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The many hands of Henock Temesgen

Mahlet Fasil
As a host of a one hour radio show, “Timeless Classics”, on Sheger FM 102.1, every Saturday afternoon at 6 pm, the bassist Henock Temesgen plays popular old tunes from Willie Nelson to The Temptations, form Bob Dylan to The Jackson Five. For those listeners who prefer standard Jazz and the likes of John Coltrane or Miles Davis, he has yet another show on the same station on Sunday mornings. He is among the organizers of the Acacia Jazz Festival held annually in Addis Abeba to showcase some of the finest talents in the making of Ethio-Jazz. He is a co-founder of Jazzamba Music School, an institute dedicated to bring the next generation of Jazz musicians. And of course he plays bass guitar with different bands. A graduate of Berkeley Henock Temesgen has music running in his veins.

When he talks about his life and music Henock says, playfully, “I am very hyperactive. I have to get really busy to get comfortable; otherwise I get bored.”
Spending his childhood around the Entoto area of Northern Addis Abeba, close to the Swedish Mission Church, it was in a very humble age of five (or six) that he showed an interest in music. “On weekends I used to go to the church with my friend and play some melodies on keyboard or guitar,” Henock told this magazine. But it was after his elder brother bought an old guitar from a British teacher leaving for his country that Henock’s obsession with the instrument surfaced. More than forty years on, he still keeps his first love.

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In high school he followed his family and moved to the affluent Bole neighborhood where he met his longtime friend and colleague, Abegazu Kibrework Shiota, who had taken classical piano lessons. They were destined to bond. They managed to form a band with other friends and performed for their high school graduation. But project at their teen didn’t last long as Henock had to leave Ethiopia for the States.

It was in Washington DC. area in the US that he began playing music professionally when he joined an already functioning band, Gasha. “It was in 1981. We played in an Ethiopian Restaurant. There were a couple of Americans in the band, too. But eventually it became an all Ethiopians band.”
After moving to the cultural capital of North America, New York, and settling across the street from the vibrant Times Square, he felt he had finally arrived home. “It was a heaven for an artist. I loved it. I even told friends that I would never leave.” Yet in 2006, after twenty six years living abroad he came to his country for good.

What brought the change of heart? He says there were both push and pull factors. The push factor is after 9/11 his main source of income was threatened. “For some reason there weren’t many Ethiopian gigs anymore. We used to have two or three [gigs] a month”. That trickled down to “may be one gig in six or seven month’s time.” So he was forced to work odd jobs to pay his bills. He never forgets that he once “worked as a limousine driver.” The pull factor was after the opening in 1998 of the only five star luxury hotel in Ethiopia, Sheraton Addis, he started traveling to Addis to play music with Ethiopian mega stars such as Aster Awoke and Mahmud Ahmed on special occasions like New Year Festivities organized by Sheraton Addis. Whenever he came here he used the opportunity to play with local musicians such as guitarist Girum Mezmur and sometimes appeared as a guest teacher in music schools.

Although other musicians of his caliber and childhood friend Abegazu Kibrework Shiota and Jorga Mesfin, the latter a famos saxophonist, have also decided to relocate to Ethiopia, Henock’s homecoming is often associated with the current boom of Addis Abeba’s nightlife and the revival of the Ethio-Jazz scene.

While acknowledging the homecoming impact that his and his friends had in reviving Ethio-jazz in the night lives of Addis and beyond, Henock also credits the likes of Girum who had helped create the environment. “The last ten or fifteen years are in general have seen an art boom in Ethiopia. Filmmaking is booming; there is also a lot of movement for different artists like painters. I am glad to have contributed a little bit in the music scene,” he says.

A father of two, as of late Henock is spending a lot more time with his family. But he still plays regularly three nights a week at Mama’s Kitchen, Baby’s Lounge and Coffee House with different bands among which Addis Acoustic Project is one. Once a month he also plays at the city’s chick nightclub, the Sheraton’s Gaslight for being busy is where Henock gets his comfort.


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