May 3, 2009

Late pass for not reporting the death of Ethiopian legend, Tlahoun Gessesse, sooner, but unless you get placement in a Jim Jarmusch movie or name-dropped by Vampire Weekend, coverage of African music in the American media tends to be scarce. So thanks to the indispensable Likembe, for the heads-up.

For those unaware of the legendary Amharic singer nicknamed “the voice,” Gessesse was arguably the only icon rivaling Mulatu for G.O.A.T. status (Addis Ababa edition.) Accordingly, two weeks ago, millions of Ethiopians flocked to his flag-draped casket at Maskal Square, to pay tribute to a man, Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zanawi, declared, “an artiste of great renown, with lifetime contributions to Ethiopia’s modern music, which he popularized across the world.”

No less than the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Abune Paulos eulogized a legend the people called, “The King of Music,” by stating “that whoever is said dead is he who leave[s] nothing worthwhile behind. Tilahun left numerous, though secular, legacies behind to survive the mortal body for generations to come.”

How big was Tlahoun in Ethiopia? Big enough to have his funeral procession broadcast live on state television, following days of mourning in which channels showed nothing but his videos. Big enough to be regarded as the finest pop voice of Ethiopia’s musical golden age of the late 60s/early 70s. Big enough to perform before Haile Selassie and impress the legendary emperor so much that he warned Tlahoun not to “abuse his talent.”

Though my Amharic isn’t what it used to be (to say nothing of my Oromo,) Ethiopian commentators have hailed Gessesse’s wide lyrical breadth, encompassing songs of “love or hate, war or peace, patriotism, poverty or affluence. Tilahun was a treasure trove of music [with] a song for almost every theme…he was such an influential figure his death was mourned like no one in the history of the country.”

Even if you can’t understand a word, Gessesse’s music possesses that abstruse ability to transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries–buoyed by the combination of a beatific brass band and Gessesse’s gilded voice, a supernal, acrobatic wail capable of shifting directions mid-note, with the liquescent grace of Kobe Bryant twisting to elude a defender.

If you’ve never listened to Tlahoun, the ideal place to start is Ethiopiques 17,  a volume devoted entirely to his music. If you can track it down, Tlahoun Gessesse’s Greatest Hits is also highly recommended, as it features surprisingly little overlap with his Ethiopiques disc. I’m not sure where you can find it on the Internet, but if you live in LA, I know you can procure it from the stores on the Little Ethiopia strip on Fairfax. In the meantime, here’s a small sampling of one of the greatest to ever do it, one whom the world is infinitely less for losing.

MP3: Tlahoun Gessesse-“Yene Filagote”
MP3: Tlahoun Gessesse-“Bedehna Iskigetimen
MP3: Tlahoun Gessesse-“Sew New Yetchekene”
MP3: Tlahoun Gessesse-“Bèyèt Nèw Mèngèdu”
MP3: Tlahoun Gessesse-“Tchuheten Bitsemu
MP3: Tlahoun Gessesse-“Ine Negn Way Antchi “

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