getatchew mekurya – antchi hoye

Deeeeeep music from 1970s Ethiopia.

Here’s an interview with Getatchew Mekurya published by Ethiopian Reporter in January 2012. I’ve reproduced it here as it seems it is no longer available at the original location.

The King of Sax Shining on the World Stage

Ethiopia being labeled as a nation of warriors, most of the songs and the stories in the past revolved around patriotism. Whenever there is a mention of freedom-fighters, there were also great musicians in the background inspiring and lifting up their morale.

The musicians gave courage to the warriors before these went to the battle through shellela (traditional pep song). The first instrumental recording of the shellela was done by Getachew Mekuria, a veteran saxophone player. With the unforgettable stage performance, in his lion’s mane headgear, he takes the audience on a journey and tells the unique story of patriotism and heroism of fellow countrymen. Despite a negative attitude towards the musicians at the time, Getachew enrolled in the music career in 1948.  Many musicians describe him as “exceptional”, with the ability to perform long hours on the stage. He is also perceived as someone innovative, as he brought back the old sounds into a new flavor. Through the years, he produced unforgettable works like Akale Wube, Shellela and others. Now shining on the world stage, Getachew is touring the world with his sax and unique style of music. Inspired by his music, a French music group named their band after one of his songs, Akale Wube. Back from one of his big concerts in London, Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter takes a peek at his six decades of musical journey. 

How was your recent concert in England?

It was really amazing and I tried to give my best performance. I always thought that I had most of my fan base in France, but what I understood now is that they are all over Europe. Whenever I had concert in one of the countries in Europe, the concert will be sold out and people are cheering me on everywhere. For this concert, I performed with the Ex Band (a Dutch band) and we also had a couple of other concerts as well. One of the concerts was at a football stadium with a huge crowd.  The whole ambience was great. The Ex Band comes here often; apparently they were in my house for the Ethiopian Christmas. For me the music is what matters; it is not about the place but many people do not understand this concept. I did a concert for ten birr back in the days and still now I do it only with 7,000 birr here in Ethiopia. I can tell you that it was not an easy road getting here. I was one of the pioneer saxophone players in the country and it gives me so much pleasure to represent Ethiopia worldwide. Through the years, I also did my part in training many musicians and many were grateful for that. One of them is Daniel Mekonnen, the founder of Debo Band. He does not speak Amharic but he was here with an interpreter, where he spent one month training with me. Even on his recordings, he attributed my contributions and efforts. I am glad that I am passing my music to the next generation.

You are touring many countries. How does it feel touring the world?

So far, I traveled to 34 countries and in each country I represented Ethiopia more than I did myself.  I know that they taught us saxophone as music instrument but what I can say is that I outsmarted those people who gave me the basic education. Through the years, I developed my own style. I can do my own orchestra now only by doing a sax solo, which many musicians cannot do. I can play as a big band with one sax. Now, I play jazz, traditional and the other sounds with my sax. Mulatu Astatke, another musical giant, incorporated my music.

There is a French band that was named after one of your song “Akale Wube” which was inspired by your work. Do you know about this band?

I specifically do not know about this band. Like I said, France is my fan base; whenever I appear on the stage the cheering continues and it is like scoring a goal in a big football matches. Through the years, I worked with many foreigners including Flamenco music. Many musicians took my songs and sampled my work. Musicians like Daniel Mekonnen did that. It is really great to be an inspiration for many artists. I was able to feature many weddings and it all has been a blessing to me.

Apart from Akale Wube, the renowned Somali Rapper K’naan, featuring Damian Marley, sampled one of your songs “Shellela”. Were you aware of it?

I did not follow in detail but I heard a rumor about it. I would have given him more, had he met me. I have collections, which are not released yet.  I will be glad if they visit me; they are welcome. I can share my experience for any musician who is willing to learn. But there are also egotistical musicians here who claim that they know everything. But I am glad to see the musicians aspiring to get the knowledge and experience. That is partly why I preferred to master my music outside of Ethiopia.

How do you see the contribution of Frances Falceto, who compiled Ethiopian songs including yours?

I can fully say that he is the man behind recognition of Ethiopian music around the world. Though he made tons of money with it, I sold my album with one thousand birr back in the 70’s to him. But more than the money, he was able to promote our music internationally and Ethiopiques was an ice-breaker for me. He talks good things about me but I did not make a dime out of it. Anyway my concert is big everywhere, the tickets are sold out if I am there, so am doing well.

Internationally most of the Ethiopian music, including yours, is under the copyright of Francis Falceto (Buda Musique record company) even the renowned singers, whenever they sample Ethiopian music, they deal with Buda Musique. What do you say about that?

I think that is one of the reasons why Mulatu Astatke despises Frances Falceto. He does not want to see his face. Even if he was able to contribute to the recognition of our music worldwide, on the other hands he used us. He is making tons of money. I do not work with him; I work with other musicians and promoters and I think he is not happy with that fact.

How many albums did you do over the years?

I started music when I was 13, in 1948, at the municipality orchestra. I only did formal schools up to the eighth grade.  Before joining the police orchestra, I was also part of the National theatre. I remember Hirut Bekele and me used to joke saying we are colonels. I used to teach at the police Orchestra. I worked there for almost 36 years. After retirement I worked in Sheraton Hotel but things didn’t go as I wanted, so after a while I had to leave. Over the years I did five CDs and five cassettes. Starting from the early fifties, most of my works were mastered and recorded by Philips.

How did you choose the instrumental saxophone? How was your musical journey?

My friend used to work in the municipality orchestra and I wanted to work there too. So, I asked his brother if he can help me to get a job at the municipality and he did. I was hired with a monthly salary of ten birr. My first musical instrument was the drum, then clarinet and after that, I started to play sax. My relatives could not believe that I became an Azmari (belittling term used to describe a musician); they gave me hard time saying that I brought shame on the family. Later on, I started to become famous and I had chance to receive an award from. That made my family to come in terms with the fact that I am a musician. Now I have two clarinets and two saxes. Just a week ago, when the 50th year anniversary of the police orchestra was celebrated, the health minister came to me and expressed his appreciation. What could be more than a minister coming to you and showing you gratitude?

How many saxophones did you have over the years?

Over the years, I had only six instruments. I actually take good care of the instruments and one of them was stolen. And after that I bought one for 78,000 birr and I also bought another sax and I gave one of the instruments to my son. He plays sax too.

What was the inspiration for your music?

I guess it is everything in life; starting from the culture, history all inspires me. Shellela was done only through voices back in the days. It was never done by instruments, so I played it with sax and I tried to add my elements to it. Akale wube is also an old song with some new creativity added to it.  I try to tell stories through my sax. And I always listen, improvise, and add my own element after that.

Many say the 60s were the golden age of Ethiopian art history. Do you agree with that assessment?

Yes, I agree the music quality back then was great. There were more than forty musicians behind one song. The music had an amazing production. The musicians also had music in them. The musicians also had aspiration, inspiration and, of course, there was the devotion for the art. But now there are only a few musicians who would do what it takes.

What about the financial situation? How is it compared to those days?

My first salary was ten birr. After many years, it increased to 18 birr; then it became 22 birr. When I moved to the National Theatre, it became 150 birr. With arguments back and forth, I went to the police group and my salary grew to 336 birr. After a while, I replaced Nerses Nalbandian, the Armenian music teacher, to teach and my salary was increased to 600. Until my retirement, it was 700 birr. When I was in Sheraton, I used to get up to eight thousand birr monthly. Now, with one concert I make up to 120,000 birr, but it takes a lot of work.

What about your health?

There is a nerve problem on my hand. Because of the complication, I cannot play the clarinet; I can only play the sax but thanks to God, I was told that it was treatable.

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