Teddy Afro's new album: Tikur Sew
Despite the release of several singles, mainly on the Internet, the last time Teddy Afro released an actual album was seven years ago in 2005. That album was Yasteseryal – an album that clearly hit a nerve with the Ethiopian regime, but also an album that literally took Teddy singing and dancing around the world. In 2006 alone, from Johannesburg to Dubai and Chicago to Jerusalem, Teddy had held concerts in 36 cities around the world singing songs from the album Yasteseryal.
Very few would disagree that Yasteseryal was by far the most successful album by any Ethiopian musician in the history of albums in recent years.
Yasteseryal and its astounding reception by the Ethiopian public raised the standard so high for Teddy himself and other artists that there were always going to be even higher expectations definitely of Teddy and perhaps of others too.
So after seven years since his last album was released, and more than three years since his own release from jail, Teddy has a new album.
He named his new album – Tikur Sew – after a song in the album dedicated to one of Ethiopia’s most famous 19th century emperors.
The emperor is Minilik and the song takes us on a journey to a historic event that took place in Ethiopia 116 years ago.
In 1896, Emperor Minilik mobilised the people of Ethiopia to fight an invading Italian army that crossed Ethiopian borders aiming to colonise the country.
The Emperor called upon all Ethiopians to rally behind him and defeat the Italians.
Ethiopians responded to the Emperor’s call turning up in their droves in the northern Ethiopian town of Adwa.
In what is now known as the Battle of Adwa, the people of Ethiopia, led by Emperor Minilik, defeated the Italians and it was the first time a European power was defeated in Africa.
In a continent that saw European colonisation continue up until 1975 in a country like Angola by the Portuguese, Ethiopia is the only country in Africa to have never been colonised – and no attempt was even made to colonise Ethiopia after the victory of Adwa.
The Victory of Adwa is well recorded in history. It is a source of pride for Africa and Ethiopia. Books have been written, films and plays have been made and songs have been written and sang to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives to secure the rare victory.
The last person to sing about Adwa was Gigi – a female singer of great talent – and she sang it beautifully. Her song doesn’t mention Emperor Minilik by name, but it is a true commemoration of the sacrifice of the men, women and children of Ethiopia at the time.
And now Teddy Afro feels it is his turn to base one of his songs on this historic Ethiopian victory.
In a typical Teddy Afro style, the song Tikur Sew is nothing short of a spectacle.
It is musically astute and gives its listeners a distinctive vibe that gets them in tune with Ethiopian folk dance and singing.
In a historical re-enactment, the song captures what would have been the mood of the battlefield when patriotic Ethiopians flocked to Adwa from every corner of the country eagerly to defend Ethiopia.
The collective voice of the people chanting “Ho! Ho!” is the theme of the song and works as a symbolic reminder of what Ethiopians achieved once when they spoke with one voice.
Tikur Sew has ample reference to a spectacular Ethiopian historic moment and rightly glorifies an Ethiopian emperor who kept the country’s sovereignty intact in the face of adversity.
The highpoint of the song is perhaps when it is stated in the lyrics that if it wasn’t for Emperor Mililik’s timely call upon all Ethiopians and the swift turnout and sacrifice that followed, Ethiopia would be a different place to the sovereign place that it is now.
But there is another dimension to the song. While various ethnic groups of the country made sacrifices to guarantee the victory gained at Adwa, some factions of the various Oromo ethnic groups are known to have been unhappy with what they regard as inadequate acknowledgement of their contributions. Some within these factions are also known to be less than impressed with Emperor Minilik himself on the grounds of perceived mistreatment of the ethnic group under his leadership.
Mindful of the controversies surrounding these claims and perceptions, Tikur Sew pays a special tribute to the sacrifices paid by the people of the Oromo ethnic groups during the Battle of Adwa by making their distinctive folk rhythm a major theme of the song.
It particularly draws attention to the infectious enthusiasm that would have been displayed by the people of the Oromo ethnic group in their response to Emperor Minilik's invitation to all Ethiopians to meet him at Adwa and defend their country from foreign aggression.
Even parts of the song's lyrics are in the Oromo language specially written by a renowned Oromo language songwriter which literally gives the song its grace.
In doing so, the song seeks to deliberately undermine the perceived rift between Emperor Minilik and the people of the Oromo ethnic group. But more importantly, the song seeks to promote better understanding, unity and reconciliation.
And this perhaps holds the key to Teddy Afro’s astounding success as an artist whose appeal crosses all boundaries.
Many will find the song pleasing to the ear and stimulating to the senses coupled with its ability to prompt the listener to pause to listen to the lyrics while in the middle of dancing to its tunes.
Teddy gave his admirers about three weeks to listen to his new album and to discuss and talk about the messages in the songs before he took them completely by surprise when he released a video clip for the song Tikur Sew.
Very simply put, the video clip is a masterpiece that will go down in history as a music video clip about a proud Ethiopian history without precedence. The victory of Adwa is without precedence and so is the video clip as a music video clip in Ethiopia.
With its re-enactment featuring hundreds of artist participants, the clip recreates the scene of the Battle of Adwa and gets the message across perfectly. It gets it accurately. There is no doubt that it is a very expensive production – it perhaps is the single most expensive music video production ever recorded in Ethiopia, but it simply is worth it.
When you look closely at the clip, you will find scenes that are similar to scenes that you would have seen in Michael Jackson’s Earth Song. The scene in Michael’s clip, half-way through the song, shows of him and others grabbing soil from the ground and slowly letting it go.
And the opening scene of Teddy’s Tikir Sew shows Teddy doing exactly the same.
This shows that Teddy as an artist has made a deliberate decision to get inspiration and learn from the best.
But why Teddy is drawn to the use of the subliminal messaging and connotative imagery of soil is very much worth examining.
The connotation of soil or earth is very similar to the human body because it deals with our roots, stability and foundations. For example, dream experts say that when we dream of dark, rich soil it is a message of fertility and birth, and suggests now is an optimal time to plant the seeds of our creativity with the promise of prime growth.
If we are viewing barren lands in our dreams, according to dream experts, it is time for renewal and one is advised to refresh their inner landscape.
Part of the clip’s opening scene shows Teddy grabbing two handful of soil from the ground of what looks like a graveyard on top of a hill in Adwa.
A graveyard is implied by the sight of a human remain on the ground.
This perfectly fits the narrative that Ethiopians are used to hearing about how their forbearers are watching them from the graveyards and how the current generation should maintain the legacy that they have inherited from those who stood up for Ethiopia and paid the ultimate sacrifice.
And so Teddy starts the clip by waking up the dead from their graveyards in Adwa.
As he stirs the graveyard to turn the clock back to 1896, Adwa looks covered in a cloud of dust and as the dust clears, the past is revealed.
The rest of the clip is a successful attempt to show the viewer how those who took part in the battle of Adwa defended Ethiopia turning up at the battlefield with a replica of the Arc of the Covenant, on foot and on horseback and waving the national flag with infectious patriotism.
And these evidently are the messages that Teddy wants his listeners/viewers to get out of his song and its clip.
But this is only the first of eleven songs in Teddy’s new album and there are issues that the current generation of Ethiopians is grappling with that are also discussed widely in the album.
It is no secret to anyone that the current generation of Ethiopians, either in the homeland or abroad, is enduring a painful and frustrating period of disunity.
In places outside of Ethiopia, Ethiopian community centers once known for their various vibrant cultural events designed to make everyone feel at home have now been reduced to places of bickering.
Even some have closed their doors altogether leaving countless Ethiopians without a place to practice their culture and without a place to seek the assistance they often need to survive and succeed in a foreign country.
Even places of worship that have stayed off-limits to conflicts over the generations, often playing the role of promoting unity and harmony, have become places of bitter hostilities and division. These disagreements have caused some dissatisfied groups to found their own places of worship, which comes at a cost to unity, progress and cohesion among Ethiopians.
In a country that a dictatorial government comfortably maintains its grip on power for decades driving its serious critics to near extinction, making ends meet is a struggle for many Ethiopians living in Ethiopia.
More than twenty years since the current government took control vowing to make Ethiopia self-sufficient in food production, not only has it remained reliant on outside support, but the country is now a leading recipient of emergency food aid.
Progress has stalled at the social and political level and love is literally scarce.
Hence Teddy’s songs Sele Fikir (Track 2) and Kelal Yihonal (Track 7).
Both of these songs discuss the scarcity of love among Ethiopians, which Teddy says is the main cause of Ethiopia’s current woes.
SeleFikir reminds us of Ethiopia’s proud history and how the country’s future needs to be guided by its glorious past.
It embarrassingly poses the question of how Ethiopians could go hungry when its land is so fertile, lush and green.
And it warns Ethiopians of more adverse consequences of the continuing disregard Ethiopians have for each other.
But Kelal Yihonal, on the other hand, is presented with a much more positive spin on the state of Ethiopians’ attitude towards the common problems that they face as a society.
The song assures Ethiopians that they need to carry on being strong and positive regardless of their current situation and vaguely indicates that they may be approaching the light at the end of the tunnel.
Kelal Yihonal says not only is tomorrow another day but it also says that tomorrow is a better day. It even suggests that it is foolish to think otherwise.
Yet, the song reaches its climax when the subtle but powerful voice of Ethiopian Laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin delivers a painful but honest remark on the fact that Ethiopians have come to fear love and unity. It is an excerpt from one of Tsegaye Gebrememdhin’s verses which was recorded not long before his death in 2006.
One of Africa's leading poets, playwrights and intellectuals who wrote an extensive list of original literature and translated some of Shakespeare's works to Amharic, Laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin died in February 2006 at the age of 69.
Tsegaye was known for many things in Ethiopia and around the world. And his love for Ethiopia and his life-long devotion to using his literature to educate Ethiopians about their history and his well-regarded reflections on the country’s direction have earned him a lot of respect among Ethiopians.
One could clearly feel Tsegaye’s sense of frustration in the verse that Teddy has picked to mesh in his song Kelal Yihonal.
There is also a blunt and deliberate song about Eritrea – a former state of Ethiopia made sovereign mainly by the help of the current Ethiopian regime. Fiorina (Track 10) is a song about the Eritrean capital Asmara (disguised as Fiorina the female lover) and how difficult it is to forget about her and move on.
The album could once again put Teddy on a collision course with the Ethiopian regime for a number of reasons.
The first and most obvious reason is that the song glorifies Emperor Minilik and some of the Emperor’s right-hand men. It gives complete credit to the Emperor and his decisive leadership for the victory of Adwa.
Giving credit to Emperor Minilik for the victory of Adwa is a fact that the current Ethiopian regime has publicly disputed particularly during the occasion of the 100 anniversary of the victory of Adwa 16 years ago.
At the time, the regime claimed the victory was particularly important for the people of Adwa and that official celebrations marking the victory would only be held in Adwa, and not in Addis Ababa as the nation’s the capital.
Given the regime’s policy of ethnic federalism and Adwa being the birthplace of the regime’s former head Meles Zenawi, the claim prompted outrage among Ethiopians.
Little to no mention was given to Emperor Minilik during the occasion, official ceremonies were held in Adwa (not in Addis) and the victory was repeatedly referred to as the victory of the people of Adwa.
Over the years, there have been many voices attempting to set the record straight and Teddy’s song Tikur Sew is just the latest of the many voices telling history like it is.
And for these reasons, Tikur Sew will not be music to the ears of the government. A song that hopes for a better day so that Ethiopians and Eritreans can live together again is also a song that the government will despise along with a song that features Laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin who was a fierce critic of the government.
The album also features a reggae-inspired hit song about Africa that tells the story of an African identity that remains intact regardless of one’s whereabouts.
The wide-ranging album also hosts Teddy’s latest love songs that are lyrically appealing and musically sensational.
Not only are his love songs as sensational as ever, but their release was also followed by a sensational official announcement by Teddy that he had a girlfriend and was planning to start a married life in the foreseeable future.
He appeared on a local FM radio in Addis Ababa to talk about his newfound love.
The journalist asked if there was a song in the new album that he sang particularly for his girlfriend and he replied: “not on this occasion, but absolutely will do in the future.”
For an artist of this much talent and passion, writing and singing a song for his partner would be naturally easy. He has to date sang about love, Ethiopia, his father, Emperor Haile Selassie, Emperor Minilik, Athelet Haile Gebreselassie, Athelet Kenenissa Bekele, Bob Marley, Africa, Asmara and more.
This is a passionate artist that is fast becoming a brand in his own right – not an organisation, but an organised individual.
We give the album the following stars:
Befekir Kebede | Tuesday, 12 June 2012