Born in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, Berhanu Digaffe’s name is familiar to many Ethiopians who depend on his radio shows to learn the missing details about their loved artists. Berhanu started his career as an entertainment journalist when he first became the managing editor of Atena Newspaper, now defunct. He went on to become the editor-in-chief of Hollywood, another entertainment weekly. He became familiar to many Ethiopians when he was the host and producer of Debo TV Show. Berhanu then moved to become the host of Chewata entertainment program on 97.1 FM, the first FM station in Ethiopia. For the last seven years Berhanu is the managing director, program producer and host at Leza Radio Show on Sheger FM 102.1. Addis Standard interviewed Berhanu on his brainchild: Leza Radio Listeners’ Choice Award.Excerpts:
The nation’s are icon Abebe Balcha (right) cheering Gash Abera Molla at this year’s award
Addis Standard – Most people recognize you from your successful radio show for over a decade now; but since four years you have established the Leza Radio Listeners’ Choice Award. Why did you think it was important?
Berhanu Digaffe – Let me take you back by four years and tell you an interesting story. On Thursdays during the lunch time and on Saturday evenings on my Leza Radio Show on Sheger FM 102.1, we were playing music that were arranged and played by Ethiopians. At one point the show was somehow stuck because we had nothing new to play on air. That was when I asked myself ‘why’? and spent days and hours in search of answers. I finally decided to go to musicians, singers, record labels owners and a range of other artists and asked them what was wrong. Everyone I talked to gave me different reasons but most of them talked about how the absence of copy right protection and lack of sponsors were affecting the coming of new works. So I said to myself if we start something which inspires professionals, try to show them how much the public respects them and needs them and support them at the same time we may be able to see new works coming up. That was when I first came up with the idea of organizing the Leza Radio Listeners’ Choice Award and decided to involve my audience that I have built up over years of my work as a radio host.
There are other fragmented attempts to revive art in Ethiopia through recognition, particularly the film industry – such as the Blue Nile film festival. What makes Leza Radio Listeners’ Choice Award different from others?
The Leza Radio Listeners’ Choice Award gives recognition to both music and films and it’s not a festival. The other distinctive thing is the direct participation of the audience in the voting processes for best artists in different categories. The vote counting system is transparent and professional too. Leza Radio Listeners’ Choice Award is the first in Ethiopia to start an audience voting system via internet, too.
This year’s award saw many mega artists on the stage
By any standard, you had a humble beginning – from overall stage presence to the way votes are cast for best artistes in different categories. The 4th Leza Radio Listeners’ Choice Award, however, has taken everyone by a pleasing surprise. Is that an indication that the Award has received wide recognition, or is that your sole determination to make it better?
It is an indication of a growing respect by the public to our artists and vice versa. Most artists today say their wealth is the public, and they showed this by respecting the public’ vote. ,This is seen from the increasing number of mega artists turning up to attend the Leza Radio Listeners’ Choice Award and receive their awards. The public, too, showed them its respect by the increasing turn up of voters on the internet. For me these are the two major factors for the increasing popularity of the Leza Radio Listeners’ Choice Award.
When you first launched it you made it clear that you have taken a different role, other than your radio shows, in promoting art in Ethiopian, mostly Ethiopian art. But some critics say there is no art to promote in the first place. Four years later, do you think you have proven these skeptics wrong?
I often don’t understand how someone, skeptic or not, bashes art and says there is no art to promote in the first place. In any given society there is art that defines that society. The problem begins if you don’t promote it, respect it…We have to recognize the fact that those who are on the top of art in Ethiopia have had to start from ground zero. When you ask how they made it there, they all tell you promotion was the major reason. As to your question on whether or not I think I have proven these skeptics wrong? Well let me ask these skeptics to go back and compare the number of new works released in the last four years with that of before four years. Let me also ask them if they have ever had a chance to interact with our artists, listen to their emotions and see their reactions. The sheer volume of the number of people who sign into the voting website proves these skeptics wrong, too.
Growing numbers of film critics in Ethiopia complain about most Ethiopian films being comedy-monotonous. But your Award has a wide variety in its category and we have seen artists crowned in different categories. Do you think this critics’ concern is affecting your ambition to create a dominant award program for multi-faceted talents in the art industry in Ethiopia?
Yes that is true and my theory is that it is driven by demand from the market. But one thing you should know is that we are part of the world and we are prone to share the same experience from elsewhere. If you see Hollywood sometimes the market is dominated by action movies, other times by horror movies and then by science fictions etc. In between this you will find different genres which go through a long process to overcome the hegemony of a given genre to reach to high level. That may give us a lesson or two and that we may not need to go through that after all. We have seen something different this year; the best movie choice by our listeners was not a comedy genre.
During the 4th Leza Radio Show Listeners’ Choice Award back in Sep. this year, you’ve mentioned on the stage about facing tough challenges and overcoming them. What are the most frustrating experiences of putting up a show like that together?
I strongly believe in the say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I may talk about those challenges but at the end of the day they give me the energy to work more and harder.
And if I can ask you what was the most rewarding experience?
To learn from the past. Most importantly, I have learned that our people are art lovers and our artists respect our people. IF you look at the mega names that volunteered to present their works at the show, the likes of pianists Girma Yifrashewa and Samuel Yirga, names like Abebe Balcha who participated in presenting awards and the Merwa choir members and stage Designer Nestanet Sife showed me this mutual respect.
Artist Gash Abera Molla, this year’s winner of best album
Sometimes, especially in the past, the awardees themselves fail to show up at the event. But to the surprise of many, other than Artist Mohammed Ahmud, who was not in the country, all the awardees, big and small, were there during the 4th Leza Radio Show Listeners’ Choice Award.
We experienced this only once during the 2nd Leza Radio Show Listeners’ Choice Award only one of the winners (a singer) failed to show up at that time. The show has always enjoyed the respect both of the public and that of the artists.
This year you have slightly changed the percentage of listeners’ vote and added votes from independent judges to select best performers in the various categories – from music to film. Why?
I believe there are some art works which need a special way of observation; and these kinds of works may not be recognized well by the mass. So I thought giving professionals the chance to criticizes and give due recognition to these often hidden art works. Then that gives the audience the chance to look at these works from a learned angle. IT is a work in progress in that some say these professionals should guide the public how to critically look into these art works. Others says the public itself needs to find a way to critically look into art works. So it’s an ongoing process.
Obviously the Leza Radio Show Listeners’ Choice Award is becoming a household name, but what does Berhanu Digaffe want to do with it, say, in the coming five years?
When I was a kid, I grew up looking at big stages of recognition like the Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe. These events all started from something humble and went far and become household names all over the world. I imagine Leza Radio Show Listeners’ Choice Award to be Ethiopia’s version the Oscar. Within the coming five years I would like to work hard to get recognition within in our continent Africa. Thanks to my dedicated supporters at Sheger FM 102.1, Aqua Addis, and Timret Le Hiwote Ethiopia I think we are making some progress.
Cover Photo: Berhanu Digaffe/Addis Standard
Inside Photos Credit: Leza Radio Show Listeners’ Choice Award