I Possess My Own Unique Timbre, Ornamentation, And Musical Understanding

YEMariam “YEMa” Chernet, an Ethiopian singer based in Addis Ababa, captivates listeners with her gentle yet powerful voice, showcasing her intimately forceful style and lush musicality on her debut album, “Yedega Sew.” Inspired by Ethiopian songs’ traditional fluttering vocal passions, YEMa skillfully brings them into a contemporary realm reminiscent of the accomplished Ejigayehu Shibabaw. Produced by Eyuel Mengistu, head of Yared School of Music, and featuring talented artists like lyricist Yilma Gebreab, drummer Teferi Assefa, and Kora player Jose Braima Galissa, YEMa’s album reflects delicate fusions and defies cultural boundaries. With a narrative between various instruments, including mesenko, dita, washint, philas, and kora, the album captures both reflective and fiery moments. YEMa, the daughter of a former music manager, grew up surrounded by music and began exploring her vocal talents at an early age. Her collaboration with Eyuel started in Ramada Addis, leading to various musical experiments and projects. YEMa’s voice and style have drawn comparisons to the renowned artist Gigi, but she embraces the honour and burden while striving to develop her unique sound and style. In an exclusive interview with EBR’s Eden Teshome, YEMa discusses her musical journey, influences, and aspirations.

Your debut album, “Yedega Sew”, beautifully merges traditional Ethiopian sounds with contemporary elements. Can you share with us the inspiration behind this unique fusion?

Before my debut album’s release, I had finished another album with a more modern, commercial sound, heavily influenced by foreign music and devoid of any folk music elements. However, everything changed when my producer, Eyuel Mengistu, and I embarked on a research trip to Gamo, Bonke, as part of his music thesis. There, we were captivated by the breathtaking, intricate, and culturally rich indigenous music of the Gamo people. This experience was a turning point, leading us to abandon our initial album and embark on a new musical journey infused with strong national pride. Inspired by this encounter, we delved deep into the world of Gamo music, thoroughly exploring through the lenses of musical anthropology and ethnographic study alongside Eyuel.

How has your upbringing in Addis Ababa, surrounded by music and influential musicians, shaped your artistic journey and contributed to your musical style?

My childhood was filled with typical games and play, but my early exposure to music was through my father, Ato Chernet Kebede, who owned a music band then. Many famous musicians would come to our house to study, including the instrumentalists Elias Melka, Amanuel Yilma, Daniel Kindeya, Misgana, Desta, and Dagmawi Ali. Vocalists like Tsedenia G/Markos, Johnny Raga, Teddy Raga, and Tegest Bekele also came to our house to study music. As my older sister told me, we would sneak peeks and watch these musicians practice. Singing along to songs on television and performing for family and relatives fueled my passion for music from a young age. These experiences shaped my artistic journey and contributed to my musical style.

Your collaboration with Eyuel Mengistu has resulted in a captivating album. Can you tell us about the creative process and the dynamics of working with such a talented producer?

Eyuel’s leadership was instrumental to our success; this album wouldn’t have been possible without him. We dedicated long hours to our work, from early morning until late at night. The process was both exhausting and fulfilling. Eyuel had a dream, a vision he had shared since we first met. While he had already accomplished various musical works, he aspired to create something significant that would leave a lasting impact on Ethiopian music, and he wanted to achieve this with me. We embarked on this journey together. Previously, my repertoire mainly consisted of English and modern Amharic music, so transitioning to the folk style was challenging and meticulous. Eyuel tailored all the songs to suit my style, and his guidance was invaluable throughout the process. Collaborating with him was a remarkable experience; we achieved excellent results together.

The songs on your album feature a variety of traditional Ethiopian instruments, such as the mesenko, dita, washint, and kora. How did you decide to incorporate these specific instruments, and what do they bring to your music’s overall sound and storytelling?

We aimed to create a folk and world music sound for the album and to achieve this; we specifically incorporated traditional Ethiopian, African, and other indigenous musical instruments. We wanted to highlight instruments not commonly heard in the Ethiopian music recording industry. From the beginning of the album’s production, our primary objective was to showcase the musical culture of Ethiopia to a global audience. We carefully selected the instruments we wanted to include, combining our folk instruments and musical traditions with those from other cultures worldwide. The integration of these instruments resulted in a harmonious blend and added depth and emotion to the songs, enhancing the overall sound and storytelling of the music.

Your recent soundtrack, “Aye”, for the film “Doka”, showcased your versatility as an artist. How did you approach creating music for a movie, and what did you aim to convey through your composition?

During the Yedega Sew music project, Mahder Assefa, the executive producer of Doka and director Kidist Yilma, had the opportunity to listen to a sample of Yedega Sew’s arrangement. Impressed by the music, they approached Eyuel to create a film score for Doka. Eyuel composed more than 17 tracks specifically for the film. Among them, he envisioned one track to be sung by a solo vocalist. Surprisingly, he wrote the lyrics and melody in just 5 minutes and recorded a sample with me. Eyuel and the film’s executive producer and director loved the song, and I also found it incredibly captivating. The message, lyrics, melody, and arrangement were all exceptional. As a result, they proposed that I record that particular track, which ultimately became the official soundtrack for this international movie.

You’ve been compared to the renowned artist Gigi. How do you navigate the challenges and expectations of such comparisons while still striving to develop your unique sound and style?

Gigi holds a special place in my heart as one of my favourite artists and a tremendous source of inspiration. While the comparisons can be intimidating and overwhelming, I do not deserve to be compared to her, as she is truly the queen of Ethiopian music. However, being considered Gigi’s potential successor is a tremendous honour. As an artist, I aspire to be recognized and called YEMa. It is common for new artists to face such challenges, often being associated with more established singers. With time, this will change. I understand why people draw comparisons, especially considering Gigi’s significant contributions to indigenous, folk, and world Ethiopian music. However, it is essential to note that Gigi’s and my albums have distinct characteristics. I have never attempted to imitate her in any way. I possess my unique timbre, ornamentation, and musical understanding. Fortunately, more and more people are recognizing the distinctiveness and individuality of my music.

What themes and emotions do you explore in your lyrics, and how do they resonate with your personal experiences and the experiences of your audience?

The essence of my lyrics can be compared to a blend of gold and wax. The wax represents the realm of love stories, while the gold delves into broader themes of humanity, diversity, and our rich cultural heritage that binds us together in harmony. One of the remarkable aspects of my music is its openness to multiple interpretations. People can interpret the songs in their unique ways, and that’s what I find fascinating. Although the lyrics are penned by Golla Goh, Eyuel Mengistu, Yilma Gebreab, and Aynalem Hazo, one song profoundly resonates with me. It’s titled “Birk Birk” and serves as the 10th track of the album.

As an emerging talent in the music industry, what are your aspirations and goals for the future? Do you want to convey a particular direction or message through your music?

My primary aspiration is to embark on a musical journey alongside my producer, exploring and immersing ourselves in the diverse and vibrant musical cultures within Ethiopia and worldwide. We aim to collect and study music from the field, seeking a deeper understanding and analysis of these rich musical traditions. Our objective is to contemporize and infuse these influences into our work. As an artist, I aim to continue spreading love and unity and celebrating culture, mainly focusing on my beloved motherland, Ethiopia, through music.

How has your perspective on music and its role in society evolved throughout your career, and how do you see your music contributing to the cultural landscape of Ethiopia and beyond?

Throughout my career, my perspective on music has undergone a transformative shift. I have transitioned from viewing music solely as entertainment to recognizing its profound role in upholding the social fabric and preserving culture. Music and society are intricately intertwined, with music serving as a powerful expression of a community’s identity. The songs associated with weddings, mourning, rituals, and other significant occasions are unique to each society, reflecting their distinct cultural heritage. In my music, I draw inspiration from these collective musical cultures of Ethiopia, blending them with elements from world musical traditions. Through my work, I aim to contribute to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Ethiopia’s rich musical heritage, playing a part in preserving and celebrating our cultural landscape.

Women have played a significant role in Ethiopian music throughout history. Are there any female artists who have influenced or inspired you on your musical journey?

Throughout my musical journey, I have been deeply influenced and inspired by several remarkable female artists who contributed significantly to Ethiopian music. Icons such as Aslefech Ashene, Getenesh Kibret, Asegedech Assefa, Asnakech Worku, and Ejigayehu Shibabaw have left an indelible mark on me. Their talent, artistry, and dedication to their craft are a constant source of inspiration.

How do you navigate the challenges and stereotypes for women in the music industry, and what advice do you have for other aspiring female musicians who face similar obstacles?

As a woman forging my path in the music industry, I am aware of the specific challenges that arise from late-night performances, studio sessions, and engaging with diverse individuals. While acknowledging these obstacles, I firmly believe in women’s strength and intelligence, enabling us to navigate our journeys with resilience. Women must make informed choices in their relationships and career endeavours, ensuring that nothing hinders their progress. My advice to aspiring female musicians facing similar obstacles is to stay true to themselves, surround themselves with a supportive network, and never lose sight of their goals. They can overcome stereotypes and thrive in the music industry with determination and perseverance.

On International Women’s Day, what message do you have for women who aspire to pursue their passion for music or any other art form but may face societal barriers or self-doubt?

I offer encouragement and support for women aspiring to pursue their passion for music or any other art form, particularly in the face of societal barriers or self-doubt. Believe in your talents and the unique perspective you bring to the table. Surround yourself with allies who uplift and champion your aspirations. Remember that your voice and creativity are invaluable, and the world eagerly anticipates the brilliance that only you can offer. Trust in yourself, stay determined, and never waver in your pursuit of your passions. You can break down barriers and inspire others through your art. EBR

12th Year • March 2024 • No. 127

Eden Teshome

Editor-in-Chief of Ethiopian Business Review (EBR). She can be reached at eden.teshome@ethiopianbusinessreview.net

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