AfricaArt Review

Girum Mezmur:Marking two decades of excellence as a guitarist

Zela Gayle

This year marks the 20th year anniversary of Girum Mezmur’s professional life as a renowned Ethiopian guitarist. In these 20 years, Girum’s career has evolved from an accomplished guitarist in a band to establishing his own band, which led to a high demand for his artistic appearance both in and outside of Ethiopia. 

Girum grew up in a household with a guitar and an accordion, enjoying his elder brothers play in the house. He later on picked up on these instruments and developed his own skill after joining the high school band at St. Joseph School. “Over the years [I] discovered several inspiring guitarists and musicians locally and internationally,” he told this magazine.

Girum’s career began as a self taught musician, but a year after he joined the famous Axumite band in early 1993, he decided to study music at Yared Music School hoping to major in guitar, only to come face to face with a disappointing news: there was no guitar department at the then only music school in the country. Girum has then moved to studying classical piano in which he graduated with a distinction in 1997.

Twenty years later, however, Girum’s continued success as a jazz guitarist and a decade long experience in teaching guitar at other music schools influenced the opening of a newly established jazz department at the Yared Music School of Addis Ababa University, and Girum became the first ever jazz guitar instructor of the school.

 Girum the artist

Girum‘s talent in playing the guitar is versatile: he comfortably plays solid electric, semi-acoustic jazz guitars, acoustic guitars, and occasionally the 12 strings and fretless guitars. He uses them all depending on the context of the band he performs with, or in a studio recording set up. Married to Amital Ermias, who is an integral part of his group’s success and a father of one, Girum is also a successful producer and musical director.

Several cities in Europe, North America, and Africa, are no strangers to his concert appearance both for the Ethiopian community and on various world music festivals and jazz venues. Girum’s local fame soared during his rendezvous with likeminded musicians every Thursday to perform a live popular jam session at the Coffee House club for ten years (1998-2008). “Most musicians today in Ethiopia agree that this has significantly impacted the live instrumental music scene in Addis Ababa to flourish,” he said.

Having experienced the world, Girum’s memorable moment was his participation in 2009 in the World Music Expo (WOMEX’09) festival.”[My] most memorable and purposeful experience was going to the WOMEX 2009 festival in Copenhagen with my Ethio-jazz group Addis Acoustic Project”, the first band from Ethiopia to participate in WOMEX festival. His year old band was chosen as one of the 33 acts out of the more than 900 other contending bands from around the world to participate in the festival, which was attended by more than 2,000 music professionals who witnessed a great performance by Girum’s own brainchild, Addis Acoustic Project.

 The Addis Acoustic Project

Full of musical brilliance is the live performing and recording band Addis Acoustic Project,  which was formed by Girum in 2008.  It has a particular focus and niche and its aim is playing original Ethiopian melodies from the 1950’s and early 60’s with a skillful touch of rearrangements to highlight the influence of jazz, Latin, and East African musical traditions. “The 1950’s Ethiopian music used a lot of these acoustic instruments as opposed to the later years which are marked by the arrangements of the big bands and the intricate lines and sound of the brass/wind instruments,” Girum said.  Addis Acoustic Project is a six piece band with Henock Temesgen on double bass, Nathaniel Tesemma on drums, Misale Legesse on kebero & percussions, Ayele Mamo on mandolin, Aklilu Woldeyohannes on clarinet & flute and Girum Mezmur on guitars, accordion and as a musical director. “Because the band is from Addis Ababa, ‘Addis’ also means ‘New’ and we cover vintage Ethiopian music with a fresh approach and yet without compromising the authenticity” he said.

The legendary veteran mandolin player Ayele Mamo was instrumental in shaping the 1950’s and 60’s Ethiopian music with the sound of his mandolin and his composition. To the delight of many who long for the golden era of Ethiopian music, Ayele is still going strong with Addis Acoustic Project.  In just five years since its establishment Addis Acoustic Project now gives a weekly show every Friday at the Jazzamba Lounge, co-founded by Girum, to a full house of diverse audience comprised of older Ethiopians who happen to enjoy the pleasing Déjà vu of the early Ethiopian music, the growing number of young Ethiopian jazz fans, and foreigners residing in Addis Ababa and looking for a connection to Ethiopian music and tradition.

Photo- Dumelie Sven
Girum is intimately attached to his guitar

The band has played in Denmark, Sweden, and multiple times in Germany at Rudolstadt Jazz & Folk Music festival 2010 and jazz venues in Cologne and Frankfurt in 2012. And most recently in April this year, it participated in a successful jazz concert in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya.

“In the long run, I plan to continue to produce more albums for Addis Acoustic Project and consider further adventurous collaborations as well as perform our music to a larger world music audience”, Girum dreams.  Apart from the time he spends producing music, in the past few years he has composed and arranged music for radio programs, commercials, and documentary films such as “The Life and Times of Emperor Haile Selassie”, viewed all over Africa, “The Market Maker” on PBS (U.S.A), and “The Athlete,” a film about the Ethiopian Olympic legend Abebe Bikila,which was rumored to have had a chance for an Academy Award nomination. He was also instrumental in setting up Acacia Jazz & World Music Festival, a yearly Jazz festival which has become popular in Addis Ababa just after its third volume this year, and Jazzamba Music School.

A look back at Girum’s musical adventures over the last 20 years reveals that he, being someone who cherishes “the freedom to improvise, and the ability to incorporate one’s musical heritage with this international genre of music,” is one of the few Ethiopian musicians who endured the ups and downs of the industry and has successfully branded himself as a multi-talented guitarist, producer and instructor. His is a life of entertainment and of success to its full.

Girum Photo- Dumelie Sven

 Caption: The Addis Acoustic Project has something to give for everyone  /Photo – Daniel Tamrat

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