Our names are written for us in the stars a long time before our parents saw the reflections of love twinkling in each other’s eyes. They uncover the latent treasure that was waiting all along to be unearthed and then manifest our destinies by the names they choose to give us. Names thus have a gravity on our lives in ways that is unquantifiable; our names become either our blessing or burdens depending on the choices we make in life.
I’m writing this article thus to pay homage to one of the queens of Ethiopian music who became exactly what her parents named her—a star among stars. Where there are kings, there are queens who walk ahead. Where I have wrote in the past to pay homage to Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessesse and Teddy Afro with respect to Ethiopian music, let me add a deserving name to this list of musical greats. Her name is Aster Aweke. Aster is radiance personified, a star born to sing and a kokeb who has graced a land bathed with thirteen months of sunshine with yet even more brilliance. Her name became a blessing because she chose to pursue the gift that she was bestowed. You see, Aster literally means “a star” in Latin. Ironic how this world is—Aster became the dreams her parents conferred upon her through her name.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about Teddy Afro—the hottest Ethiopian musician at the moment. One of the readers of Ghion Journal commented that I was remiss in comparing Teddy Afro to the greats like Tilahun Gessesse and Mahmoud Ahmed. Music is serious business in the Ethiopian community; it is the topic of passionate debates and endless conversations. Let me clarify this one thing; giving credit to Teddy Afro was not meant as a slight to past legends. The legacy of Tilahun and Mahmoud are untouchable—they are giants in a land of Lilliputians. Giving credit to Teddy Afro should not be interpreted as marginalizing the kings of Ethiopian music. That said, at the risk of engendering yet more debates, I’m adding Aster Aweke to the list of Ethiopian music royalty.
In that same “Tikus Teddy” article, I mentioned that Teddy Afro attained cross-over appeal that heretofore had not been achieved on such a scale. Let me take a moment to correct the record for I did not mean to imply that other artists did not garnered acclaim outside of the Ethiopian community. Mahmoud Ahmed is adored by the masses in Europe and America in ways that reaches frenzy within the fan base that know about his magical voice. Aster Aweke has done the same and in a lot of ways has innovated the Ethiopian music industry in ways that few had accomplished apart from Mahmoud, Tilahun and Mulatu Astatke.
I had a chance to discuss Aster’s contribution to Ethiopian music with Betty Beke last week. Betty Beke noted that Aster belongs in the list of legends because of the dynamic performance she treats her audience with. Betty noted:
“Aster is not only a singer, she is a performer on a grand scale. Being able to perform while singing is a rare talent that few possess. Aster brings the whole package as she incorporates a live band, eskista (dance) and her entrancing songs in ways that captivates the crowd. Few can put on a live concert the way that Aster does.”
Aster Aweke was born in 1959 in Gonder—the former capital of Ethiopia. Gonder is a land of castles and royalty; the land of Solomonistic kings and queens that was the hub of influence during the Axum empire. Aster’s father was a senior official in Haile Selasse’s court and her loving mother nurtured her talents. Aster’s umbilical chord might as well have been tethered to a microphone for she was a musical prodigy before she was old enough to comprehend the choices we make in life. Our names are not only our destinies in this way, they are the prologue in this sojourn called life.
At the age of 13, Aster mustered up the tenacity befitting of Gonder and decided to embark on an arduous journey of becoming a singer. She did so at a time where singing was still considered a lesser profession in Ethiopia—a time where people would attend shows and carry on conversations as if the singers were just props on a stage. Aster though was determined and started to sing at hotels and clubs while many of her school mates were horsing around in backyards and playgrounds.
A chance meeting with Ali Tango, a giant in the Ethiopian music industry, led to her discovery and signing with Kafia records. Parenthetically, we don’t give proper credit to the producers who give birth to the singers we adore. Ali Tango was the wizard behind musical stars such as Ali Birra, Neway Debebe, Hamalmal Abate, Kiros Alemayehu and Sofia Atsebeha to name a few. With Ali’s encouragement and guidance, Aster launched the first of five records while she was in Ethiopia that solidified her credentials as a musical star on the rise.
Aster’s ascent coincided with the despotic Derg regime, which stifled freedom and life throughout the country. Repulsed by the excesses of the tyrant Mengistu Hailemariam and the vices of his repressive regime, Aster moved to the United States and found a new home in the Bay Area of California. It was in the Bay Area that Aster started to incorporate the multi-cultural wonders of SoCo into her music before she moved to Washington DC and lived amid the massive Ethiopian expat community. In Aster’s sound and performances can be found the influence of disco, jazz, and ska. Aster is a singular rarity; her music is dynamic as it imbues her audience with melodies that are timeless and unique.
Abel Tesfaye, better known as the Weeknd, gives credit to Aster Aweke for influencing his music. The Weeknd called Aster the Whitney of Ethiopian music—this is a compliment that is not to be taken lightly. When asked about who influenced his music the most, Abel responded:
“Aster Aweke, for sure. You can hear her voice at the end of “False Alarm” on the new album. Her voice is the greatest thing you’ll ever hear.”
There is a special place in my heart that I have for people who honor their heritage even as they blaze a new path forward. This is why I wrote about Abel Tesfaye in the past (link); as gifted as he is, Abel is a man who gives respect to the soil from which his talents were rooted. This is the same reason I wrote in such glowing ways about Teddy Afro (link); as talented as Teddy is, he is a man who loves Ethiopia in ways that is profound and wonderful.
Joseph Steward, friend of mine on Facebook, notes that Aster’s rendition of Tizita (memories) is one that gives proper context to the heartbreaking song that reminds so many of us of a home we left a long time ago. Joseph Stewart notes of Aster’s version of Tizita:
“Tizita, as you know, is a musical tradition which hearkens memories tinged with regret. It is an unofficial national anthem, and a love letter from the singer to Ethiopia, or anywhere one might attach meaning. Especially poignant for members of the diaspora communities all over the world, tizita keeps souls connected to the ground which formed the earliest memories, and expresses in some way a recognition that no matter where in the world one might find themselves—the memories of a homeland cannot be forgotten. It is beautiful.
This is the magic of music; it is a universal language that we all comprehend regardless of the tongue we speak. I don’t have to speak Cantonese to listen and feel the healing powers of music from China neither do I have to speak Spanish to take in the wonders of Peruvian melodies. This is the quality that the radiant Aster has in spades; her music leaps over borders and infuses love and emotions right into our hearts. She can make us eskista (dance) one minute then cajole tears from our eyes the next with the songs she sings about love lost and the tizita (memories) of a homeland too many of us left.
I noted above that our names are our destinies. But a destiny does not mean destined if we don’t put in the work and dedication to sieze the gifts that are meant for us. Aster became exactly as her name, a star she was born and a star she became. She continues to dazzle her audience as she expands the reach of Ethiopian music with each melodic note. It is for this reason that Aster is one of the queens of Ethiopian music; she was born in a land of royalty, in her voice she echoes the magnificence of a blessed land. Aster Aweke, a star He knew—it was written in her first and last name before she left the womb. #AsterRadiance
“Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” ~ Martin Luther King
If you love the sounds of Aster Aweke and love the universal healing power of music, share this article on social media using #AsterRadiance
Check out the sounds of Aster as she sings to a piano solo that highlights her melodic and enchanting voice.
Speaking of royalty, this is a shout out to all queens in the world. An homage by a female group of singers named Yegna who, along Aster Aweke, performed an homage to Queen Taitu—the true hero of Adwa—and in the process encourage all girls and women to lead and be stars.
Check out more of Aster’s voice and work by liking her page on Facebook. Click HERE or on the picture below.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
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