- Zeleke Gessesse
For many of the contemporary reggae musicians in Ethiopia, the manifestation of their dreadlocks and reggae spirit is credited to one man whose revelations of the reggae culture took place more than thirty years ago. Zeleke Gessesse is an eminent reggae singer with a crowned career and a great impact within reggae circles in Ethiopia. Having left for the United States in the early 1980s, Zeleke also lived in Kingston, Jamaica, with the family of the reggae legend: Bob Marley. He, along with his brother Mulugetta Gessesse (guitarist and vocalist) and the late keyboardist Dereje Mekonnen, founded Dallol Band, the premier reggae band of Ethiopia. In 1985, Land of the Genesis, his internationally acclaimed reggae album, was released. Zeleke returned home to Ethiopia seven years ago to focus on the charity project his family has been carrying out for decades and to relocate his famous reggae club from Chicago to Addis Ababa. Henok Reta of The Reporter caught up with him on the eve of his fourth studio album release for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Is it your first ever music album to be released in Ethiopia?
Zeleke Gessesse: In fact, I did one when I was young here, but I don’t think that is part of my discography. I have four studio albums in my thirty-year-old career, which can be seen as too small for the career I built over the past thirty years. And I would say, yes, this is my first production in Ethiopia. I, however, had multiple instances with prominent reggae musicians in live performances from which solo performances were recorded.
How long did this new album take inside the studio, and who produced it?
It took two-and-a-half years and the producer is Elias Melka in Begena Studio. To be honest with you, I had no intention of doing it with Elias and other composers here. But I changed my mind when I found them very capable of doing it to the level of my interest. They told me how interested they were to produce music with me because they said that they grew up listening to my music, and that they would be very happy if they had a chance to do one with me within the music industry here. Addika Events and Communications also teamed up with the production due to their interest of promoting music in this country.
How did you find them? Have you been observing that they are indeed capable of producing music for singers who have had an international taste of production?
Oh, that has really been amazing for me. All these musicians are younger than me and have an incredible talent. Especially Elias Melka’s musical intelligence is quite amazing. He has got a brilliant ear to rewrite songs and his touch is also a fascinating one. I really enjoyed the time I spent in his studio. He has developed a kind of system in which music should be done these days. We usually sat together in his studio along with other friends and discussed ideas from different angles. It was a trend that Bob Marley used to do with his band members to produce all those ever-great songs. So, that was a moment that took me back to Kingston where I did my previous production with Bob Marley’s family. I think what needs to be done here is more investment to make the talent blossom globally.
Does this new album feature anything new in comparison to the previous three?
I think it has its own features regardless of comparison with the previous ones. The songs are written beautifully and raise different issues related to social life. And those principal elements of music are also put in a more interesting style. On the other hand, it has a genre of house rhythmic styles in composition in addition to a hip-hop version of a reggae that I played for the youth who have a deep interest of hip-hop. In fact, reggae has a special effect in youth here and across the continent. But recently, hip-hop has been becoming a revolutionary music for the majority of young people in Africa as their numbers surge to more than 50 percent of the entire population. Regarding the language, I played some in English and in Oromigna languages, but most songs were played in Amharic. The music arrangement is dominantly done by Elias Melka while Mehari Brothers Band did a couple of songs to add a flavor to the solo compositions made by Elais and Hunate Mulu.
How is the distribution going?
Electra Music Shop is a sole distributor of the album in the local market. For the time being, I’m not sure what I have to do to promote it internationally. What I have found strange is how difficult making a musical album is here. I don’t know why the music industry is neglected here since it has a larger economic and social impact in all aspects of life. I really call upon both the government and business people to offer a proper look at it and reshape it to the level of other industries. Perhaps, because I have a big plan to realize in the future here, I myself have a responsibility to share a little part of the burden. We have to join hands together to scale the music industry as we do so in other sectors. Nigeria can be a good example in this regard; its cinema and music industry is becoming a global phenomenon right now.
So, what can you contribute to the music industry to come up to the levels of West African countries’ experience?
I’m only one person. I have other businesses to take care of as well. But I’ve always been keen about talking to the people who I think are right to make a difference. When Ethiopia hosted the 60th birthday of Bob Marley ten years ago, I had a chance to converse with the late prime minister who was a bit surprised that more than 15 heads of state called him to express appreciation for how the country was involved in a world event, and he recognized that music has a great impact. I also found out that his sentiments were similar with some of the other government officials.
And so, I see a place to sit down and discuss the way forward to success of the music industry here. I have always been committed to do my best, as possibly as I can, together with all those with the same interest. I have plans to put in practice in the near future. The city desperately needs a venue for music. There is more intense business activity than any time before, so there should also be a venue for music and arts. This will make things very easy and much better. I held talks with some of the government officials in an informal manner about how Addis Ababa should emerge as a center for musical gathering.
On my part, I am working on a dream-like proposal where Addis Ababa would get a world-class venue for reggae music. Reggae has deep roots unlike any other genre of music. It has a connection to the spirit of freedom and humanity that is well-narrated in the history of Ethiopia. Making this venue here would someday easily attract the stars of reggae music and it would definitely impact the music here with the realization that the narrative in reggae and Ethiopia have a connection. I hope it will become real in the near future.
How frequently do you travel to Shashemene to meet up with the Rastafarian community there? Does your plan for the future have a place for their involvement?
Of course. I seldom do it, but I have good conversations with them. Sometime ago, I went there and discussed about things we can do together in connection with the Marley family. We have already built a school there as part of the charity we have been carrying out throughout the country over the past three decades. More interestingly, we are close whenever we have an event in connection with Bob. Last time, we met and spent a nice time in Addis as we unveiled the statue of Bob Marley. Again, I am coming out with a new reggae album this time so I have to go there to shoot a video clip like those reggae artists who do it together in the company of Rastafarians.
Is there any Jamaican reggae artist featured in your new album? Some of your fans expect Ziggy Marley or one of the sons to join you, right?
None of them at this time because of the busy schedule they have right now. In fact, I tried to reach out to Damian but there was an inconvenience that hampered communication. Anyway, I’m happy and I’m satisfied with the two young talents who are featured in my songs. They are highly promising youngsters who will get into the global music sometime in the near future. After the release of the album, I will also have a concert where I hope I will also have a big stage for reggae and in which the Bob family will feature.
How much did the production of the new album cost you?
As I said earlier, it is so difficult to make music here that first, the market should be safely available. The musicians have the talent but they need to be rewarded with a better incentive in order for them to utilize their talents and in order to help them establish a world-class studio. And this can happen when all in the production team can get the right benefits. I spent almost half a million birr, which might be a bit of a surprise for me in that making music here is getting so expensive, day in and day out, that it would impose a hardship on new and young musicians.
Do you think your new home-production can be at the level of the previous production you made abroad?
No doubt. Reggae music has long been popular in Ethiopia. Moreover, in the past few years, I witnessed how it has been overwhelmingly dominating the music scene here. Reggae artists such as Eyob Mekonnen, Haile Roots, Jah Lud, and others have massively impacted the music scene here. I can’t compare this production with the previous works such as Land of the Genesis since it had an international hit at the time and was produced by Rita Marley. That is another story with a stronger foundation. I’m really pleased; this home-produced album is a great asset in my career.