'Because of our government, our country is divided'

He greets me in the living room, padding around in a tracksuit and socks. The house is in a bit of a mess, and he apologises – they’re clearing up the remains of an album launch party over the weekend. He and his manager are in high spirits. Three days earlier, they released Ethiopia, his fifth studio album; it had a record $650,000 recording budget, was the fastest-selling record in the country’s history, and topped Billboard’s world albums chart. Teddy’s relief is palpable – the release was beset by delays – as he settles into a chair and begins outlining his philosophy. “Art is closer to magic than logic,” he says, beaming cheerfully.

It is difficult to overstate Teddy Afro’s popularity and importance in Ethiopia today. “His level of celebrity is simply unprecedented,” says Heruy Arefe-Aine, the organiser of the country’s Ethiopian Music festival.

Ethiopia has long had a remarkably unified pop music culture – a national canon heard on buses and in bars across the country – but even in this context, Teddy stands out. He is the only artist of his generation to have risen to the level of Mahmoud Ahmed and Aster Aweke, the two greats of post-1960 Ethiopian pop, but at home at least he has comfortably outrun them both. Moreover, his significance reaches well beyond national borders: his popularity among the 2-million-strong Ethiopian diaspora, especially in the US, is unparalleled. The Ethio-Canadian R&B singer the Weeknd has cited him as a major influence.

But he is also a controversial figure. In 2008, he was imprisoned for a hit-and-run offence, which he has always denied he was responsible for. Many regard the jail sentence as a politically motivated move by Ethiopia’s authoritarian government, and a reaction to his 2005 album Yasteseryal, released in the year of a hotly disputed election. The lead single, whose video featured archive footage of the former emperor Haile Selassie and the bloody revolution that followed his reign, was interpreted by many as an indictment of everything that followed the emperor’s demise, including the current regime.

He became, perhaps somewhat unintentionally, a flag-waver for the Ethiopian opposition, a reputation he has maintained. The song is still, for all practical purposes, banned.

He makes for an unlikely political radical, and indeed his manager makes clear from the outset that politics is off the agenda. But he is nonetheless keen to explain the new album’s message. Lyrics are everything in Ethiopian music, and his – rich in idiom, allusion and wordplay – have excited his fans ever since he broke on to the scene in the early 00s. He argues that the country, under a state of emergency after violent anti-government protests last year, is slipping backwards. “We used to be a model for Africa,” he says, “but, because of our government, our country is divided.” The album is a call for unity and the rehabilitation of Ethiopia’s glorious past. “This younger generation is in a dilemma about their history,” he continues. “I feel a responsibility to teach them about the good things from their history. They should be proud of their achievements.”

Teddy Afro on stage in New York.

Glancing references to the government aside, this is fairly inoffensive stuff. But in fact the politics are tricky. At the centre of the album is the story of Emperor Tewodros II, a 19th-century warrior-king whose rule is often seen as marking the beginning of modern Ethiopian history. “He fought and died for this country,” says Teddy, gesturing at a painting of the monarch on the living room wall, and pointing out that they share the same name. But the problem for many of Teddy’s critics is that his is a fiercely disputed view of that history. To many modern Ethiopians, Tewodros represents feudalism and imperialism. To some, his rule was characterised by the conquest and subjugation of other ethnic groups. But to his supporters, he united the country and resisted European colonialism.

Teddy’s previous album, Tikur Sew, released in 2012, did something similar for an even more controversial figure, Emperor Menelik II, hero of the Battle of Adwa in 1896, which saw the defeat of the invading Italians, but also the man responsible for the conquest of much of modern-day Ethiopia. Teddy, like Tewodros, Menelik and Selassie, hails from the Amharic-speaking part of Ethiopia; his critics see him as peddling a sort of nostalgic Amhara nationalism. His living room also contains an original sword belonging to Menelik, the old imperial flag, and a photograph of Selassie. “The younger generation need to know what our fathers did for this country,” he says. “It is clear that Menelik fought for Ethiopia, for unity, and against colonialism.”

 

Although the album Ethiopia contains an eclectic mix of influences (the second track, Semberé, could be by Manu Chao), and lyrics in several of Ethiopia’s 88 languages, Teddy remains in many ways an Amhara musician. He recalls sitting as a young child on the knee of Hirut Bekele, a popular Amhara vocalist from the 60s and 70s, as she performed in small clubs in Addis Ababa. “She was like a queen,” he remembers. His early work was reggae-infused but in his recent albums he has returned to a more recognisably Ethiopian sound, though funkier and insistently catchy. Traditional vibrato vocals, the itchy triplets of traditional Amharan rhythms, highly polished synth-heavy production: all this is the language of modern Ethiopian pop.

The latter has often been a source of frustration to Ethiopia’s musical old guard, who lament the lack of instrumentation among the younger generation, although Teddy points out that a live band plays on the album’s final track. He is a child of two musicians – his mother was a dancer who toured the world, his father a songwriter for a police orchestra in 50s Addis Ababa – but he came of age in the 80s under the military regime known as the Derg, when live music all but disappeared as a result of a strict overnight curfew that lasted for 16 years. Like most pop stars of his generation who began their career amid the heady post-Derg optimism of the late-90s club circuit, Teddy sings and plays keyboard.

It is perhaps for this reason that Teddy is almost unheard of beyond Ethiopia and its diaspora. Despite its distinctly Ethiopian vernacular, his music is still pop: cosmopolitan and perfect for dancing to. Musicians such as Mahmoud Ahmed or Mulatu Astatke (the father of Ethiopian jazz) appeal to western audiences drawn to a more exotic sound, complete with live bands. Teddy doesn’t offer that. But in any case, his focus is closer to home. “This is a dangerous time,” he says. “My priority now is Ethiopia.”

Share this post

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TechnoratiSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn
Rate this item
(2 votes)

87962 comments

  • Ebony

    Ebony - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    Hey there I am so delighted I found your webpage, I really found you by error, while I was browsing on Askjeeve for something else, Anyways I am here
    now and would just like to say thank you for a marvelous post and a
    all round thrilling blog (I also love the theme/design), I don't have time to look over
    it all at the minute but I have bookmarked it and
    also included your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the excellent job.

  • btgcusia

    btgcusia - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    [url=http://goplayonlinecasinos.com/]free casino video slots cleopatra powerdaddy[/url] online casino best online casino games free

  • Astrid

    Astrid - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    I believe everything published made a great deal of sense.
    But, think about this, suppose you were to create
    a awesome title? I ain't suggesting your information isn't good, but what if you added something to possibly grab a person's attention? I
    mean ligabanews - 'Because of our government, our country
    is divided' is kinda boring. You might look at Yahoo's front page and watch how they create news titles to
    grab people to click. You might try adding a video or a related pic or two to get readers excited about everything've got to say.

    Just my opinion, it could bring your posts a little bit more interesting.

  • frankfurt oder nutten

    frankfurt oder nutten - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    Dating Tips but our generation has a lot of options and means to date. If you are really making an effort to change things you dislike about yourself, your efforts are sure to make a big impression. The tanist elected from clan freemen who shared the same great-grandfather [url="http://aohobbynuttenrw.lessi.icu"]http://aohobbynuttenrw.lessi.icu[/url] in the event you do choose to depart your profile unfinished for now, the location will occasionally prompt you with one other few steps to complete, which may be annoying.

  • Ava

    Ava - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    Awesome things here. I am very glad to look your article.
    Thank you so much and I am taking a look forward to contact you.
    Will you please drop me a mail?

  • cheap non owners insurance Pine Bluff AR

    cheap non owners insurance Pine Bluff AR - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    Olá&Gostaria de saber onde posso comprar as bolsas da Lez a Lez aqui no meu estado: Alagoas& Preferencialmente as lojas na cidade de Arapiraca e na Capital, Maceió.Obrigada!

  • fetter nutte

    fetter nutte - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    Small habits of each partner starts to get on the others nerves. One other Zoosk member, Magen, started on-line courting simply as a approach to have some much needed grownup time before she discovered it was a way to make an actual connection with somebody special. Publisher: Teecee Go You are bound to be hurt greatly if it reaches a point where your husband is falling out of love with you [url="http://gusseisenkokotte.lessi.icu"]http://gusseisenkokotte.lessi.icu[/url]

  • altebehaarte nutten in nrw

    altebehaarte nutten in nrw - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    You need time for yourself / work / friends / sex, and time for your child. The exit is that you will need to know who you search. I want to see how often online dating works [url="http://nutteninwilhelmshaven.lessi.icu"]nutten in[/url] the idea of dating online may have moved away from the shy hidden world of yesteryear into the liberated acceptability of the 21st century.

  • Elaine

    Elaine - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    Wow, fantastic blog structure! How long have you been blogging
    for? you make running a blog look easy. The full look of your site is magnificent, as neatly as the content!

  • car insurance rates Auburn AL

    car insurance rates Auburn AL - Thursday, 25 April 2019

    Szia!Cserkó: abszolút ugyanígy reagálok - sajnos, mert cseresznyefa pont van a kertben és bőségesen terem. Sajnos egy idő után bekukacosodik.Tortád: gyönyörű, és külön lenyűgöz a túró könnyű hab formájában alkalmazva!Eper: nagyon szerettem menni az eperföldekre, de inkább enni, mint befőzni. Amit hazahoztunk, azt is mindig befaltuk pár nap alatt. De láttam, hogy vannak, akik lelkesen befőzik...

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.

Information for All

Go to top