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ĎĎWhat Are the Terms To Say That Our Music Has ProgressedĒ

Sileshi Demissie

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Sileshi Demissie is one of the Ethiopian public figures. He is a musician and an environmental activist. It is difficult to express him as the same as the other Ethiopian singers because of his unique playing style. He plays his songs in an extraordinary way but he didnít also abandon the Ethiopian traditional music. Simply to say he gives some spices in the Ethiopian traditional music. The other thing what makes him an Ethiopian role model is, his work which is based on the cities environmental cleanness. Before he came back to his homeland ten years ago from US America, the cleanness of Addis Ababa was very poor. But now there is some progress. When he was starting to† bring a new image of the capitol, Addis Ababa, he opened a project which was called Gash Abera Molla, now named as Gash Abera Molla Environment & Development† Association so his organization still do a volunteer work in the country but he got some big international awards, not from Ethiopia. Some people call him Gash Abera Molla. By the way, Sileshi has performed his music with Michael Jackson on one stage a couple of years ago. So we also did an interview with him about the Ethiopian music. Please be with us.†


Dear Sileshi Demissie, we thank you for your positive response for our request of interview.† By the way, how does your life look like?

My life is very simple. I have a family, not a big one just a wife and two kids. I play music and I do a volunteer work. So it is not a complicated life style.


We know that you are an environmentalist and a unique Ethiopian singer. You have a deep knowledge about the Ethiopian music as well as the Ethiopian culture and history. So we are going to ask you more about the music world. How do you evaluate the Ethiopian music as an individual or as a professional? Does it have any progress?

It is very difficult to say it is progressed. What are the terms and criteria that make it progressive? We have to go way down to the bottom and see what was the Ethiopian music before? And how was the progress from the early times until now? What are the factors to the progress? We have to study its history. I think some people say the music is progressed. But my question is, in terms of what? In terms of cultivating the culture that had in the past? Who are the musicians who have been following the footsteps that tradition and make it grow? When we all see this, you donít see the progress. Now we are taking some western or other foreignersí styles and we want to apply it in a studio with in Ethiopian languages context and putting some English words with Rap or Hip-Hop or Reggae styles. But that is completely a mess. Why do we put English words in Amharic or in our other languages? There are plenty of music styles, plenty of music expressions with in Ethiopian various ethnic groupsí music. So it wasnít researched and studied well either in schools or in institutions. We left our own languages, traditions, cultures and civilization. We are trying to imitate the western style. Nobody have education about our background. So I say our music is going to the hell. I donít think there is a progress.


Before Mozart and Beethoven played nota music, St. Yared had played wonderful musical notes in Ethiopia by Geez language. Do you think we have given him adequate credit? Of course, his works are practiced and are still alive in Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But, is there any mechanism to tell the world there was such a kind of singer in the 13th century in Ethiopia?

What is your idea? Most Europeans know about Yaredís Music and who Yared was but it wasnít written in a big manner. The church people still practice it and they did as much as they can do to write his story in different books as a reference but not a lot. If that was written in English or in French or in Spanish, it could be reached and dispersed to many different parts of the world. May be the whole world might have known who Yared was. Yaredís musical notations were very early more than the western musical notations. But that wasnít expanded and researched well and put in terms of formal musical expressions. That was the problem. He had contributed a great deal of work in the Ethiopian church music.


We have a lot of singers and our songs are typical from the rest of the world. And we have wonderful traditional and modern music. How do you look both of them?

The traditional music is vary from place to place, from one ethnic group to the other ethnic group or from one state to the other state. It is a lot and different in language different in musical expressions, different in dancing and different in musical colours. So that makes it unique. Ethiopia has more than seventy languages and ethnic groups so each one of them have their own wonderful things. Look! The Japanese or Chinese people are depending on their own culture and creating things. We need to investigate our own assets like them. They become themselves. They donít copy the western styles. Now they are powerful economically and socially and in many things. We could have been like that. We can also put the traditional music into a modern. We can come up with new ideas and improvise in to the cotemporary music. We can play in amazing way. If you donít have a background of yourself, if you donít have a good understanding of your culture and your language, you canít put out that in music. You have to have the knowledge.

How do you give value for the Ethiopian traditional instruments?

Well! They are very ancient and they are so wonderful. Still they exist. They are good assets for us. I do play by them also.


Nowadays the Ethiopian Music is becoming different types in melody, rhythm and composition. In the previous time we were saying there were only five divisions and their base was only pentatonic. How about now?

Who said that the Ethiopian music is pentatonic? No, it is not. Who did research? Who did travel or live and documented all the Ethiopian music? Nobody! When the Kibur Zebegna or Tor Serawit play the Ethiopian traditional music, they were playing it into modern music. So what they used was; simple five scale which is pentatonic once, and they put it in the note. There are melodies which are outside pentatonic scale. The way you sing is beyond, not even pentatonic, even diatonic, and even chromatic and some tonic voices you hear. But nobody really knows them. When you want to avoid you donít know it, and when you donít know it, you donít want other people to tell I donít know it so you say you have to put it down the Ethiopian music is this and this, and the western is this and this. Then you start making a big deal for the western and putting down your own music because you donít know.


To tell you the truth, I like your music. You play your own music style. Can you tell us something about it? Why do you play in that way?

Before my creativity, the reason why I play different is, I think I was so privileged to learn about the Ethiopian tradition by traveling, working, and living in many parts of Ethiopia. So I used to pay so much attention to the people how they talk, how they communicate, how they live, how they eat, how they play music and how they perform in their villages and get all this knowledge. Beside that my father taught me how to play Kirar and has been telling me so many stories and sayings and Kinea (Sem Ena Worq). So I took that and I paid a lot of attention to it to investigate and to work a lot about it. That is why I have been travelling to all over the world performing the Ethiopian music in many parts of the world. I know what they are; I know how much value they have; I know how to express them; I know how to put them in terms of compositions; I know how to tell this music to the people. I can bring a visual image of that music or that tradition to my audience which are the Ethiopians or the international audiences. I see the result how the people enjoy it. So this makes me happy and then I say this is what I want to tell.


What is your thought about the Ethiopian spiritual songs? I mean about Menzuma, Zelesegna or Yaredawi and the Protestantsí songs?

Well! Menzuma has been a thousand of years which has been expressed by the muslim brothers like Wollo, can be the best example. Menzuma is a kind of spiritual, or it is more of a social music. It is still exercised but it is not in a big deal. So you have to bring back again to the modern time. Yaredawi Zema, still they work on the church all over Ethiopia on the Christian era. People are using it. That has to stay there as it is in a song way. We donít have to bring it into modern music. Zelesegna is one of the the things you can play Kirar and Mesenko in Ethiopian church music respecting the Yaredawi Music. So you have to keep the balance what it belongs to. And I have been listening many Protestant songs in the Europe and in America. The Ethiopian protestant songs are pretty much. It is the same kind of the modern Ethiopian music except the word mentioning ďJesusĒ or something like this. I think the lyrics are very different but the musical expressions are the same thing with the modern Ethiopian music. I donít think there is special thing on it. It wasnít practiced in Ethiopia either like Islamic or Christian. But nowadays Protestant music is happening which also has to go its own way. We have to respect what they do.


What is your idea about Azmari Music?

Azmari Music is the traditional music that has brought us modern music. The Azmari music is not happening now as its own originality. Some people are mixing it with other music styles. The singers I mean the Azmari people are trying to make money by it. The Azmari has its own definition, its own expressions, its own playing and its own colours.


What is the basic part in music? Its chorus? Or rhythm? Or arrangement? Or lyric? Or poem/message? Or quality voice? Which one?

All matters. To be music, it needs a nice melody, a nice rhythm, good harmony, well orchestrated or well organized or well managed to be. You have to have all this to see the final product. You need a good composer, a good singer, higher background people have to be with you. So it is a whole orchestra that makes music.


Why canít we practice opera music and symphony orchestra music in Ethiopia? What is the matter?

It is not a problem but it is a matter of doing it. How and in what matter? A symphony is a group of people putting out one big mass colour of music or rhythms. You can do it Ethiopian way. Like hundred or thousand of people outside do something you compose, you can give work to different people and then you can create a symphony. The Opera style is the different way how you sing. This is originated somewhere in Europe. This is the tradition of European countries. When you come to our country, the ďLalibelaĒ is like the way how the Lalibelas are expressing themselves is very different. The kind of singing became a tradition for the Europeans and they put it as Opera. This was classified for the rich people, the kings and the queens and staff like that. It was a kind of a classic music that shows the class of the people. Even the money you pay here is expensive.


Sometimes there is a problem on the vocal of our singers when they play their works in studios and on stages. Do you accept that the computer effects are important? What is your attitude about artificial and natural voices?

First of all when you really want to be a musician, it needs a dedication. To be whoever you want to be, you need to have dedication to your work. You have to spend time; you have to practice; you have to exercise; you have to read and you have to write. If you are not going for all these process, you can not get your final result. You have to have the capacity or the capability of understanding each one of the music items. You have to do vocal exercises again and again; you have to know each note that are low, middle, high and very high through different ranges. You also have to do the harmonies like first part harmony, second and third part harmonies, and harness them. But most of the time people do not practice this way, they donít have team work. That is why to cover up this they go to studio and put some reverb and echo on their voices by supporting keyboards and come up with some CD. When you hear it, it is okay but when it comes to the live ground or stage, it just kills us. That is why I say exercising and team work are important in music work.


What do you say about the Ethiopian music market? Nowadays copy right is a critical issue. Who is the responsible? And what shall we do to avoid the problem?

The Ethiopian music market is very small. When you think about other world, they make in millions and billions, and they gain billions and trillions. They get so much money out of it because they know how to get the market and they are also well organized plus they do a good promotion work. They are hard workers and committed for their works. The international market is so big. But we think only about the local market not looking for the international market. Our producers do not mind that much for the development of the music. They just think about how to get their money. When I come to the copyright, I donít think it is very difficult to have the copyright. There is the copyright law still here but we have to make the laws work. The government is the responsible body to implement the laws because we are paying taxes for it. So it needs education for the people how to have awareness about the copyright law in order to avoid the illegal work of copying materials. Then the people will learn to buy the original work otherwise they are going to hurt the musicians and the industry itself and also their country. Nowadays the technology may be easy to help people how to copy these works in their houses but if the laws become hard and hard, people will be aware of it and keep out themselves from the consequences.


You are one of the judges of the Balageru Idol Show program. What is its importance? And how do you look the competitors in over all?

Actually I wasnít planning to be a judge at the Balageru Idol Show. The idea of the Idol Show is really trying to bring something new in Ethiopia so this would be a good way to put myself to impose or to show some Ethiopian music by making musical instruments, by giving workshops, by showing the young people to compose the the Ethiopian music, by teaching the music and musical traditions, by telling them stories, by creating a medium that young people come and learn more about the Ethiopian music. And in this way, they could come up with a lot of new way of playing Ethiopian music.


Who are your best singers from the foreign and local singers? Please tell us about their potential by giving us some reasonable points for their quality works

Well! People outside, they work a lot; they do research a lot; they spend time a lot for what they are dedicated and they get support from schools and from institutions and the technology is bringing them so many different materials to practice. With all this support the international artists are going to the top. But when you come to our singers, we do things locally. Of course, the international mass media is playing a big role. So the international artists promote their works through those mass media. But if you do your works very well, you can also influence on the other world.


Let me come to your other profession. How do you look the Ethiopian citiesí environments? Do you see any progress?

It could have been much better but I think it is a gradual process. We started it to see much better thing. This needs a collaboration work. Its okay but it needs more work.


You have done a big contribution by creating awareness among the people regarding on cleanness of their towns. But I have never seen when you or your organization got any award/credit. What do you feel?

We have got some international award. We got the United Nation award. The UN award was brought by the Ghana president in Addis Ababa. The second biggest award is, we went to London and Ethiopia became first country from Africa through cleaning up and planting trees so we got a green gold award in the House of Commons in the British Parliament in London. We got another big award by IHA - International Health Association with we contributed a big thing for health by cleaning up the cities. So we got such awards but not in Ethiopia. The other award which we got is by SEED, an organization which lives in America Diaspora.


You have traveled to the Europe and America. Which city takes your impression more? Why?

Every city. One of the biggest cities that had a lot of performances is New York. I used to go and to perform in New York and in many different parts of America. I perform with great international musicians. I traveled all over the world. So for me every part of the world has been interesting stages.


What type of music do you like from other world, Rock or R&B or Rap, Reggae, Arabic, SudaneseÖ What? And which song would you like to invite us?

May be it is good to listen from the West African music by Saliph Keita from Mali. That could be good from Africa which is also use their language, their own music in terms of the modern music.


What are your hobbies?

I walk. I run. I do exercise. I like sport and I play soccer (football). That is beside of playing music.


Do you have any word whatever you want to say?

We have to believe on ourselves not the copy of someone. We have to have an original thinking. So lets come up with new things of our own rather than taking and snatching others. That is all.


Thank you so much

You are welcome


September 2012