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Ethiopian Music Legend


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Mixed emotions were evident in many people on the death of the music giant, Tilahun. Sadness ripped their hearts, but perhaps another feeling was joy of the legacy that the man has left behind, and in the way that he has touched people’s lives and hearts, necessitating not only mourning for his death, but a celebration of his life as ADDISU DERESSE and AMANYEHUN REDDA, FORTUNE STAFF WRITERS, report.

Gripped in Grief's Grasp


An old woman, one of the many gripped by grief, sobs intensely as Tilahun's body leaves his house at 11:25am.


Feyissa Abdela, 23, born in Shashemane, lives on one of the streets around Wello Sefer. He has been living on the streets for the last 15 years. He was part of the huge crowd that came out to witness Tilahun Gessess's funeral procession along the African Avenue (Bole Road), which was heading to Meskel Square where the main ceremony took place. It was surely a historic event.

Last Thursday, April 23, 2009, highlighted one of the major events to take place on Bole Road (Africa Avenue) and Meskel Square. People of all walks of life turned out to pay homage to the highly celebrated singer; Feyisa was just one of the hundreds of thousands in the crowd.

Despite the hardships he has had to face in life thus far, Feyisa still  had room in his heart to come out to honour Tilahun; the T-shirt he wore said it all as it had "We Love You Gash (Respected) Tilahun" spread across both his chest and back.

"I have been a big fan of Tilahun from seven or eight years ago," said Feyissa.

Ironically, he does not have a player on which he could listen to Tilahun's music, or to the songs of any other singer for that matter.

"I enjoy going to one of the music shops around the town, where I beg them to play one of his songs so that I can dance," Feyissa told Fortune.

For him, Tilahun was a symbol of love that stretched across all social classes and barriers, encouraging people to love one another. He believes that last Thursday's funeral procession, and the ceremonies that preceded it, were just a humble gesture the Ethiopian society could give to a man who has touched so many lives.


"You can not imagine how I go crazy whenever I hear the song Ene Eskemot Diress (Till I Die)," Feyissa said.

There are some people from completely different strata of life who feel the same as Feyissa about the late Tilahun.  

Brehanu Kidane, 58, was born in Dessie town and works in a recently established import/export company around Bole. As he expressed his sorrow, he said that he wanted to attend the funeral ceremony if his boss would allow him to.

Brehanu said that he first heard Tilahun's music in the early 6os.

"Back then, I was a Grade Three student," he said.

Tilahun used to stage music concerts with the Imperial Body Guard Band, popularly known by the Amharic name Kibur Zebegna, every 15 days.

This same band, along with the Police Orchestra Marsh Band, accompanied Tilahun's body through the entire procession, which began at his house just behind Bole Printing Press, went down Africa Avenue to Meskel Square, and then continued to the Holy Trinity Church Cathedral.

Tilahun's concerts back then, however, were only enjoyed by a limited number of people, who worked in government institutions, mainly officials, Brehanu explained.

"Not everyone was allowed to attend such concerts," Birhanu recalls.

Thus, every fortnight, on the day of Tilahun's concerts, Brehanu would reach the place they were being held early in the morning and wait for Tilahun.


"When I saw him coming, I would run to him, hold his hand, and beg him to take me into the concert," he told Fortune.

A devoted fan of the singer, Brehanu, however, is not that saddened by Tilahun's death as he believes that Tilahun had lived life to the fullest, and one can only celebrate the time he spent wisely on this earth rather than mourn his passing.

"Considering his age and the things he has done so far, I will never cry thinking over Tilahun's death," Birhanu declared.

Not only locals have been somewhat affected by Tilahun's life, foreigners too have felt his breeze. One such fan compared the magnitude of Tilahun's death to that of the global reggae star, Bob Marley, in terms of the honour the people have accorded him at his funeral.

"This is such an amazing situation that I am seeing today; just like the situation on May 11, 1981, the day Bob Marley died," Jingo Kasujja, 35, a dreadlocked musician and film maker, born in Kampala, Uganda, told Fortune as he headed towards Meskel Square. 

People just need to be themselves in order to be loved like Tilahun, Jingo believes. For him, Tilahun was a singer and music is all he had to give, which he did wonderfully and this is what has drawn all those people to his funeral.

"I am not mourning his death; I am happy that he lived this long," said Jingo.

The Ugandan said he would have been crying if Tilahun had not already given all that he had to the world. He was referring to the more than half a century long singing career Tilahun has had, and the about 300 songs he has produced over the years. 

The film maker first encountered Tilahun's songs through a CD prepared in the 1990s through Aster Awoke. He does not remember the song though, as he does not speak Amharic. Language has been no barrier, however, to his enjoyment of Tilahun's music.

"I get my Ethiopian friends to tell me about the meanings of the songs," Jingo told Fortune.

Solomon Beyene, 38, is the General Manager of Solomon Beyene Customs Clearing and Insurance Sales Agent; Fortune reporter caught up with him as he was buying three small pictures of Tilahun being sold at Meskel Square on Thursday.

"It is not that I do not have a picture of Tilahun in my home, but I do want to have everything about him that is in the market," he told Fortune.


Part of the huge crowd that accompanied Tilahun's body when it arrived at Trinity Cathedral Church at 3.17pm on Thursday.

Solomon has been a big fan of the singer for more than 20 years now. He has every one of Tilahun's songs either on tape of CD to prove this devotion. 

What Solomon makes of the magnificent ceremony following Tilahun's death is that the public has developed a new way of expressing their feelings.

"Simply saying thank you to someone you adore is not enough recognition," Solomon stated.


Supporting someone financially is also not the best way of showing recognition of people's achievement, Solomon indicated.  For him, what the Ethiopian nation did last Thursday when they poured onto the streets to honour Tilahun, despite the discomfits and risks that were there, is surely the best way that the crowd can express gratitude for a life well lived.  

"The public is out today not only for Tilahun, but also for Ethiopian art," Solomon asserted.

Tilahun's funeral has also been declared a state funeral by the government. In fact, the President and Prime Minister made official statements immediately after his death was announced. Following them, regional chiefs also gave official condolences. Ethiopian Radio and Television interrupted programmes to broadcast tributes made to the singer.

As much as those who argue that the government in particular has deliberately taken an active part in the homage paid to Tilahun, there are others who believe that the government has not done anything that Tilahun does not deserve.

"Tilahun deserves the ceremony," Zelalem Mekuria, who was one of the adjudicators at the now defunct TV show - Ethiopian Idols - told Fortune.

For him, both the public and the government have accorded Tilahun a lot, and it is an indication of change in the culture and attitude towards art.

"I felt that both [the public and government] have transformed completely," he told Fortune.

Meskel Square hosted an estimated two hundred people, including senior government officials such as Bereket Simon, head of Government Communication Affairs Office with ministerial portfolio; Gebru Gebremariam, parliamentary representative (whip) of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF); Theodros Adhanom (PhD), minister of Health. The Saudi business tycoon, Sheik Mohamed Hussien Ali Al Amoudi, and his close ally, Abinet Gebremeskel, joined the crowd an hour after the program began at Meskel.

In fact, the funeral ceremony started from his house at exactly at 11:25am. While the silver casket bearing bearing his body left the house, members of his family, friends and compatriots were gripped by grief and sobbed intensely.

As the body moved across Bole Road and entered Meskel Square, the ever swelling crowds wailed in sorrow. The square was crowded with people of all ages, from children as young as 10 years old to very elderly. Physically challenged people were also present amid the dense crowd.

Later on, in the ceremony held at the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church, Kuma Demeksa, mayor of the City Government of Addis Abeba, Abay Tsehaye, Public Mobilization advisor to the Prime Minister; Junedin Sado, minister of Science and Technology, Brehan Hailu, minister of Justice; and Asefa Kessito, Berhan's predecessor, were in attendance. Other big names like Ephraim Isaac (Prof.) and many vocalists were summoned to the church to say "goodbye" to Tilahun.

Despite asserting the alleged vested interest of the government, Zelalem, a lecturer, argues that Tilahun's achievements have been more important in drawing the public.

The ceremony was not just a moment to say goodbye to the singer; there were also those in the crowd who did not hesitate to cash in on the event and the singer's glory.

Michael Solomon, 22, was one of many the many who took advantage of the funeral to sell 10cm x 15cm pictures of Tilahun. He bought 500 copies for 2.50 Br each ahead of the event. At the Trinity Church, he had already sold more than 100 pictures for three Birr each within an hour.

The occasion also pushed a businessman who owns printing machine - Daniel Tsegaye, 29 - and an advertisement worker to sell small flags bearing Tilahun's picture and the sentence "We will not forget you" printed on them. He got the idea for this from a broadcast about Tilahun on one of the FM radios. He did not sleep on it and printed about 5,000 of these flags. And he has no regrets; by the time the ceremony was almost through, he had already sold 2,500 of them for five Br each; that in a mere 30 minutes. He had focused on the Trinity Church section of the ceremony. Daniel had also distributed the flags to other individuals who were selling them for 10 Br each.


The half-day long funeral ceremony on Thursday (not including the series of ceremonies that took place the days preceding it, was made regal by the about a dozen black Mercedes cars that followed one another, all blasting out Tilahun's music. Regal too were the majority of contemporary musicians and artists, all dressed in black, who were evident among the huge crowd to pay homage to a man many have crowned as the king of Ethiopian music.

The public's eagerness to pay the singer homage continued into the next day, Friday, April 24, 2009, with some people still visiting Tilahun's grave, a day after his body had been laid to rest.

And some in the same profession as the late singer believe that there are a lot of things yet to be done in terms of finalising what Tilahun has started as a way of honouring him.

"The most important thing is to finish what he has started," Neway Debebe, one of the artists concerned, told Fortune


He believes that finalising Tilahun's songs that he was working on for what surely will now be his last album, and the publication of his autobiography would go a long way to maintaining his legacy.




On Stage Tilahun
  image 2  
  image 2  
  Mohammud Ahmed  
  Aster Aweke  
  Aelemal Abate  
  Gigi Shebabaw  
  Tedy Afro  
  Abe Lakew  
  Neway Debebe  


(c) Tilahun Gesesse Memorial Page.

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