Born in 1972 in Ethiopia, Daniel Lemma left Ethiopia at a tender age to Sweden. Now based in Swedish Daniel is emerging musician/singer-songwriter who first came to fame Lemma first became in 2000 when he provided the soundtrack for Josef Fares’ film Jalla Jalla. Daniel’s music is intimately connected to what music critics say is roots music; American folk music with more ties to early blues and gospel. Recently Daniel came to his birth place Ethiopia during which time he gave Addis Standard an exclusive interview on his works, past and present. Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about how you first left Ethiopia for Sweden?
I was only three months old when I came to Sweden, and, incidentally, in my early twenties when I first returned to Ethiopia. And I guess I’ve been trying to reconcile these two parts of my history-of myself! -ever since. I grew up with Swedish parents but I always maintained contact with my Ethiopian family.
Did growing up in Sweden reshape you from who you would otherwise become had you been raised in Ethiopia?
Well I suppose so, but it’s difficult to say of course. My guess is that at least my Amharigna would have been a little more coherent had I stayed in Addis.
When did you realize your call was music?
I don’t remember a specific moment. The music has always been there- I started playing drums at an early age- but I have never felt that it was “music or nothing else”. I was more interested in learning a craft and a tradition, and then somewhere along the way I just realized I might be able to carve out a living from doing it.
Your music is intimately connected to what music critics say is roots music; American folk music with more ties to early blues and gospel. Where did that influence come from?
That special blend of traditions that occurred in America was a meeting and a mixture of African and European cultures. Who knows, I may have recognized something of my own history in that mix. As for the music, I first heard it through my dad’s record collection.
You went to New York in late 1990s and in the three years you lived there you recorded an album for Pallas Records, which never saw the light of the daydue to some legal cases. Could you walk us through what happened then, and what happened to the album?
Well it was one of those things, I know a lot of people have experienced it; the business end of the industry isn’t necessarily where you as a musician want to be caught up. I was both naïve and un-experienced, and when you add a bit of bad luck you get a no-good combination, especially if you’re trying to work in New York. The legal issue was actually between a record company and a production company, and I (and the album I had just recorded) was more of collateral damage. I don’t know where the songs ended up, and I don’t miss them. I like to think I became a better writer afterwards.
In 2000 you recorded “If I Used to Love You,” which, critical acclaims say, was a hit that introduced you to your wider fans in Scandinavia and was a soundtrack for Josef Fares’ film JallaJalla. That soundtrack was nominated for Grammis. But how much did it influence your successive works?
Well that album(and that song in particular), was a lot more successful than I had predicted. It didn’t really influence anything I’ve done since then though, except that it – like you said- made it easier for me to reach a wider audience. But you know, it’s the same for everybody; every time you sit down to write you start from zero.
I asked you this because critics say the single has a stark difference from your works when you were leading the bands Mo Blues and Mo Funk.
Yes, but that’s because I wasn’t really pursuing my own writing when working with earlier bands. I really don’t think my approach to songwriting has changed that much over the years. Even though I like to think I’m learning- and getting a little bit better at – the craft as I’m getting older.
You recorded three albums with record labels: Morning Train (2001), Meeting at the Building (2003) and Dreamers and Fools (2005). Then you went on recording three more on your own label Dextra Music: Somebody on Your Side (2007), Rebound (2009) and Telescope (2012). What was the difference in terms of success?
Well, if success is measured in record sales then the first one was the most successful. I don’t quite see it that way, as I said before. To me it’s more about making an album that taps in to something constant and unchanging. And that’s something you won’t know until it stood up against the test of time. I know by now a couple of those albums did OK, and a couple of them didn’t.
Which album do you think has brought you closer to your audience?
I really don’t know. Different people may like different albums. Since people’s way of listening to music has totally changed since I recorded the first album it might be that the first album is the one people really listened to as an album, I mean as a whole set of songs.
It’s been nearly three years since you recorded your last Telescope, is it true that you have come to Ethiopia to record your latest album?
Well, I’m at least preparing for it- talking and listening to a lot of good musicians in Addis Abeba. I look forward to working with some of them on the next album.
Not many people in Ethiopia know about you and your music, as you once said, I quote: “People here don’t know my music” and you said you were working hard to change that. That was three, four years ago. Has anything changed since then?
[Laughter] so your implicit question is how I define “hard work“? Well, you’re right. If anything, there is probably even less people that know of me now. But the thing is I never said when the change would be brought about. In other words, I may still have a trick or two up my sleeve…. You’ll have to wait and see!
You once said that your famous dreadlock was inspired after reading the renowned African American author Alice Walker’s “Oppressed Hair”. Your dreadlock was, well, your trademark for many years. I see that you have taken it off now. Why?
I let my hair grow long and natural for many years. When black people do that it’s always an issue- it always seems to mean or symbolize something. I just got tired of long hair and cut it. Alice Walker wrote: “an oppressed hair is the ceiling of the brain”….or something to that extent. Well, now my brain is free to the wind and the rain again.
Your itinerary is packed with gigs in different cities in Sweden: Karlstad, Uppsala, Stockholm and Karlskrona. When will you be back to Ethiopia and, most important, when will you have a gig for your fans in Ethiopia?
I don’t know yet, but it won’t be too long. And I promise will let you know as soon as I land a gig in Addis Abeba!