazza, and later in Ambassador Cinema. The band’s reputation spread rapidly, also getting regular invitation to perform at high school graduation parties. Getachew’s slow and fast Tezeta became more popular here. After six months again another offer from Wabishebele Hotel, they became the Wabishebele Band in 1969. It was then that Getachew met Amaha Eshete and the two tunes were recorded in in LP.
As Francis Falceto describes it, ”the double version of Tezeta, thanks to its success and the polemic it fuelled incensed conservatives and pop’s young guard, stand as symbol of pre-revolutionary Ethiopia- in the light music vein. Getachew Kassa delivers a version totally contrary to tradition, but so well adapted by non-conformist Ethiopian youth in 1972.”
(Getachew Kassa, Girma Beyene with Manu Dibango, Hailu Meregia behind at the Hilton Hotel. photo courtesy of Getachew)
Around that time, Getachew joined the famed Walias ensemble, that eventually landed a residency at the Hilton hotel, performing for tourists, diplomats and middle class locals. After soundtracking Addis Ababa’s night life for more than a decade, in 1981 Getachew Kassa and the Walais band went to the US, in their first American exposure at a time Ethiopian’s military regime was strongly condemning American imperialism. The group’s first performance was at Washington DC’s famous Warner Theatre.
Getachew decided to stay in Washington DC, where the band had originally landed upon their arrival–and there he remained. His stay in the United States, he admits, wasn’t a fertile working environment. He said he was “well received at the start by the Ethiopian community there and quickly making fans across US cities who showered me with gifts”. However, as years went by, he found it difficult to work with the band there, “The trouble with most musicians there is that they don’t rehearse enough. Since they are busy with other things, making money, they want to show up and join me to perform. I myself don’t come to the stage without practising my own materials. I make it a point to pay attention to the smallest details. I don’t find that with many of them. I couldn’t even find anybody to play with,” he says. All the same, he worked in the Ethiopian restaurants found in different states, including Blue Nile, Addis Ababa restaurant, Dukem, Etete, Queen Sheba. “I used to perform three times per week. I liked being on stage. When I put on my hands on the piano, I forgot all other things.”
Getachew, who lived in the United States for twenty seven years, is now back in Ethiopia, trying to rekindle his music career. “I felt a pool from home. Ethiopia is a deep part of my life. The time came that I had to come back,” he says. His songs are often about loss, solitude, and for a lot of his life he has been a loner. “I got married once and my marriage did not work out,” he says. He has a daughter from this marriage, who is currently living in Saudi Arabia that he has not seen or spoken for many years. In many ways he has been consumed by his songs, by touring. Probably, this drive has been the reason for the break-up of his marriage.
After his return to Ethiopia four years ago, he started performing at Jazzamba with a band comprising young musicians, Vibes Band. However, his old demons have not been entirely exorcized. One member of the band then described the frustrations of dealing with the singer’s mood swings, though he respected his singing so much.
After fire destroyed the Jazzamba club, Getachew shifted playing to Mama’s Kitchen, a bar on the shopping mall near Bole airport with Express band. It worked for a while but these days he is not playing there anymore.
On April 3, 2016 Getachew went to Berlin to perform at concert (his first in Germany), as part of the “Stay Strong” project, a music project dedicated to the renowned Ethiopian singer and songwriter Alemayehu Eshete & to musicians of his generation.
In a two-week workshop, Getachew’s big hits were re-interpreted, arranged in a contemporary manner and recorded in studio quality. Band Manager and Booking Agent at The Stay Strong Orchestra, Clemens Grün told Ethiopia Observer that they did one recording workshop with Alemyahu Eshete and another with Getachew Kassa and Selam Seyoum Woldemariam. “The recordings, we did, especially with Getachew, are not comparable with anything he or anybody else ever did with his songs,” he says. They did eight songs with Getachew, one is linked here.
The project’s trailer, which was described as “a kind of Ethiopian Buena Vista Social Club” could be seen on You Tube. Getachew presented his first performance UFA-Fabrik, factory to wide acclaim.
(Getachew Kassa and Selam Seyoum Woldemariam in Berlin, photo courtesy of the Strong Project)
It was a proof that that his music and energy is as alive as ever and he is a determined as he was in his youthful prime. Getachew is planning to celebrate a 50 year career in music next year. However, he said no plans to retire in the near future, adding instead that he planned to downsize his career, cancelling all club engagements.
(Special thanks to John Wilson for sending me Bob Dylan’s notes on Getachew, which i quoted in its entirety in the article.)