Stars become novas when they are known only by their first names. Think of Whitney, Aretha or Etta. But super novas become super novas when the go beyond being known on first name basis and earn nicknames that describes their supreme talent. Think of Magic, the King, or the Godfather as Irvin Johnson, Elvis Presley and James Brown catapulted from virtuosos to all time legends. Well, when it comes to Ethiopian music, there are two people who have earned this distinction. One of them is Mahmoud Ahmed who is named the Legend and a humble soul I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (link); the other is Tilahun Gessesse—who has earned the honor of being called the Voice.
Considering the number of immensely talented singers who have graced the Ethiopian music industry over the years, to be called the Voice is an accomplishment only when one’s singing gift is so rare that it comes around less frequently than monsoons in the Sahara desert. Tilahun’s voice is one that is singularly unique, an inflection and a tone that God must have been proud of the first time Tilahun sang and blessed the universe with his timbre.
Born on September 29th, 1940 in Woliso, Ethiopia, Tilahun was raised by a loving mother and a stepfather. Tilahun was drawn to music at an early age even though his grandfather admonished him to focus his attention on academic pursuit above all else. But his talent was too much to ignore; Ato Shedad, his Sudanese high school principle, encouraged him to chase his destiny and seek a future in singing. Ato Shedad’s advice struck a chord in Tilahun’s heart; though he did not immediately pursue a singing career, in time he would take an audacious chance to do exactly as his principle advised him to do.
Tilahun’s journey from an afterthought to a megastar was a long and hard road. I don’t mean this figuratively; before he graduated high school, Tilahun dropped out and ran away from home in order to go after his dreams. Though his lam was temporary and his parents eventually tracked him down, the fifteen miles he traveled became a down payment on a long path he would eventually travel to stardom. His determination too dogged and his talent too copious, it was a matter of time before Tilahun would be discovered.
A dusty gem was polished into a glimmering diamond as Tilahun honed his voice with stints in endless venues. He started off at Hager Fikir Theater where he sang for a couple of years in sparsely attended concerts. After that, he became a regular singer with the one group that has given birth to more stars than the Milky Way. Tilahun started singing with the Imperial Bodyguard Band where his name gained more and more stature. But history would intersect with fate as a failed coup led to Tilahun’s temporary imprisonment.
But punishment gave way to encouragement as Tilahun sang on numerous occasions in front of Emperor Haile Selassie. Haile Selassie personally implored him to never stop singing for he too recognized the astounding melody that resided in Tilahun’s voice. Tilahun would lead a true revolution that had far reaching ramifications and led to a Renaissance in Ethiopian music during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Traditional music gave way to innovative sounds as Ethiopian artists like Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke and Aster Awake started to incorporate American jazz and disco into a culture which traditionally had been very averse to accepting change.
Not only did Ethiopians change, they did so with glee and joy as they did eskista to a new age of Ethiopian music. At the vanguard of this sea change in the way Ethiopians listened to music was Tilahun. In all honesty, Tilahun’s voice is the rarest of all for he sings in ways that utilizes a full range of tonality. I’ve never heard a singer be able to reach soaring alto only to return back to drive home a song in majestic tenor. When one listens to Tilahun’s songs, one can almost feel his emotions with every word that he sings. He was able to capture gut wrenching love with songs like “Ewedish Nebere” and gave hope to crossed lovers with songs like “Wub Aynama”.
Tilahun was a balladeer above all but he also expanded his range as sang song about human suffering. He lent his voice and courageously spoke about the privation that made the lives of millions of Ethiopians unbearable. In a culture that is reluctant to openly talk about struggles and is hesitant to acknowledging strife, Tilahun sang about the Ethiopian famine of the 80’s in ways that were so emotional and heart rending that it still coaxes tears from my eyes when I hear “Way Way Silu“(link). This is the wonder behind Tilahun’s voice; he was able to bend and manipulate his range in ways that makes us connect music to our emotions.
Tilahun passed away on April 19th, 2009 but his music lives on for an eternity. One does not earn the name the Voice if one’s voice did not transcend time and space. For an eternity, at least for as long as Ethiopians walk on this planet, the voice of Tilahun will be remembered by those who know and understand Ethiopian music. It is a fitting actually—our names are our destiny after all—Tilahun means a shade or a cover from the elements. Tilahun was the voice that covered Ethiopia for decades with a melodic blessing; in his passing he has left a shadow that will never be surpassed. #TilahunEthiopia
“Music is the harmonious voice of creation; an echo of the invisible world.” ~ Giuseppe Mazzini
If you appreciate this write up, love Ethiopian music and appreciate the supreme voice that was Tilahun Gessesse (rest in eternal peace), share this article on social media using #TilahunEthiopia
Check out one of the old school videos of Tilahun Gessesse as he sings one of his classical songs “Web Aynama” and make sure you check out the dedication video below the first video as well.
Check out this Ghion Cast which is a dedication to Tilahun Gessesee by a gifted and talented singer named Anteneh Worku as his voice is overlayed on top of Ethiopian dances by well known and not so famous eskista dancers.
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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