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Tilahun Gessesse, Leading Ethiopian Singer, Dies

Adam Bernstein

Tilahun Gessesse, a dominant musical voice in his native Ethiopia, died April 19 in Addis Ababa. He was 68.

One news story called him the ''Ethiopian Pavarotti," which is a bit of a stretch culturally even in the world of puffery agents. It also could be seen as an offense to the people of the Horn of Africa. After all, would you call Pavarotti the "Italian Tilahun Gessesse"?

Gessesse remains a bit of a blank in the American press, with a few sporadic references to his skill.

He was sometimes known as Tlahoun Gessesse, and a New York Times reveiwer in 1998 described his early 1970s records as "alive with the trebly, scratching, rhythm guitars, punching horn sections and James Brown-style drum rhythms that were flooding the world. Except that he was Ethiopian, his songs used Arabic and Eastern scales and his bands were state-run institutions."

The reviewer, Ben Ratliff, continued: "His voice slips from a gargled upper-middle register to a yodel or a shriek, and flutters through a weave of scale notes, muezzin-style; sometimes he pauses between phrases, aware of his power, and lets out a chuckle."

The BBC has a brief account and a link to hear him singing here.

A far more complete story of his life is here. Many songs and clips are also on this site.

Mr. Gessesse apparently spent time in the Washington area, so any personal memories of the man or his music would be appreciated.

By Adam Bernstein  |  April 21, 2009; 5:21 PM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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Probably likening Tilahun to Pavaroti would be an understatement. Pavaroti could be a master Tenor(I guess that is his forte). But Tilahun is the unquestionable father of Ethiopian Modern Music. He died leaving half a century of legacy. His works will remain the yardsticks of vocal skills in Ethiopian music for the many years to come.

RIP Tilahun!

Posted by: fasiledes | April 22, 2009 2:32 AM | Report abuse

There is no doubt that Tilahun is “a father of Ethiopian music”. But he was, even more than that, the mouthpiece of the last three Ethiopian generations too. His songs consider all human affairs and life in general. It is possible to say that almost nothing escapes from his songs. He sang about love, peace, friendship, justice, liberty, famine, war, etc. His songs have expressed the philosophies, thoughts, feelings and desires of the generations. They also deal with major episodes of the country’s contemporary history, like the 1960 coup, the 1973 famine, the 1974 Revolution and the like. Needless to say, Tilahun’s songs have paramount importance for our understanding of the contemporary history of Ethiopia. In short, he was more than a singer. Tilahun remains above graveyard as a witness monument of contemporary Ethiopian History.

Teferi M.

Posted by: bachateferi | April 22, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for writing about Tilahun. He is indeed an Ethiopian music legend. You can find more coverage about his passing away at our web site:

- Elias Kifle

Posted by: eliaskifle | April 22, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Tilahun is the king of Ethiopian music. As one writter said ' he is the soundtrack of all our lives.'. It is a sad sad day for Ethiopia. She has lost a great man, a symbol of unity and love. May God rest his soul in peace and give strength and courage for his family, firends and Ethiopians.

Posted by: Tsin2 | April 22, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

The guy who wrote this pathetic news article – if I can call it a news article – is saying there has been hardly anything written about Tilahun in the Western press over the years and no reference for him at all.

The Western press has been busy over the years writing about famine in Ethiopia and they couldn’t care less about anything else. This is the only reason. He mentioned that Tilanhun spent time in the Washngton area, but couldn’t even be bothered to go downtown and speak to Ethiopians to get a feel for how Tilahun is regarded among Ethiopians.

He just sat in his office and criticised some of the descriptions used to give a picture of Tilahun and what he means to Ethiopians. This is lazy journalism. Go out and investigate to get the real story in stead of sitting in your office and saying: “One news story called him the ''Ethiopian Pavarotti," which is a bit of a stretch culturally even in the world of puffery agents.”

Befekir Kebede

Posted by: befekirau | April 22, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Tilahun has many legacies in Ethiopia that couldn't be simply understood by Mr. Bernstein. It is essential to look at the singers of Ethiopia in light of the political, social, and cultural values attached to them in order to see why Tilahun's songs are deeply rooted in our hearts. It's a huge headline to Ethioians because they know who Tilahun is. Think of it as if a legendary star in America who has died in the past. It's not good to look at singers like Tilahun with American Idol mentality. All the critical analysis of Tilahun can be seen later on. For now, I prefer to remember him and his works which resonate still in mind. This is a man who inspired Ethiopians in different generations!

Posted by: mikeabesha12 | April 23, 2009 3:38 AM | Report abuse

I am not surprised by the content of the article or the lack of knowledge of Ethiopian music and culture displayed by the writer; I am just surprised why he chose to write an article about the great late Tilahun Gessese with out having any idea about the man himself or what his work meant to Ethiopian art. It is not a piece of journalism expected from contributors and columnists alike of The Washington Post. Had he spent an hour or so researching or talking to Ethiopians or other fans of world music, he would have understood what it is that made the man unique. While the author of the article is entitled to his opinion, I get the feeling Mr. Bernstein is not an art critic but I doubt that he will like it if the same thing was written about Bruce Springsteen or any other American folk artist but Ethiopians and admirers of Tilahun’s music understand what he was about and what he stood for.

It’s a great loss for Ethiopians and Ethiopian art, as their most accomplished, prominent and true servant has passed away, but he leaves a legacy that will live forever.

Mr. Bernstein, I would recommend you get your hands on few CD’s, compilation of Ethiopian 1960’s music complied by French World Music scene you would have a little more understanding and appreciation of Ethiopian Art.

As one BBC art correspondent put it, what the 60’s Ethiopian music scene means to Ethiopians and world music fans is what the Buenos Vista Social Club meant to Cubans and its art and culture.

Posted by: theodab | April 23, 2009 7:25 AM | Report abuse

Tilahune sang about noble ideas that hit too close to home, heart and mind: love, friendship, family, truth, beauty, country, liberity, justice, and unity. He made us laugh and cry. He was with us in good and bad times. His voice was extraordinarily awesome. He would be remembered in Ethiopia for many gererations to come: He was, is and will be the greatest singer of all time in Ethiopia. I feel the article does not give justice to him. I know The Washingoton Post often gives training or a tour to some Ethiopian journalists. I know some of such journalists are very capable journalists. I think The Washington Post should have consulted them before publishing this article. Any way, may God rest Tilahune's soul in peace.

Posted by: AdaneAmbaw | April 23, 2009 8:30 AM | Report abuse

It is sad to know that Ethiopia's most femous singer Tilahun Gessesse died. May his soul rest in peace.

Tadesse Zerihun

Posted by: tzer66 | April 23, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

The last three days were tragic days to all Ethiopians i.e for all(Riches,The Poor,Professionals,Ordinary,Ethnic Group,Any Political Parties, Youngsters,Elders)Above all for all ETHIOPIANS ,as they lost an unforgotable noble man of the Country ,Africa and the whole world who was exceptionally able to sang about Love for the Country,friendship,nature,Justice,Freedom & Liberty,Human Right,Good deeds,life, family, truth, beauty, Patriotism, and unity.Tilahun has a put something in all Ethiopians' heart.Every Ethiopian has at least one memory with Tilahun's songs. We never forget him ever as we would at least remember him while thinking about any of the above features of life.
Tile was with all of us at bad & good times.He was mostly living for the peoples love than for himself.He would live long in the hearts of the coming Generations.
I would like to thank The Washingoton Post for publishing this article.By doing this I've considered your contribution for music of our planet.

Tile,may God rest your soul in Heaven,Amen.


Posted by: MUHSINAL2004 | April 23, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Yea Tilahun was the most popular singer in Ethiopia and he will continue to be.

However, its surprising to see such an article posted on this page. Its irritating to see this articile at this moment when we have lost our highest artist.

But it has not been been a problem to write about the negative sides of our nation.

What ever you tell to the public, the truth will be there for ever.

Posted by: samrawitaster | April 25, 2009 7:46 AM | Report abuse

It's great to see an article acknowledging this great man's influence on the lives of over 8o million people. One thing I'd like to point out-The Wiki page on this subject is entirely false and so not really a good source! we hope to see more attention paid to a man who above all was and remains a strong, unifying force to all Ethiopians.

Posted by: selam2 | April 25, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

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