Aug 18, 2022

Mawazo Writing Africa

Writing about the main

Girma Bèyène’s return to music

When Girma Bèyène took the stage at the Alliance Française last month, there was an immediate silence as his golden voice serenaded the audience.

Accompanied by the Akalé Wubé band, composed of David Georgelet on On drums, Paul Bouclier on trumpet, Oliver Degabriele on bass, Olivier Zanot on saxophone and flute and Loïc Rechard on guitar, Bèyène mesmerized the audience for two hours, with several encores leading to standing ovations.

The singer performed far from his adopted country in the USA but close to his native Ethiopia.

Bèyène is a composer, singer and pianist. He is one of the few remaining legends of the country’s musical renaissance in the 1960s and 70s, when Addis came alive every night with a unique blend of Ethio funk jazz music.

And then he disappeared from the scene.

Born in Adds Ababa, the autodidact Bèyène, who never had any formal training in playing musical instruments or arranging music, became an overnight sensation and founded several bands.

Ethiopia’s political scene turned socialist after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1974 coup led by the Marxist-Leninist group known as the Derg military junta. Tens of thousands of political opponents were imprisoned and executed without trial.

By the mid-1980s, Ethiopia’s economy had collapsed.

“All those people have left,” said Zelalem Mulat Teklewold, the owner from Beit e Selam, an Ethiopian-fusion restaurant in Nairobi, as he sang with Bèyène in the audience. “They were forgotten legends. Now they’re slowly coming back.

“I’ve always found Bèyène’s music to be playfully romantic and appreciate his contribution to Ethiopia’s golden age of records. It’s something special to see him perform live and hear his timeless singing here in Nairobi. As someone who cares deeply about Ethio jazz, you can imagine how exciting it is to host a musician of his stature – along with the remarkable Akalé Wubé.”

Self Exile

1981 During a tour in the USA with the Walias Band, Bèyène went into exile for 25 years. It was around this time that his wife died and he left the music scene.

Bèyène worked at a gas station and lived in relative obscurity, a forgotten legend. Until the world found him again.

In 2019, Akalé Wubé invited him to perform with them at a concert in Paris.

Under the direction of Francis Falcetto, Bèyène and the group recorded an album – the Ethiopiques Compilations – a dedication to Ethiopian music. They also produced the documentary Ethiopiques Revolt of the Soul, which also tells the story of Bèyène.

“Alliance Française invited the group to celebrate World Music Day, which falls on June 21,” said Harsita Waters, the director of cultural affairs at the centre.

“Falcetto is responsible for bringing Bèyène back to Ethiopia from the US, where he worked the night shift at a gas station, and getting him to start again to perform,” said Waters.

Ethiopiques: Revolt of the Soul

During the golden era of Ethiopian records (1969–1978), Bèyène recorded four songs as a singer, arranging more than 60 title and collaborated with them on at least 25 other tracks.

He now lives in Addis Ababa and is back on stage to serenade jazz lovers.