Tilahun Gessesse was an Ethiopian singer regarded as the most popular of the country’s “Golden Age”. During the 1960s, he became famous throughout the country, nicknamed “The Voice”. He raised money for aid during the famines of the 1970s and 1980s and earned the affection of the nation, being awarded a doctorate degree by the University of Addis Ababa and also winning a lifetime achievement award from the Ethiopian Fine Art and Mass Media Prize Trust. In his later years, he suffered from diabetes. He died on April 19, 2009, in Addis Ababa shortly after returning from America. Tilahun was honored with a state funeral attended by tens of thousands of his fellow citizens.
Tilahun left school to go to Addis Ababa, a journey he began on foot without his grandfather’s consent. When his grandfather realized that Tilahun was no longer in Woliso, he informed Tilahun’s great-aunt in Tulu Bolo. After Tilahun traveled fifteen kilometers on foot, he was caught in Tulu Bolo and stayed overnight with his great-aunt Woizero Temene Bantu. The next day, he was forced to return back to his grandfather in Woliso. Since his interest in music lay deep in his heart, Tilahun chose not to stay at his grandfather’s house in Woliso. After staying only one night at his grandfather’s house, he again began his journey to Addis Ababa, this time hiding in the back of a loaded truck.
In Addis Ababa, Tilahun was first hired by the Hager Fikir Association, which is now known as Hager Fikir Theater. After a few years at the Hager Fikir Theater, he joined the Imperial Bodyguard Band where he became a leading star singer. During his time with the band, Tilahun ran afoul of the government after the attempted coup d’état of December 1960 by the Imperial Bodyguard. He was arrested and put in prison for a time.
Tilahun moved to the National Theater where his success continued. His tenor singing was regarded as the best Ethiopian pop voice of the 1960s. His popularity was such that he appeared three times in front of Emperor Haile Selassie I. During a visit, the Emperor advised him not to abuse his talent.
Recordings made by Tilahun during the 1970s and 1980s helped raise large sums of money to aid famine victims. The majority of his recordings were in Amharic, but he did also record in Oromo.He received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Addis Ababa University, in appreciation of his contribution to Ethiopian music. He also received an award for his lifetime achievements from the Ethiopian Fine Art and Mass Media Prize Trust.
Tilahun is too big, legendary, the king, the renowned etc. He is just larger than life. But let me call him the king as most people do. Yes, the king is dead. The king that reigned in Ethiopian music scene for the last five decades is dead. Now he had gone for good. But he will remain with us for long as he reigned in our heart for half a century. And he will live in the heart of the coming generation too since he left behind masterpieces that can transcend generations to come.
Tilahun is a household name in Ethiopia. Who else is there in Ethiopia that doesn’t know who Tilahun is? He lived with us in every situation; he lived with us in our ups and downs, in our joy, in our sorrow, in our political turmoil, in our social instability. What subject matter is there that we lived and that Tilahun didn’t sing about? Nothing! Tilahun was there in our personal life that we consider unforgettable. How many of us are there who remember our first love when we listen to his songs! How many of us are there who remember the hours we spent in tea- rooms of Addis in our youth listening to his songs! How many of us cried longing for our motherland listening Tilahun singing “Selamtaye Yidress”! How many of us courted we would be wives listening to his songs! How many of us named our kids after his name to show that we are his loyal fans!
Tilahun was a walking history that embodied the narrative of 5 decades of our lives in his songs. There is nothing that Tilahun did not touch in our life-say its politics, economy, patriotism, love, sorrow etc. Let’s just see some of the songs that reflect the milestones that shaped our political and social history. Tilahun sang almost about all of them directly or indirectly. Just remember the 1953 coup d’etat. What song comes to your mind? “Selecting, Merergn Even”(I can’t stand it anymore”) Yes, he paid the price for that song. He was imprisoned because that song was interpreted as a song that embodies a political message. Yes, Tilahun was reflecting in that song the mood of the people at that time. You may not think that Tilahun sang a song about the World War II experience. What about the song entitled “Korea Mezmeten Betam Ewodewalehu”. This song was about the experience of Ethiopian soldiers deployed to Korea.
You remember when nature turns it’s back on us in 1974? I am sure you remember the hunger named the Wollo Dirk. He was there with us, crying on television, singing about the suffering of his people. Just listen again the song “waye waye silu”(“calling for help”). You will watch him painting the pain of his countrymen.
What about the song entitled “Eyaleh Kalhone Keleleh Yelehim”(If you don’t have, You are done)? Was this song just about the universal truth of the power of money or is there any other meaning when we consider the period he sang. Mind you, the 1975-76 was the period we were warming up to learn eating rice. What about his songs about patriotism, love of country. Considering the above mentioned and other great songs of his don’t we have a ground to say he lived and wrote the past half-century’s Ethiopian history in his songs? That is how I feel and think. Tilahun didn’t get the chance to sing these songs, to be loved and admired by the public simply because he has a sweet voice. His unique ability to interpret songs is the main reason that makes him special. The Unsung Heroes of the time, lyrics, and melody writers Solomon Tesema, Major Girma Hadgo, Captain Afework Yohannes etc prefer to give their lyrics and melodies to Tilahun because of his unmatched voice command to deliver the message of his songs. It should not be surprised if every lyric and melody writer wishes Tilahun to sing his songs.
Tilahun was not simply a singer. He was a performer-singer. There are singers you prefer to listen to only their recordings. The professionals call them studio artists. There are singers that you simply watch them. There are singers that create a miracle on stage. And he is one of the miracle makers. Yes, life is unfair. Nature favors few people. He was among the favored one. He has everything that a singer needs to have- the voice, the look, the charisma, and stage magnetism. Is there anyone like Tilahun that has stage presence in Ethiopian music history? No one! That makes him unique. Tilahun is a singer you need to watch and listen. Why? Because he has extraordinary body language to communicate with audiences. Each and every of Tilahun’s gesture interprets his song amazingly. Even the way he looks a the camera at some points of a song, do convey his message. Go and watch his Sudanese Song that he sang in Khartoum many years back. You will see him making you feel that he is singing personally to you. This much is amazing the king!
Tilahun is a kind of singer that language barrier would not stop you to listen to him. Come on! Does one need to know Oromifa to listen “Selmaeka Yagene? Is there any kind of wall that stops listener to listen to his masterpiece “Akam Neguma Feyuma”? Not at all! We don’t have a tradition of biography writing. When we begin that tradition, he will be a gold mine for future biographers. Biographers would dig about his each and every song; they will study about the songs, the period and the situation in which he played them. He is a gold mine for future biographers. I hope they will study his each and every song, how he sing them, when, the period and their implication. And through studying his songs, they will keep a record about the history of Ethiopian modern music that he dominantly shaped. One of Tilahun’s extremely popular songs is “Chuhet Ayaskefam, Sileyu Tewado” Let me borrow the first two lines (stanza) of the lyric and use them to express my sorrow to our lose:
Chuhet Ayaskefam It is OK to cry
Sileyu Tewado when the king dies
Kezih Yebelete there is no sad news
Keyet Yimta Merdo bitter than this.
Tilahun Gessesse died on April 19, 2009 in, Addis Ababa as he was being taken to hospital by his wife. He had just returned to Ethiopia from the United States. He had been in poor health for several years due to diabetes. “Tilahun stood out as an artist of great renown with his lifetime contributions to Ethiopia’s modern music, which he popularized across the world”, said Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, His Holiness Abune Paulos said “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.” United States Ambassador Donald Yamamoto stated that “Ethiopians owe a great deal to the late Tilahun Gessesse, who promoted Ethiopian music across the world.
A candlelit vigil was held by friends and family in the garden of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa on the night of Wednesday 22 April.On Thursday April 23, 2009 a state funeral was held. About one million Ethiopians, including government officials, and entertainers, gathered in Mesquel Square, Addis Ababa and heard messages of condolence from the Prime Minister and President Girma Wolde-Giorgis. A funeral mass was held in Holy Trinity Cathedral Church. Messages of condolence from fans all over the world were posted on a memorial web site.
Source Ethio-king Blogspot