Mahmoud Ahmed: Fortune favours the brave

Mahmoud Ahmed, Ethiopia's greatest singer, tells Chris Menist about the years of oppression and his extraordinary journey to musical stardom
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The Independent Culture

Although he is a huge star in his home country of Ethiopia, few people had heard of Mahmoud Ahmed in Britain before his appearance at last year's Womad festival. With two blistering performances, he was the highlight of the weekend, commanding the stage, at 65, with the energy of a 20-year-old and a piercing voice that soared above a tight backing-band, who switched between Ethiopian polyrhythms and raw Eastern funk without dropping a beat.

Like many Ethiopians, he toughed it out during the 18 bleak years of Mengistu's "Derg time", a cruel Marxist regime during which many thousands of people died or disappeared. Despite certain censorship restrictions, he continued to perform in the capital, as well as internationally, and was this year honoured at the annual music festival held in Addis Ababa. After gigs in France, he will be performing again here in the UK, at the London African Music Festival.

Born in Addis Ababa in 1941, Ahmed dropped out of school early to eke out a living as one of the city's many shoeshine boys. Trudging through the dusty streets of Addis today, offers to spruce up your dusty footwear, mix with the repetitive hollers of lottery ticket sellers, and a bewildering blend of music that takes in the traditional sounds of the one-stringed messenqo fiddle, 50 Cent, and "Daddy Cool" by Boney M. A group of youths hanging out at an internet café appeared to know the words by heart. It's not hard to imagine a teenage Ahmed, hustling for trade whilst taking in the various sounds coming from the radio.

"I heard The Imperial Bodyguard Band. They had a show twice a week," he recalls, as we sit observing the sunset, in the grounds of the Hilton. "I would sit on my shoeshine box and listen. The next morning I would try and play the songs with my friends. As well as Ethiopian music I also heard Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Pat Boone. I also saw Jailhouse Rock at the cinema. I saw how Elvis shook his legs!"

Were it not for an odd series of coincidences in the early Sixties, it's possible Ahmed's singing might have stayed a mere hobby. A neighbour decided to open up a nightclub and initially employed the teenager as a handyman. From there, he graduated to the kitchen, where, between cooking and washing up, he was exposed to some of the best music in the capital.

At that time, state-sanctioned bandswould play a mixture of classical, traditional Ethiopian tunes and jazz. These players would moonlight after hours, unwittingly creating the soundtrack to what became "Swinging Addis", a kind of unique, almost melancholy funk.

Members of the Imperial Bodyguard Band played at the nightclub, including Tlahoun Gessese, a highly respectedEthiopian singer. One evening he was engaged elsewhere, and Mahmoud chanced his luck.

"One night Tlahoun didn't show up, so I ask if I could perform with them," enthuses Mahmoud. "The musicians didn't know that I could sing - so I went from the kitchen to the stage! I got a great response, everyone was clapping and shouting."

The club's owner was so impressed that he had him play with the band regularly. Ahmed stayed with The Imperial Bodyguard Band for 11 years, performing in venues around the capital. The early Seventies, though, saw the start of a brief, but crucial period of local talent and entrepreneurship. In the wake of a failed coup in 1960 Haile Selassie had relaxed aspects of his regime, but officially a state monopoly for record production existed. A young man named Amha Eshete, seeing that neighbouring Kenya and Sudan were releasing their own discs for the local market, decided that Ethiopia should do the same. Bucking official channels, he started to record local groups for his label, Amha. His gamble paid off, and despite idle threats, he was left alone to this endeavour.

"He was the first man to release Ethiopian 45s," Ahmed recalls. "I was working at the Ras Hotel with the Ibex Band and he came and listened to me there." Eshete agreed to record him straight away.

Amid growing protests, especially amongst students, aimed at Selassie's oppressive regime, the Emperor's days appeared to be numbered. Against this backdrop Ahmed released a string of superb singles, and later his best known work Ere Mela Mela. Upon its reissue in the mid-Eighties, this album woke the rest of the world briefly to the fact that there was more to Ethiopia than famine. As well as this recording boom, Addis' nightlife had reached a creative apex, with cutting-edge live music being performed at several venues every night. This all came to an end in 1974, with the deposition of Haile Selassie, by a military coup, eventually presided over by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

"Derg time brought a curfew, from 11.30pm to 5am," Ahmed recalls solemnly. "There were fewer places where people could go and dance and listen to music. After the Derg came in, if you put out a cassette, you had to include at least two songs which had patriotic, revolutionary messages otherwise it couldn't be released." To get round the curfew, bands operated a lock-in system, whereby people would stay until early morning. In the mid-Seventies, Ahmed briefly set up his own label. As it happens, his were some of the last records to be released in Ethiopia. On his return from a US tour in 1984, he continued to play his music, but without the same freedom.

"We had to rehearse revolutionary songs and play in front of the Derg. It was an order. If you wanted to sing, you had to do it," he explains.

Things improved after the fall of Mengistu in 1991, but the music scene never quite recaptured its same vibrancy.

"It's different now," he says of the music scene. "Today we have electronics. The musicians are young, so the big bands are forgotten. But the new music is good to me, because it is progressive."

Mahmoud Ahmed plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall (0870 380 0400; www.rfh.org.uk), in the London African Music Festival, on 26 May

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