Teddy Afro: songs of freedom

Pop singer Teddy Afro is often described as Ethiopia’s Bob Marley. Garry Steckles rejects the comparison

Pop singer Teddy Afro. Photograph courtesy M Productions

“No, he doesn’t sing love songs. None. He sings about politics, about things that are wrong here, about the government, about our heroes and about our people being united.”

I’d just asked a young Ethiopian friend – whose name I decided not to use in this space, for reasons that will be obvious in a moment – about the lyrics of Tewodros Kassahun, easily the most popular singer of this generation in his country.

We were in the sprawling grounds of the Hotel Ghion in the heart of Addis Ababa, and Kassahun, known to his fans worldwide as Teddy Afro, was standing a few yards away. He was about to head back on stage for an encore that would be the finale of a remarkable concert, on Ethiopia’s Christmas Day (January 19), that was being staged, at least in part, to thank his public for their support during his controversial imprisonment on manslaughter charges in the hit-and-run death of a street dweller.

Teddy Afro, live and on record, sings almost exclusively in Amharic, of which, I must confess, I don’t speak a word. While I’d been aware that his lyrics were hard-hitting, I found it hard to believe that the obvious adoration of the thousands of fans at the Ghion show (I’ve seen hundreds of major concerts over the years, and I’ve never seen an artist get a response like this, not even Bob Marley) didn’t owe at least something to the occasional concession to romance. Surely, I thought, this sort of adulation couldn’t be generated by songs about governments, politics and corruption.

“Not even one song?” I persisted.

“Not even one song,” our friend responded. Firmly. End of discussion.

I’d first heard of Teddy Afro about a year earlier, when I’d noticed his name and face on a bunch of T-shirts in an Ethiopian-owned shop and bought one of his CDs.

“He’s Ethiopia’s most famous reggae singer,” the shop’s proprietor had told me. “We call him Ethiopia’s Bob Marley.”

I loved the CD, and one track in particular, the hypnotic Lambadina, has been buzzing around in my head ever since. Not only mine; the addictive opening riff, played on keyboards in the minor key that is the signature sound of Ethiopian music, is guaranteed to have the crowd on their feet and dancing in any nightspot that attracts a clientele from Ethiopia.

But I do have to differ from the assessment of him as Ethiopia’s Marley – despite the fact he stole the show from a bunch of Marley family members at a huge concert in Addis in 2005 to mark what would have been Bob’s 60th birthday.

For one thing, his music, while undoubtedly reggae-tinged, is more mainstream Ethiopian pop, with only the occasional excursion – beautifully executed, it has to be said – into straight reggae.

For another, a much more valid comparison would be with the late, and sadly lamented, Fela Kuti, the Nigerian afrobeat/jazz genius whose lyrics, like those of Teddy Afro, were a direct challenge to corrupt politicians, and who was mercilessly persecuted by the governments he dared to sing about. Bob could be highly political, no question, but he was a lot more subtle in his criticisms, and he had the fortune to be expressing his opinions in Jamaica, a genuine democracy. Like Teddy Afro, Fela was jailed after daring to use his music to say, no holds barred, what the masses were thinking. Like Teddy Afro, Fela was adored by millions of ordinary citizens, whose worries and woes he sang about. Like Teddy Afro, Fela had a vision of his country being peaceful and prosperous, with its various tribal and religious factions coming together for the common good.

Teddy’s first – and hopefully last – internment was the result of his allegedly running over and killing a homeless man on the streets of Addis and then leaving the scene. The circumstances surrounding his arrest, in 2006, and eventual conviction, in 2008 – he was sentenced to six years, but eventually freed after serving 16 months – were suspicious, to say the least.

For one thing, he insisted, and still insists, that he wasn’t even in Addis on the day of the accident. For another, he had released a politically charged song, the title track of an album called Yasteseryal, in which he proclaimed that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front government was no better than its predecessors, and that meaningful change and progress were still a long way off.

Yasteseryal was released in May 2005, the same month that a general election resulted in the EPRDF government’s being returned to power amid charges of brazen fraud at the polls. Soon after the results were announced by the ruling party, dozens of people were killed by government troops during protests in the capital, and thousands more arrested.

Late in 2005, the regime ordered that Teddy Afro songs it deemed to be political – ie just about all of his material – would be banned from government-controlled radio stations.

Perhaps sensing that he was in danger in Ethiopia, Teddy set off on a lengthy world tour that took him to North America, Europe, Australia and the Middle East, as well as major African cities. He returned to Ethiopia around the middle of 2006, and was arrested not long after.

He was released on bail, and while his tribulations continued – it was reported that he made something like 13 court appearances before his eventual conviction and jailing in April of 2008 – he continued to perform, and his popularity continued to grow. His imprisonment outraged thousands of his fans, but they remembered what had happened in 2005, and knew better than to protest too openly.

He was freed from prison last year, after serving 482 days of his six-year sentence. Jail, he said after his release, had not been a pleasant experience, but he had learned a lot from it.

As I write this, Teddy Afro is in the midst of another major international tour, this time of North America and Europe. And Ethiopia is preparing for another general election, on May 23. Will it bring about change? Somehow, I doubt it.

Will Teddy Afro continue to sing about injustice and corruption? About that, I don’t have the slightest doubt. One other thing I’m sure about: Bob and Fela would be proud.