Tilahun-The Hale Comet
Do you ever find out that some words lost their magic when you need them most?
That is how I felt now. Tilahun is too big to fit in adjectives like the well known, legendary, the king, the renowned etc. He is just larger than life. But let me call him the king as most people do. Yes, the king is dead. The king that reigned in Ethiopian music scene for the last five decades is dead. Now he had gone for good. But he will remain with us for long as he reigned in our heart for half a century. And he will live in the heart of the coming generation too since he left behind masterpieces that can transcend generations to come.
Tilahun is a household name in Ethiopia. Who else is there in Ethiopia that doesn’t know who Tilahun is? He lived with us in every situation; he lived with us in our ups and downs, in our joy, in our sorrow, in our political turmoil, in our social instability. What subject matter is there that we lived and that Tilahun didn’t sing about? Nothing! Tilahun was there in our personal life that we consider unforgettable. How many of us are there who remember our first love when we listen his songs! How many of us are there who remember the hours we spent in tea- rooms of Addis in our youth listening his songs! How many of us cried longing for our motherland listening Tilahun singing “Selamtaye Yidress”! How many of us courted our would be wives listening his songs! How many of us named our kids after his name to show that we are his loyal fans!
Tilahun was a walking history that embodied the narrative of 5 decades of our lives in his songs. There is nothing that Tilahun did not touch in our life-say it politics, economy, patriotism, love, sorrow etc. Let’s just see some of the songs that reflect the milestones that shaped our political and social history. Tilahun sang almost about all of them directly or indirectly. Just remember the 1953 coup d’etat. What song comes to your mind? “Selechegn, Merergn Enen”(I can’t stand it anymore”) Yes, he paid the price for that song. He was imprisoned because that song was interpreted as a song that embodies a political message. Yes, Tilahun was reflecting in that song the mood of the people at that time. You may not think that Tilahun sang a song about the World War II experience. What about the song entitled “Korea Mezmeten Betam Ewodewalehu”. This song was about the experience of Ethiopian soldiers deployed to Korea.
You remember when nature turn it’s back on us in 1974? I am sure you remember the hunger named the Wollo Dirk. He was there with us, crying on television, singing about the suffering of his people. Just listen again the song “waye waye silu”(“calling for help”). You will watch him paining the pain of his countrymen.
What about the song entitled “Eyaleh Kalhone Keleleh Yelehim”(If you don’t have, You are done)? Was this song just about the universal truth of the power of money or is there any other meaning when we consider the period he sang. Mind you, the 1975-76 was the period we were warming up to learn eating rice. What about his songs about patriotism, love of country. Considering the above mentioned and other great songs of him don’t we have a ground to say he lived and wrote the past half-century’s Ethiopian history in his songs? That is how I feel and think. Tilahun didn’t get the chance to sing these songs, to be loved and admired by the public simply because he has a sweat voice. His unique ability to interpret songs is the main reason that makes him special. The unsung Heroes of the time, lyrics and melody writers Solomon Tesema, Major Girma Hadgo, Captain Afework Yohannes etc prefer to give their lyrics and melodies to Tilahun because of his unmatched voice command to deliver the message of his songs. It should not be surprising if every lyric and melody writer wishes Tilahun to sing his songs.
Tilahun was not simply a singer. He was a performer-singer. There are singers you prefer to listen only their recordings. The professionals call them studio artists. There are singers that you simply watch them. There are singers that create a miracle on stage. And he is one of the miracle makers. Yes life is unfair. Nature favor few people. He was among the favored one. He has everything that a singer need to have- the voice, the look, the charisma, and stage magnetism. Is there any one like Tilahun that has stage presence in Ethiopian music history? No one! That makes him unique. Tilahun is a singer you need to watch and listen. Why? Because he has extraordinary body language to communicate with audiences. Each and every of tilahun’s gesture interpret his song amazingly. Even the way he looks at camera at some points of a song, do convey his message. Go and watch his Sudanese Song that he sang in Khartoum many years back. You will see him making you feel that he is singing personally to you. This much is amazing the king!
Tilahun is a kind of singer that language barrier would not stop you to listen to him. Come on! Does one need to know Oromifa to listen “Selmaeka Yagene? Is there any kind of wall that stop listener to listen his masterpiece “Akam Neguma Feyuma”? Not at all! We don’t have a tradition of biography writing. When we begin that tradition, he will be a gold mine for future biographers. Biographers would dig about his each and every song; they will study about the songs, the period and the situation in which he played them. He is a gold mine for future biographers.
I hope they will study his each and every song, how he sing them, when, the period and their implication. And through studying his songs, they will keep a record about the history of Ethiopian modern music that he dominantly shaped.
One of Tilahun’s extremely popular songs is “Chuhet Ayaskefam, Sileyu Tewado” Let me borrow the first two lines (stanza) of the lyric and use them to express my sorrow to our lose:
Chuhet Ayaskefam It is OK to cry
Sileyu Tewado when the king dies
Kezih Yebelete there is no sad news
Keyet Yimta Merdo bitter than this.
Let his soul rest in peace