Ethiopia comes to Jerusalem

Mahmoud Ahmed brings his Elvis-influenced sound to the Hullugeb Festival.

jumping ethiopans 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
jumping ethiopans 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
If you’re looking for some stirring African vibes, then this year’s Hullugeb Festival should be right up your alley.
The week-long program, which opens for business at the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday (December 19), and takes place under the auspices of Confederation House, is chock-full of musical offerings that span an expansive spectrum – from shake-a-leg dub system and reggae shows to emotive acoustic spots and much betwixt, and an international megastar to get the whole thing going.
Hullugeb means “multifaceted” in Amharic, and the festival’s artistic and cultural spread indeed fits that bill.
The big gun on the Hullugeb roster is septuagenarian Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed, who has been performing and recording across the world for over half a century. Ahmed will be backed here by a nine-piece instrumental ensemble fronted by Ethiopianborn jazz saxophonist and vocalist Abate Berihun.
For Berihun, next week’s concert is a blast from the past, and a chance to relive great times from his homeland. Before he made aliya, Berihun performed and recorded with Ahmed for a decade.
“I toured Europe and America with him many times, and we played in all sorts of places in Ethiopia,” says Berihun. “I played with him in big bands and had some amazing experiences with him.
“I was just starting out when I began working with him and I learned from him. He is a great singer and he has a big heart. He gives so much to his audiences. It is wonderful for me, the Ethiopian community and all Israelis that he is coming here.”
In fact, this is Ahmed’s second time here – and Berihun almost missed him the first time. “He came here just after I made aliya and he was performing in Haifa,” recalls Berihun. “I wanted to go to see him, but I was told I wouldn’t manage – I didn’t know any Hebrew. But eventually I did go, and we hung out in Tel Aviv, too. It’s a great honor to be playing with him again this time.”
Ahmed has made himself known across the world as a purveyor of Ethiopian music, but he grew up with a mixed diet of sounds from all sorts of cultures and industry sectors. “I used to listen to people like Elvis Presley and James Brown on the radio when I was a child,” he says. “I also used to go the Empire cinema house with my friends I’d we’d watch Elvis movies. I remember Jailhouse Rock. That was a wonderful movie.”
Ahmed was wooed by other rock ’n’ rollers, and crooners of the ’50s as well, although Presley was always king for him. “I liked Little Richard and Nat King Cole, but I loved every song Elvis did and the way he shook his leg. I did that, too!” But Ahmed eventually achieved fame and fortune in music from his own roots.
He got his lucky break when he was 21, after serving a definitive street-level apprenticeship in making ends meet. “I used to shine shoes and I’d sing while I worked,” he recounts. “In the morning I’d sing for my friends at school, and then in the afternoon I’d put my shoeshine box out on the street and I’d sing while I shined people’s shoes.”
Eventually, Ahmed found a job at the Arizona Nightclub, although it was as a handyman rather than a performer. Still, it meant that he could catch the acts there and, more importantly, he was around when opportunity came knocking. One of the regular acts at the club was Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Bodyguard Band and when, one evening, the band’s regular singer failed to materialize, Ahmed jumped at the chance and sat in with the group.
The rest is history.
Mind you, there were some rocky times to be navigated before Ahmed hit the road to international stardom. He cut his first single in 1971 and worked with several Ethiopian bands through the ’70s. But politics intervened when Haile Selassie’s regime was overthrown, and the new military government placed strictures on musical nightlife in Ethiopia. Several musicians fled for calmer political climes but Ahmed stayed on, and made cassettes and performed with many of those who remained in Ethiopia, often clandestinely. Ahmed’s choice of the cassette format was due to the fact that the military authorities outlawed vinyl releases.
In the 1980s Ahmed set up his own music store in Addis Ababa and, in 1980, he became one of the first Ethiopian musicians to tour the States. Thereafter he started releasing records with the Roha Band, and became popular in communities of Ethiopians around the world.
Things really started looking up for Ahmed globally in 1986, when Belgian label Crammed Discs released the Ere Mela Mela compilation based two LPs Mahmoud had recorded in Addis Ababa with the Ibex Band a decade earlier.
The Belgian company chose well, as Ahmed’s confluence with the Ibex troupe was something of an artistic watershed for him. “I liked playing with the Ibex Band because they improvised and played more freely,” says the singer. “My music started changing then and became freer.”
Things will surely be free-flowing and emotionally charged when Ahmed takes the stage at the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday.
And there is plenty more to enjoy on the Hullugeb program, with concerts also lined up at other venues in the capital, including the Gerard Behar Center, Yellow Submarine and Confederation House. There will be grooves galore at the Zevulun Dub System reggae show at the Gerard Behar Center on Saturday, while Ayala Ingedashet will lend her rich vocals to a pop- and jazz-tinged outing at Confederation House on Sunday.
Elsewhere on the Hullugeb roster there is an appearance by the ever-popular combo of veteran singer-keyboardist Shlomo Gronich and the Sheba Choir, who have been performing and recording together for a full two decades, with singer Etti Ankri filling the guest slot in the closing show of the festival on December 25.
And let’s not forget, Hullugeb is also the name of a successful theater troupe which has been based at Confederation House for seven years. The host venue will provide a stage for the theater company’s latest production, Tsufit Pikado, on December 24.
The comic play, written and directed by Moshe Malka with music provided by Berihun, stars Tehila Yeshayahu-Adghe and Tzvika Hizikias, and tells the tale of a tough ex-con who embarks on a journey to find her younger sister. On her rough road she encounters a series of colorful and challenging types from beyond the socially acceptable pale, and battles her way through to a surprise finale.
 For tickets and more information: *6226, (02) 623-7000 and