Tewodros Kassahun (Teddy Afro), Ethiopia’s best selling artist, controversial, often times poetic at all times talented released his long awaited album – Ethiopia – this week. It has since shot to number 1 in Billboard’s World Album chart – a milestone for Ethiopian music. At home, relaxed, uplifting and vulnerable at all the same time, he hosted Samuel Getachew and Dawit Endeshaw of The Reporter as he opened up on his family, career, Ethiopia and what it means for him to be loved by millions of people around the world. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Congratulations Teddy on your new album. Since we saw you four years ago, you have become a second time father. You seem more in love with your wife. How is it different to perform, not just as an artiste, but as a father?
Teddy Afro: The difference is perhaps felt more by others who observe me when I perform. It is true, being a responsible husband and a father has given me a sense of who I am and where I belong. It has changed me. It has helped me become a better person, a better artiste. It has given me a home, a place to belong. It is something to behold. It really has been a blessing and a happy experience for me.
Going to your latest work, inside the album cover, you describe yourself as “Ra’ey” (vision). What exactly are you referring to? Are you referring to yourself having a vision, your country’s vision or something else?
As you saw for yourself, I included pictures of my parents, my father, mother and a picture of Emperor Tewodros II. It is to be a remembrance, a memorial. As a child, I called my mother Ra’ey. For me, Ra’ey is to be Ethiopian. Ra’ey is to be given by God. That is what I meant.
Your album is a hit and has given a sentiment value to your fans. You named your album Ethiopia. What does Ethiopia and Ethiopianism mean to you?
I have often been asked that question and I have always been frank with my assessment of what it means. I have reflected on it a lot by the way. For me, being Ethiopian is to be free, kind, patient and humble. It is to have and hold on to better ideals for oneself.
The current generation, sees you as the voice of a generation. Even at the beginning, when you released your Abugida album, you were seen as a voice of that generation. The current generation also sees you, as the current generation’s voice. You seem to have a way with every generation. Do you see yourself as the voice of a new generation?
I cannot be far from any generation, especially my own generation. I can only reflect on an experience. Mine or others!
Woubshet Werkalemahu, has congratulated you on your interpretation of the iconic book “Fikir Eske Mekabir”. The book is 600 pages. Do you think your interpretation in a four-minute song is inclusive of the message of the book?
It’s true, the book is 600 pages and it’s long. I believe I only reflected the main characters in the book, which is the story of Bezabih while he was trying to find Seblewengel. Basically, the song narrates the story of Bezabih from Gojam to Addis Ababa. It talks about when Gudu Kassa helps Bezabih when he tried to find his love. So I have tried to capture this part of the book.
Was there anyone aside from you who was involved in writing the lyrics for the song entitled Fikir Eske Mekabir?
No, there wasn’t. I finished both the lyrics and the melody in one night. Then I have made some improvements after. So, except the contribution from the author of Fikir Eske Mekabir itself the song belongs to me.
Some say you’re all over everything. Given your popularity and fame people involved in the music industry always want to work with you. So how are you planning to work and mentor those young producers and musicians who want to be the next Teddy Afro?
Well, when I do my music, I always try to use every possible resource at my disposal. I always want and try to work and collaborate with other musicians. I go out of my way to do that. We have tried many times but effort couldn’t go beyond trying.
Speaking of your new album, in one of your songs, which is about Emperor Tewodros II, the style of your voice you used in this song is somehow unique and resembles with the tone of the so called Azmaris. How did you come up with the song and such unique ways to capture the unique voice of an Azmari?
I always found myself attracted with such unique and old voices. By the way, it was not the first time that I have played with such tone. Previously, I played the song by Bahru Kangne. So it comes from emotion and compassion. It was not planned. It just happened.
When did you write the song about Emperor Tewodros II?
It has been a while since I started to process the song but there were improvements made on the way. It was this year that I have completed the whole song about him.
Some people relate your song on Emperor Tewodros with the recent political unrest that erupted in the city of Gondar. Did you write the song after violence in Gondar?
Well…some may link it with what happened in Gondar. However, the song has nothing to do with the unrest. So my answer is; this was not the first time I sung about our emperors and praise them at all the same time.
After the release of your album, we have seen many people lineup to purchase your album. It must be nice to be appreciated and loved by many people.
All is because of the grace of God; it is a blessing from the almighty God. But seeing this from my perspective, it is really hard. Having all this acceptance and recognition by itself put a sense of pressure. So I have no words to express my gratitude for the love and acceptance I get.
In a number of times you sang about Emperor Haile Selassie I. Speaking about Emperor, people have different opinion on him. Some consider him as god, others as a prophet and many asking. How do you see him?
The amount of grace and knowledge that our forefathers and emperors had is not something that would be easily explained. By their time, our kings were feared and respected by the world. So for me Emperor Haile Selassie I was a very kind leader – a leader who has ruled his country with grace and compassion.
So you see him as an Emperor?
One of your admirers is The Weeknd. He has listed you, along with Aster Aweke and Mulatu Astatke, as his musical heroes. He has said how his mother used to play your songs all the time. Are you open to the idea of working with him?
The simple answer is yes. I would be happy. He seems like a nice, decent young man. I met with his family inside a plane. It was indicated to me how much he loves my music. He is a talented artist. The simple answer is yes, I would love to work with him.
There are new artists, in their teenage years, in their twenties who are struggling and want to follow in your footsteps. What advice do you have for them?
The first thing is to know your real talent and your own potential. You need to have the right attitude. One has to be able to listen to different kinds of music. Attitude and confidence is the foundation to a great success in art. Build the foundation early. Be a team player.
Your wife is staring in a movie currently in local cinemas. You are both talented artists. Will there be any chance for a collaborative effort for both of you?
We have already teamed up (laughs). We worked on the video, for the song, Mar Eske Tuwaf. She was the star, playing Seblewengel and she was also the director. We saw the finished product yesterday and it was beautiful. I expect it to be released very soon.