Girma Beyene’s Comeback after Three Decades
Girma Beyene, a man of touching passion and respect for love, is once again in studio. Very uncommon in Ethiopia, this refined artist is known for singing for his beloved wife.
Girma is one of the stars from the 1960s and 70s, known as the golden age of Ethiopian music. Though he plays across several genres, Girma is especially passionate about Jazz. He has already set a profound legacy in the genre. Girma, a popular Ethiopian lyricist, composer, arranger, vocalist, and pianist, recently released an album entitled Ethiopiques 30 – Mistakes on Purpose. EBR’s Hiwot Salelew discusses bout his resonate contributions to the Ethiopian music, his new album and some personal issues to prepare the profile of the living legend.Girma Beyene was among a few musicians that put their mark and excelled in the Ethiopian music industry. He was among the pioneer instrument musicians of the golden era of Ethiopian vinyl records, 1960s and 1970s. During the heydays of this ara, also known as prime album record production period, Girma, who mastered many talents ranging from playing piano, writing lyrics and singing as well as re-conceptualization of previously composed works, arranged 65 songs and collaborated on 25 music tracks in addition to recording four songs as a vocalist.
Born in Addis Ababa in 1950 according to some records, Girma completed his primary education at the Nativity Catholic Cathedral School. His relentless effort to play music bore fruit at early age while perusing secondary education. He received a positive feedback while playing music at the then Haile Selassie I Theatre. This opened the opportunity for him to practice with the Orchestra in the Theatre during school breaks.
In 1963, Girma joined the Ras Band although he didn’t have formal training to play music instrument or arrange music. In the mid 1960s after the first Ras Hotel Band renamed itself at The Ghion Band, Girma formed the second Ras Band.
In 1965, he formed The Girmas Band with the late Girma Zemariam, a drummer. He left the band in 1970 to form the All Star Band. However, he stayed in this band for less than three years. He then formed Alem Girma Band with Alemayehu Eshete and arranged 30 well-known songs for Alemayehu including Addis Ababa Bete, Yewoine Haregitu and Teredchewalehu.
After 1974, Girma joined the Walias Band and participated, arranged and composed as many as 300 tunes.
Girma’s career started to fade at the beginning of 1980s. In 1981, some members of the Walias including himself decided to remain in the United States while the Band was on tour. Although he played music for one year with the Walias in the USA, Girma had to eventually change his career to cope with the situation in Los Angeles, California. .
Since then, Girma has been dreaming to come back to the music industry. On July 2017, Girma realized his dream and released his album entitled ‘Mistake on Purpose’, three decades after he stopped participating in music.
Although it has been decade long time since he stopped performing music, Girma says it wasn’t that much difficult to get back and play music. “I [always] listen to music; even while I am engaged in my business,” he told EBR. “I used my own strategy to get back to playing music. [That] worked for me.”
Many agree that his collaboration with Akale Wube Band to release the latest edition into the prestigiously rich and artistically tantalizing Etiopiques series is a testament to Girma’s enduring musical calibre. His latest album includes 14 tracks featuring a mix of original composition and covers Ethiopian songs, which he himself wrote; a few others were also composed and played by other musicians.
“When we practice to prepare the album, we mixed each tracks and upgraded their level,” Girma explains. “When a song is played again after many years, it should evolve to a new height.”
In fact, Girma says such evolution of old musics that are included in his latest album is the reason for naming the album ‘Mistakes on Purpose’. “When music is played after many years it pumps up and takes a different shape,” he explains. “Although some listeners might think it is a mistake to change the tone of the musics, it was done on purpose to improve their quality.”
Girma left a relatively few recordings as a vocalist but it was as an arranger and pianist that he is still known. In fact, many regard him as one of Ethiopia’s most revered jazz troupes such as Mulatu Astatke.
Of course, when the issue of Ethio-Jazz is raised, one man comes to mind of many Ethiopians, Mulatu Astatkie. Yet, there are many influential musicians who also worked scrupulously to transform the country’s musical landscape in the 1960s and 70s with the introduction of Ethio-Jazz. Great names that stand out in this include Gétatchew Mèkurya, Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astatkie, and Alemayehu Eshete.
However, Francis Falceto, who has been working in Ethiopian music since 1977 as an artistic advisor of music festivals; and later as a curator and producer of Ethiopiques series, argues that it is not appropriate to consider Girma’s music as jazz. “I agree that his latest album is largely jazz oriented,” he told EBR. “But, there is often confusion about jazz in Ethiopia, in general.”
For Falceto jazz is often instrumental music; though, of course, there are many jazz vocalists who sing largely based on improvisation. “Girma, Alemayehu and Mahmoud are not jazz singers – according to what jazz means. They are simply brilliant Ethiopian Pop singers, aren’t they?” questions Falceto.
Falceto also produced Alberto Neumann’s piano music album entitled ‘Perpetual Tango’ in 1995. In addition, he collaborated with Algerian Maurice El Medioni to produce his piano music album “Pianoriental” released in 2005. However, Falceto is more known for producing Ethiopiques albums, which are a series of compact discs released since 1997. Many of the CDs compile various singles and albums released during 1960s and 70s. Prominent singers who appeared on Ethiopiques series include Alemayehu Eshetie, Asnakech Worku, Mahmoud Ahmed and Tilahun Gessesse.
Falceto does not hold back from praising Girma’s contribution in Ethiopian music. In fact, he described Girma as one of the pioneering generations of artists that has a huge influence on the current Ethiopian music in his book Abyssinia Swing, a pictorial history of modern Ethiopian music.
Paradoxically obscure for many and yet someone who has intimately touched the hearts and souls of millions of Ethiopians through the mastery of his music, many of his colleagues and music professionals agree that Girma is the embodiment of a daring, groundbreaking musical revolution which resulted in what is arguably the golden era of modern Ethiopian music during the late 1960’s and 1970’s.
An accomplished vocalist in his own right, a brilliant lyricist and a titan music arranger, his enchanting musical genius is recognized by his fellow artists and fans as mystically inspiring and his work continues to influence young musicians today. With the coming of successive generations, Girma’s music has stood the test of time and transcended as soundtracks for a nostalgic state of mind.
Girma says he has contributed for the fusion of Ethio-Jazz. However, artists such as Mulatu have been expanding Ethio-Jazz by writing, composing, arranging and performing Ethio-jazz to the world. “Mulatu has been providing opportunities to many young artists by arranging concerts in his night club, African Jazz Village, where jazz and reggae are performed,” points out Girma. “The influence of Ethio-jazz has been far reaching and you can hear that distinctly Ethiopian sound in a lot of modern music, from pop and soul to funk.”
Oliver Degabriele, electric bass player in Akale Wube band that accompanied Girma in his latest album, stresses that it is a [big] luck for Ethiopian music that Girma decided to get back to the scene. “He was active in the early years, having wrote and arranged a large number of music for himself and other bands,” says Degabriele. “We are proud to be accompanying him on his comeback.”
Established in 2009, Akale Wube is a Paris based band. Girma has been working with them since 2015. “In 2016, we collaborated and started performing on stage,” he says. “It was a great collaboration because we practice for 15 consecutive days in their studio. We are now doing a promotion on my latest album.”
In 2016, Girma performed in Paris, Amsterdam and New York. “During my tour, I received a great [deal of] appreciation. I [always] play while in unison with my instinct. When you [do so], your performance becomes new and real [even as time goes],’ Girma reveals the secret of his amazing stage performance.
To promote his latest album, Girma is planning in concerts in the USA, France, Spain and Portugal. He also plans to release another album. “I would like to take jazz into another height by improving my music.” EBR
5th Year • August 2017 • No. 53