One of Ethiopia's biggest stars takes us on a journey through the uniquely Ethiopian genre of tizita
Some musicians seem destined for their careers. Though it is not true, as luck and circumstance play a huge role in determining who makes it big, it is hard not to look at the sheer talent of a person like Paul McCartney and think that he was always going to become the star that he did. Perhaps the most obvious examples in world music terms are the musical dynasties we have come across. From the families of griots like the Diabatés and the Jobartehs, whose members such as Sona Jobarteh and Toumani Diabaté, have gone on to have huge impacts in their fields, to the talking drum chief himself Mohammed Alidu, with a thousand years of drumming lineage in his family, or the six centuries of qawwali sung by the ancestors of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, sometimes things seem written in the stars. Other times, they seem serendipitous, as is the case with Mahmoud Ahmed. Born into a poor family in Addis Ababa, Ahmed fell into music almost accidentally. A fan of music all his life though with no musical training, he was a handyman in a music club in Addis Ababa where Haile Selassie’s Imperial Bodyguard Band would regularly play. One evening in 1962, their singer didn’t arrive, and Ahmed was asked to cover. He ended up performing with them until 1974. Even during the repressive era of the Derg, where music was censored, Ahmed found a way to keep on making music despite the dissolution of his former band. He released music on cassettes, which helped him achieve a popularity among the Ethiopian diaspora, and was then able to work with record labels outside Ethiopia to re-release his older work, as well as record new albums. Soul of Addis is one such album.
“His genre of tizita is a passionate, rich musical genre that expresses nostalgia and reminiscences of the past, and showcases the culture of his oft misrepresented homeland.”
The endearing album cover, with a full shot of Ahmed with an infectious, beaming smile, and dressed in what can only be described as mid-2000s teleshopping presenter attire, combined with the smooth, soulful music of the record helped to challenge many stereotypes that Westerners held of Ethiopia – one of widespread misery, poverty, death, and famine. This image was well-ingrained in the minds of many due to the well-meaning but misguided efforts by one of Ireland’s most inexplicably successful musical exports, Bob Geldof, who one can’t deny has done much in the way of bringing attention to the urgent issue of world hunger in his attempt to bring relief to the tragedies that were the Ethiopian famines of the early 1980s with the festive song Do They Know It’s Christmas? ; nevertheless, not only was much of the money misused by the corrupt government of the time, but it helped establish a rather patronising, neo-colonialist view of Ethiopia. Therefore the solution to problems in Africa for many people in Europe was simply seen as sending out some white people to help them fulfil a potential they can’t fulfil themselves. Ahmed, in his own way, helped to challenge that both with his albums and with his concert and festival appearances in the USA and Europe. His genre of tizita is a passionate, rich musical genre that expresses nostalgia and reminiscences of the past, and showcases the culture of his oft misrepresented homeland.
Soul of Addis is a wonderful expression of the genre. The word tizita itself means memories, and lyrically it is categorised by lyrics pertaining to the past and things that once were, and is in that way comparable to the lyrical content of a genre like fado, where the Portuguese term saudade is used in much the same way. You can tell this from the English translations of the song titles provided, where the words love, lonely, longing and alone are all recurring refrains. However, the sound of tizita is completely different. Tizita is characterised by its jazzy saxophones, a bopping beat that is almost reggae-adjacent (though, despite the obvious links between reggae music and Ethiopia, there appears to be no connection there) and in many respects it does not sound like typical ‘African music’ many European world music fans might have expected due to its lack of what might be considered traditional or regional instruments, though it is of course a particularly Ethiopian style of music, as brass band music (of which this is a descendent) has been popular in Ethiopia ever since Haile Selassie invited Armenians living in Jerusalem to come to live in Ethiopia, whereupon they brought their brass music traditions with them. It is slow music, with a steady beat, one you could easily dance to, and duly the saxophone is the star of the album alongside Ahmed’s vocal talents in many respects. On tracks such as Titesh (Don’t Worry – Forget It) and Abet (Yes Please), the latter of which is probably my favourite song for this very reason, the saxophone weaves in and out of the vocals, providing a kind of reflective refrain to the music.
That said, Ahmed is no slouch in the vocal department, and his voice manages to be both powerful when it needs to be, as well as softer and gentler on the more melancholy tracks like Amesginalehu (Thank You), Nafkot (Longing), and Selam (Peace). He manages to communicate the bittersweet character of the music through his voice interplaying alongside the music, especially the plaintive saxophone. The album is also remarkably consistent, with pretty much all of the songs being worth your time in my view. Though there isn’t a song or a collection of songs that towers above the rest and sticks in the memory, the album is nonetheless very solid, with much to enjoy within it. The style may be an acquired taste initially, but it bears sticking with, if only to get a window into Ethiopia’s fascinating music scene with one of its greatest stars as your guide.