Art and culture

Obituary: In memoriam of Elias Melka: A man larger than life

The Late Elias Melka

Etenesh Abera and Ephream Sileshi

Addis Abeba, October 20/2019 – Riding in the blue and white mini-buses in Addis is rarely quiet. The drivers play music all day; some from the radio and others from CDs or mp3 players with the latest and greatest of Ethiopian music. For many what this latest and greatest of Ethiopian music can vary week after week. Songs skyrocket to popularity and then disappear without a trace in just a few weeks, giving way to the newest incarnation.

But some songs hold out. They hold out long enough to define a movement, a culture and a generation; no one produced as many of these defining genres as the late Elias Melka. What those Radio DJs know, and the mini-bus drivers agree with is that an Elias Melka creation is always Ethiopian music at its best.

Born and raised in a neighborhood called Abenet, located in the heart of Addis Abeba, Elias Melka rose to become a giant of Ethiopian music, producing all the best songs and albums of the last two decades. He was raised in an evangelical protestant family, which gave him the opportunity to be familiarized with modern musical instruments from childhood. He received his first guitar from his father and joined a music school during the summer before his 12th grade, according to his brother, Abenezer Melka. After high school he went to Yared Music School and graduated with distinction.

Zion religious music band was Elias’ first band and it was here that his talent for music started to shine. After this, Elias played the guitar in Medina Music Band, Zema Lastas and Afro Sound to name but just a few. 

“I’ve known him for 20 years; he was my favorite guitarist ever” – Johnny Raga, Singer/Songwriter and Close friend

He then turned his focus to producing and creating the sounds that would define his generation. Ethiopia is home to hundreds of musical styles and Elias started sampling some of those sounds for his work early on. Fusing the Guragigna with the modern, the modern with Oromoo music, sampling unique Kunama sounds and producing songs, Elias created a body of work made beautiful as much by its curation as the musical genius of the man behind it all. This body of work consists of more than 20 albums he produced and just as many albums and singles he collaborated with other producers, singers and songwriters. 

A discography of Elias Melka’s work is a collection of the best of Ethiopian music of the past two decades with artists like the late Mikaya Behailu, pop artists Zeritu Kebede and Gossaye Tesfaye among some of the most successful singers who are highly influenced and guided by Elias from their early days in the music industry.

But it wasn’t just singers/songwriters that Elias cracked open the door for; most producers and composers who worked with Elias went on to become well known names in the national scene of contemporary Ethiopian music. The type of influence Elias wielded over Ethiopian sound is yet to be rivaled and his mark will be heard for generations to come. 

Beyond the sound of music

Elias was also a leader in taking social responsibility, having produced more than half a dozen singles that deal with HIV/AIDS and traffic accidents, among others. These anthems of his, recorded in collaboration with some of the biggest names in Ethiopian music, are iconic and have greatly helped the effort to educate people about these societal dangers. 

Elias Melka became a pioneer when he founded the service Awtar, a music app built to democratize the consumption of music and fairly compensate musicians. The app, which is already published on Google Play, makes Ethiopian music available online.   

“We sent our star off into the sky and returned home through the darkness. “ – Sertse Firesebehat, Music Expert

On October 04, 2019, Elias Melka died at the age of 42 from medical complications caused by diabetes and kidney failure, sending shock-waves through not just the music industry, but the country at large: the blue-taxis, the bars, the schools and music shops, for which, his genius was the soundtrack for two decades.

Team Addis Standard mourns the passing of Elias Melka, a man who was larger than life. AS

Editor’s Note: An erroneous picture was used for this story in the earlier edition of this story. We regret the error.

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