Alemayehu Eshete, Singer Known as the ‘Abyssinian Elvis,’ Dies at 80
He became a swaggering star in the late 1960s, when Addis Ababa experienced a golden age of night life and music. Decades later, he was rediscovered.,
Alemayehu Eshete, a soulful Ethiopian pop singer widely known as the “Abyssinian Elvis” who became a star in the 1960s when a cultural revolution took hold of Addis Ababa, died on Sept. 2 at a hospital there. He was 80.
Gilles Fruchaux, the president of Mr. Eshete’s reissue label, Buda Musique, confirmed the death.
For years under Haile Selassie’s imperial rule, Ethiopia’s music industry was controlled by the state. Orchestras dutifully performed patriotic songs at government events, while defiant bands played Little Richard songs at night in clubs. It was forbidden to record and distribute music independently.
“All the musicians used to work for the government,” Mr. Eshete said in a 2017 documentary about the era, “Ethiopiques: Revolt of the Soul.” “When they told you to perform, you had to perform. We were treated like average workers, not like real artists.”
But in the late 1960s, as Selassie grew old and the grip of his rule loosened, Addis Ababa experienced a golden age of night life and music, and Mr. Eshete became a swaggering star of the so-called “swinging Addis” era.
The sound that dominated this period was distinct: an infectious blend of Western-imported blues and R&B with traditional Ethiopian folk music. It was typified by hypnotic saxophone lines, funky electric guitar stabs and grooving piano riffs.
As a teenager, Mr. Eshete was smitten with American rock ‘n’ roll, and his idol was Elvis Presley, so when he started singing in the clubs of Addis he imitated his hero. He sported a pompadour and wore big collared shirts as he gyrated onstage.
“I dressed like an American, grew my hair, sang ‘Jailhouse Rock,'” he told The Guardian in 2008. “But the moment that I started singing Amharic songs, my popularity shot up.”
He was soon enlisted in the fabled Police Orchestra, a state-run band composed of Ethiopia’s finest musicians, and he began playing with the ensemble at government functions in the city. After hours, he found refuge in the underground music scene.
In 1969, the defiant act of Mr. Eshete and a young record shop owner named Amha Eshete (no relation) galvanized the scene.
Amha Eshete decided to found a label, Amha Records, to commit to vinyl the Ethiopian pop music that bands were performing in clubs. Few musicians were willing to flout the law with him until Alemayehu Eshete stepped forward and offered to record the funky tune “Timarkialesh,” and Amha then had it manufactured as a 45 r.p.m. single in India.
When copies of the record arrived, and Amha played it from a loudspeaker in his Harambee Music Shop, people started dancing outside and stopped traffic. The single became a hit, and when the government turned a blind eye toward this transgression, the city’s musical revolution exploded.
Amha Records went on to release the work of giants of Ethiopian music like the vocalist Mahmoud Ahmed and the composer Mulatu Astatke. Mr. Eshete went on to found the Alem-Girma Band with the pianist and arranger Girma Beyene. He also became known for writing socially conscious songs, like “Temar Lije” (“Study, My Son”), which stressed the importance of education.
But a Communist military junta, the Derg, took control of Ethiopia in the mid-1970s, and the swing in Addis came to an end.
In what became known as the Ethiopian Red Terror, the Derg ousted Selassie, and thousands were massacred. A curfew extinguished night life in Addis and musicians left the country in droves, creating a lost generation of Ethiopian musical stars.
Amha Eshete, who died in April, opened a nightclub and restaurant in Washington; Girma Beyene, who also landed there, became a gas station attendant. Alemayehu Eshete remained in Ethiopia to raise his family. He continued working as a musician under the Derg and returned to singing patriotic songs at state-sponsored events.
“That time was hell,” he told The Guardian. “I was ordered to sing a song in Korean for Kim Il-sung, which I learned, though I had no idea what I was singing.”
When the regime was overthrown nearly two decades later, much of the world didn’t know what had transpired musically in swinging Addis.
But that changed in 1997 when a French musicologist, Francis Falceto, produced the first album in the acclaimed series “Ethiopiques,” which compiled the era’s lost treasures. Released on the Buda Musique label, the project, which now consists of 30 titles, ignited international interest in Ethiopian music. Two releases in the series are devoted to Mr. Eshete’s work.
“Alemayehu is an icon of that era,” Mr. Falceto said in a phone interview. “He is a legend of the music of modern Ethiopia.”
Alemayehu Eshete Andarge was born in June 1941 in Addis Ababa. His father, Eshete Andarge, was a taxi driver. His mother, Belaynesh Yusuf, was a homemaker.
As a boy, Alemayehu liked watching Elvis Presley movies and singing Presley songs for his friends at school. Dreaming of stardom in Hollywood, he once ran away from home, hitching a ride to a port city in Eritrea, where he hoped to board a ship bound for America. His mission was foiled when someone got in touch with his family and he was sent home.
Mr. Eshete is survived by his wife, Ayehu Kebede Desta; seven children; and six grandchildren.
As Addis Ababa entered the new millennium, its musical past was revisited as part of a cultural revival. Young musicians played the old songs with reverence, and lost classics became radio hits again. Mr. Eshete began performing every Wednesday at a venue called the Jazzamba Lounge.
In 2008, Mr. Eshete and three other notable Ethiopian musicians, Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke and the saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya, performed together at the Barbican in London and at the Glastonbury festival. In New York, backed by the New England-based Either/Orchestra, Mr. Eshete played at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park.
“Mr. Eshete was at his charismatic best,” Nate Chinen wrote in a review of that show in The New York Times. “Each verse began with a single clarion note and then plunged into rapid-fire patter. He tried a few other approaches in his set, like an insinuative croon and a bark befitting his nickname, the Ethiopian James Brown.”
A funeral ceremony attended by hundreds was held for Mr. Eshete at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. An orchestra played before his coffin was driven away. Just months earlier, Mr. Eshete’s music had echoed across the square when he performed there with a band and sang his song, “Addis Ababa Bete” (“Addis Ababa, My Home”).
Mr. Eshete had recorded that tune, a funky love letter to his city, in 1971 with his fellow musical outlaw, Amha. They sold it from Amha’s defiant little record shop, where it quickly became a hit and set swinging Addis on fire.