While we were in Gondar, we interviewed Ato Zelalem Fisseha, founder and owner of a well-known local music outlet, the Fasil Music Shop.
Interviewer: Nuhamin Daniel
Translation: Betsy Redi
Ato Zelalem Fisseha: I came into this line of work in 1974 EC [1981 AD]. I worked in this profession from then until 2002 EC [2009 AD]. I used to be a student before I started working in music. After that, I started working as a gold and silversmith, which was my father’s profession. My brother and I opened a gold and silversmith shop in which I worked from 1967 EC up to 1969 EC [1976 AD].
Around July of 1969 EC, owing to the instability of our country at the time, I got shot and wounded. I believe it was on suspicion that I might be EHAPA [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party]. After that I couldn’t work with gold or silver, so in 1970 EC, I went into another line of work. I was gradually drawn into music and in “Tir” [month 5] of 1974 EC [January 1982 AD], I finally got out a license to bring music cassettes from Addis and sell them. As time went by, my interest in the work increased. Then I began recording and issuing music under the name of my business, and did good business with it for a long time.
In 2002 EC [2009 AD], I got into trouble with the law. Selling music copies [pirate music] is not a new thing in Ethiopia, and for one thing, Fasil music shop was one of the first members of Mega publishing enterprise. I have put a lot of effort into the music shop. I have struggled a lot for it. However, the one who struggles is not the one who gains, so you have to move along with society. There is no one that comes close to me in my work, even in Addis. The music that comes out of Fasil music shop in Gondar is equal to music that comes out of any distinguished publisher in Addis. I had all the necessary equipment and I took good care of it. However, since there is a way of thinking that goes “I will not sit and watch while another is eating [gaining]” they managed to come together and defeat me. As a result, I have been forced to quit the work that I love so much.
I was born in Gondar. My father is from Axum, this is my mother’s country. I was born here. My father came from Axum and had a lot of children here, I was one of them. I went to school here, I studied the alphabet at Tsadiqu Yohannes School. I finished school at Kedamawi Haileselassie School. After that I did not want further education so I decided to go to work.
What is it that first drew you into music?
For one thing, once I got into this line of work, the income I got from it managed to cover my living expenses. I continued with it because it gave me a good livelihood. During my work though, I started to realize that by bringing original music from other places, I was reflecting the culture from those places in Gondar and surrounding areas. Then I got to thinking, while I am bringing in and reflecting music from other places here, there are a lot of good musicians in Gondar. We have everything in Gondar, so why doesn’t my shop publish and depict the music from here? I started making efforts for that to happen.
I started one song in 1978 EC [1985 AD], and I completed it. You can say the singer I recorded was a singer for EHAPA, she used to sing in Fasiledes Bahil Kinet. I had permission to do the job, I did it legally, and I still have the documents. However, since the administrator of Gondar at the time was a very aggressive man, he got angry saying that I took a musician they trained and made money out of it, so he had me imprisoned. I managed to get through that ordeal. And then I started from the beginning, and I am still doing well. My main problem is not copyright, but usually I get problems because of my singers.
Now this singer, Tadela Fente, is a good musician and a good entertainer. Those in Addis Ababa have used a lot of the musicians that I’ve recorded here. Even though it was Fasil Music Shop that introduced them all to the stage, people from Addis come in afterwards to preach at and convince the musicians, take them to Addis, and make a lot of profit from them. This singer (Tadela Fente) told them in the end that she would not work outside of Fasil Music Shop, even if they paid her a billion. This is the kind of thing I struggled and paid sacrifices for, for which I was imprisoned. The fact is that she did not transfer or move on like the others.
There are a lot of singers that I published, such as Dereje, who is now in America. It is Fasil Music Shop that first introduced Amsal Mitike to the stage. They are very many; Fasil Music Shop was even the first to release songs from eight different singers on one cassette. Afterwards Ambassel music shop released a four in one. I have done all that work. I am the one that discovered Fikre Addis and Adugna Bogale and brought them out to this world. I have dug out singers in this way. I’ve recorded almost everybody. Enatalm Sora had gone through much difficulty, so I worked to get him out, for no personal gain. He has now gained a lot of recognition and makes a lot of profit on stage from the music I made for him. This is the main problem, with the singers whether they are from here or there, there is the issue of keeping your word. This is the way it goes.
When I work with singers, I do not make them alter their natural voices. I don’t tell them to sing this way or that. I take the whole style of it, the countryside sound. They [other producers] listen to this and take them, and then they add all the modern sounds and alter the voice. Take Fikre Addis for example, her voice is not the same in the earlier and recent recordings, it is different. In Fasil Music Shop, since I discover them first, I get them as they are, with what they have from where they come from, and they do not have to change that. And they are all very popular, even though their first cassettes don’t all sell well. Once they have gone out to Addis and made their other music, people come back for the old music that had failed, because of the sound. They can tell that the new sounds are artificial. Listeners are very tough. This is how I managed to make my work attractive and stand out.
Can you tell me something about the culture of Gondar, its musical tradition, and the role of music within the culture?
Gondar has its own specific culture. We may generalize and say Gondar but the music from Denbiya and the music from Wogera are different. Music from Armacheho, from the Qolla and the music from Belessa are different. They differ from each other through the Eskesta [dance], the voices, and even the style of the drumbeats and the playing of the masinqo. For example there is a place called Alefat Takosa. The asmaris there have inherited the trade from their ancestors. The style of singing and playing the masinqo there is different for one who listens carefully. So you cannot change that.
When you come to Gondar, the kebero is traditionally played by hand. But now they are using sticks. They say this is because the hands tire quickly. However, if we say we must stick to tradition, the person playing the kebero must shift [adapt]. But since nowadays it’s all about business, they play with sticks. Previously, during the time of our fathers, only those known as ‘balezar’ [those who practice witchcraft] used to play the kebero using sticks. It was unheard of in ordinary music. In our tradition, even for wedding ceremonies, they used to bring the kebero from the church, apply ‘embuay’ to it, and leave it out to warm in the sun so that it would have a loud sound later. Nowadays though, you cannot find this kind of preparation in anybody’s house. So this is the situation.
What do you think is the historical background of these particular instruments and this kind of music? How do you think it was created?
The previous generations have been teaching the same thing to the next generation, and this is how it has come so far. It is not like this now, though. They have forgotten it. This is because now they have money; they just think of what they can make up. Even the recent melodies, if you collect and listen to the cassettes, you will hear that they have mixed it all up. They play the reversed melodies. However, if they kept to singing purely traditional songs, my voice and your voice are not the same. So you can become great because you have a great voice and not because you mix up the traditional songs.
This is where the problem lies. There is a lot of repetition nowadays. I sing what you have sung before. It is okay on the stage. Also on happy occasions such as weddings, it is okay to sing someone else’s song. If you see it as a regular thing though, you have to sing your own melodies. Why have what belongs to someone else?
People in their old age will be able to tell you about the origins of the music more than I can. If I try to express it then maybe I will not be able to explain clearly because of my age. However, as you have said, it is the market view that is destroying the culture They used to get money before as well. There are also those who sing for the sake of singing, without forgetting their culture. Sometimes, when the singer is resting, they praise the great people with poems. All this has come from our culture. They do Fukura for him, they make rhymes for him, and the person who is praised will reward them with money or cattle.
Let me tell you a story somehow related. The woman is not around now, she has passed away. Her name is Wro-Shigute Tadesse. I have recorded her on cassette with Yirga Dubale. When HIM Emperor Haile Selassie was arranging his child’s wedding, and since she is an asmari from the old times, this Wro-Shigute was selected to sing, and went from Dabat in Gondar to Addis Ababa. Bahru Kagne and others were also singing in Addis Ababa. (Bahru Kagne was the entertainer of the palace. He used to enter the palace to sing, play, and entertain.) So this woman Shigute got her name because she received a gun from HIM Emperor Haile Selassie. I have recorded at least six of her songs with Ato Yirga Dubale under Fasil Music Shop, and made it available to the public. So we have also captured this kind of history.
This is the problem we now have, if you now ask someone to bring back what was there, they will find it difficult. But I have told you if you go to the countryside, people in old age might find it a bit difficult to play the masinqo because of their hands, otherwise, you can find those who can play you the original culture. They are very good, and unless they are too old, you can get the pure expression from them.
Then, when you talk about the scales, all four scales are taken from the Yared scales. When you come to this generation though, it’s not the Yared scales. They just go as it takes them. This is our big problem these days. The four scales are always mentioned, how are the four scales? Who is the one that tunes it? If the singer cannot play the masinqo, it is the masinqo player that tunes it. Now you can tune it through the organ. This is because once you find the singer’s voice, you just go through the instruments and ask the singer to go up or down and arrange through the instrument. The former ones tune it on the masinqo. So it is difficult to say, and as I have told you since I was involved in the production and marketing, you’ll get better information from the older people. I am just telling you what I’ve heard from my elders. Even if my work is based in Gondar, if you go up to 65 kilometres out of the city you will find the singers in the countryside.
If you ask about the songs that have been recorded in Fasil Music Shop, even the lyrics have value because they stick to the historical process. That is the way I do it. I don’t do it much for the business. I send a lot of messages. When I choose the lyrics, I control and edit them thoroughly. I do not tell them to bring me the lyrics to put straight to the market. I do not work like that. I have never produced a cassette that way.
What do you think has more value in music, is it the melody, the lyrics, or what is it?
In my opinion, for sure, it is the message. For me, I say that music is a message. It is a teacher. When it teaches though, it is not just forever about love and dancing, shoulders, waist or legs. It is about what is being said, what the people are saying now.
Let me tell you a story. In the time of the Derg, they came up with a thing called “sefera”, which was to have people gathered to live together. People were told, without their liking, to tear down their houses and go live in the places they were told, and that was the way it was. This was done, and after the following times of grief, it was versed, “good for the man that is dead, that is now buried, for us while we are still standing, our houses were torn down”. The man who rhymed this was looked down upon for a while but then they could see what he said was right. You say someone’s house has been destroyed when he dies. You cannot say that when someone is still alive. The only other time you can say that in our culture is when you are separated from your marriage partner. We hear our fathers say, “that good marriage broke up because there was no one to mediate. So what I have told you happened at the time of the Derg and that verse was rhymed. This is how it is, do you understand?
What should a ruler who heard this message at the time have done?
He should slow down and think about what he is doing. He should not go on rigidly.
What does the word Asmari mean? What is the Asmari culture? Where did it originate from, is it from specific places? How is it in regards of what we now see?
Asmari means, or came from, the word ‘azemere’. Azemere means to ‘sow’ and to ‘gain’. The true path of a musician is asmari. Asmaris in our country, Gondar, have specific places where they come from. If you go to Maksegnit, there is one called Chera, if you go to Amba Giyorgis there is another specific place. If you go to Alefa Takusa, there is another specific place. These are where they live according to their culture. They also have a language. They have a different language of their own. For example if you and I are sitting down with them, they have another language to communicate with. Just like you can communicate with others in English and I can speak in Tigrigna, my father’s language. You come across this. They are born there and they marry within their own community. Now that times have changed, even as a daughter of an asmari, if you fall in love, there is no problem even if you are a metalworker. You can say it has become international. So this is how they live, they have their own communities.
These people are farmers, right?
Yes they are farmers. They farm. ‘Liazemer’ means to sing. He plays his masinqo and earns money. He plays in weddings, new year, for example he comes to my house at the new year to play, he eats, drinks, he play music, if I gave him something well and good, if not he goes back to his “azemera” (harvest). So it has two meanings, to sing and to farm.
What am telling you is what they also argue about. I remember once Yirga Dubale, my God rest his soul, he passed away recently. When he was interviewed on television by a journalist, he said, “Azemari is our name. Azemari used to be an insult. But when this was passed on to us from our forefathers it means ‘azemere’ meaning harvest, farming and singing.” He was a close father to me.
To tell you the truth, let alone the Ethiopians, the ones living abroad feel strongly about Ethiopian music. I heard it on German and American radio stations. They feel strongly about the music. Is this our culture? Where is our culture? I feel sad and emotional about it. I don’t want anybody to touch my religion and culture. When the culture and religion which is passed on from my parents changes, I get disappointed. I don’t think it will all come back. Why? Because it’s all about money these days. To live you need money. We need to work on the younger generation and share the culture from the elders. That way maybe there is a hope, if not I don’t think so. Even the tone of the masinqo has changed. The tuning used to be from high to low but now because of organ and other instruments it is from low to high.
We need to preserve our culture before it’s tarnished. I like Assefa Abate’s song, the way he plays; who can tune like he does? When I asked about his death I heard that he was poisoned. They killed him. This still goes on. When one musician is good and he gets his album sold, they poison him out of jealousy.
When a football player plays, he plays for his country. For money? I don’t think so. If he plays for his country he wins even if he is not a good player. Because he has the passion. But he who plays for money doesn’t really care. If they really think how to preserve the culture maybe it will have hope. If you compare a city person and a person from the countryside the difference is visible. The guy from the countryside, with his style of dress, when he dances, it is beautiful; while the city person jumps from here over there it doesn’t make any sense at all. There is still time to preserve. For example “ykollegna” music, the lyric is different, the way you jump is different, the way it is sung is different. When the woman sings, he names her after a lioness and the man will be named after a lion; it goes on like this. These songs have become a way of earning money. These days you will find the song ‘goum goum’ in at least 500 albums. But you wouldn’t find the real melody.
Is there anything you want to add?
You know what they say , “I used to think that music was for joy, I learned that it is for the one who is dismayed; for the one who is concerned.” Music is not only for dancing. It reminds you of your people, it brings back memories of your relatives, it reminds you of the dead, it reminds you of love. It takes you away from your mind and it puts you in an ocean of life.
Why is it getting weaker? It shouldn’t be. Even the foreigners they work. We have every thing you don’t find our melodies our way of singing any where. When you look at the Sudanese music how do we understand their music? We don’t know the lyrics but we like to listen to it. We don’t understand the Tigrinya music but the way they sing it makes us like the music. It is not knowing and working with the four tunes of Yared. It needs to be internalized. If we can’t feel the lyrics, music’s sound is meaningless. We have a lot of things.
Let me tell you something: the priests, the deacons, the church singers, the birds, they sang when they thanked God. The music used to emanate from the birds, they were usually around the church and sang during prayer. They used to live on the trees in the church. Now because of speakers they disappeared. It is history. Go to the church and if you find a bird call me a liar.