Art and culture

Tsedenia Gebremarkos: Ethiopia’s pop music comeback kid

This article was first published on April 22/2013


Zela Gayle

Tsedenia Gebremarkos can comfortably be hailed as one of the few sensational female singers & songwriters in contemporary Ethiopia.


She is not only known for her deep voice, unusual in most Ethiopian female singers, but also for her distinctive taste of outfits and accessories, both western and traditional in origin, that often render her appearance an extreme elegance both in and off stage, and her brightly lit, curious and sharp looking eyes that do nothing to conceal her fascinating confidence rare amongst women in Ethiopia.  A pioneer in raising the standards of Amharic pop music by bringing it to the world stage, Tsedenia has been off the public’s attention for the last few years.  Now she is back to the scenes – with a more soulful touch.

That powerful voice of Tsedenia is still as captivating as it was even if she was on a long maternity break following the birth of her twin boys. She now says she is on a new adventure of fusing traditional Ethiopian instruments with a modern soulful sound, coming up with her own unique arrangement that creates a refreshingly new type of pop music.

A few months ago, Tsedenia had released a dynamic single titled Hememe (my pain), a mix of traditional jazz with a contemporary pop in which she skillfully maneuvers her deep, jazzy voice to sing how the love of her life cures her pain with the touch of his love and of his palm. Hememe became a sensation to millions of Ethiopian music lovers leading to great expectations of the release of her first album of a similar style. In an exclusive interview with this magazine, Tsedenia said, “I wanted to introduce a new me to the world with the single Hememe. Most people think it’s a gospel song but it’s not; it’s a love song. It was like an experiment. I wanted to see where it goes and to get the public ready”.

The long awaited time has come for Tsedenia’s fans and followers to experience more than just a taste and greatness of a single hit. Her new album “Ye Fiker Girma” (The Grace of Love) is due for release before September 2013. It consists of twelve original songs with only one song in English.

Tsedenia said during the making of the album (most of which was during her pregnancy) she stopped singing after her second trimester. And after giving birth to her first twin boys, her focus was solely on being a mother. For nearly ten months, Tsedenia moved out off her public appearances to assume her fresh role as a mother.  But now she says, composed and with confidence, “there is no difference between now and before giving birth to my twin boys, my passion in music is still the same and the good thing about living in Africa is we don’t go through maternal depression because we get help, we take advantage of having a nanny”.

Taking Ethiopian music global

Winner of Africa’s prestigious music award, Kora, in 2004, in the category of best female singer in East Africa, Tsedenia set out her own goal to ensure Ethiopian music remains visible throughout the world and started networking with Dan Harper, a former aid worker for a British NGO and founder of Invisible System, an unusual project of a recording studio,. Harper was at the time residing in Ethiopia. He then contacted his friend Nick Page, a well known producer, composer, guitarist and bass player from the UK who took samples of Ethiopian music to the Real World Studios to capture for the first time ever in the UK some of Ethiopia’s finest performers. This project then became Page’s vision of Dub Colossus, which led him to produce the album “A Town Called Addis” in 2008. The album was a collaboration work of five Ethiopian singers and musicians covering Azmari and traditional styles as well as the popular singing styles of the 60s and 70s, which  has successfully combined the golden years of ethiopique beats and ethio-jazz melodies with the dub reggae styles of the early 70’s reggae groups like the Abyssinians and Mighty Diamonds.

Tsedenia said the project was one of the highlights of her career because the singers and musicians were able to tour the songs of the album at the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival, the most prestigious festivals in Europe, for two consecutive years. “Some of these artists were unknown talents who have never traveled outside of Ethiopia before,” Tsedenia said.

 No stranger

Tsedenia is no stranger to the tunes of world music. She grew up under the towering influence of her father’s music collections that include the albums of the Rolling Stones, The Beetles, Phil Collins and her most influential to date, Whitney Houston. “We didn’t get much time to listen to music but whenever my parents had gone out of the house I would sneak and listen to them,” she said.  She started singing Whitney’s songs at a Kebele Art Centre in 1997 where she built up her reputation of excellence as one of the first female singers from Ethiopia to sing English alto songs.

A dozen years later, her fans are looking forward to the release of her third and new album later this year carrying the same power and passion of her latest hit single “Hememe.”

 Photo – York Tillyer

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