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Amha Eshèté, the exile and the return to native land
Amha Eshèté (photo: J. D.)

Amha Eshèté, the exile and the return to native land

The second and final part of our long-form interview with Amha Eshèté, founder of Amha Records. Ethiopia’s very first independent label recorded the most beautiful sonic era of Swinging Addis, before the military junta – the DERG – took power in 1974 and in time, changed things up in a serious way.

Read the first part of the interview: Amha Eshèté, the dreamer who cut the grooves of Ethiopia’s golden sounds onto wax.

Did you endure any political pressure?

No, but the National Bank started to cut me off. Until then, we could benefit from bank loans, but from then on it had become difficult to continue the business under these conditions. Importing records was more and more controlled, everything was getting much harder. I thought we could adapt by releasing cassettes, as they were cheaper to produce. That’s why I produced the first cassette with Girma, Alemayehu… It was a test, an alternative solution. Another option we looked at was to buy a used vinyl press machine from EMI’s Greek branch so we could press our own records. I took a one-way flight to Athens. I had just recorded four songs from the Tigray region, and I knew they would be censored [the Tigray region, located in Northern Ethiopia, was the stronghold of the armed rebellion against the regime]. Three weeks earlier however, I got the green light from the official censorship department in the form of a paper document, so I started production and everything was paid for. However, in the meantime the situation had become tense with the Tigrayan community. I had made a financial commitment, and so my father wanted to put pressure on the regime, believing that we were within our rights: the customs officers asked him to bring the original document, which they modified to justify their decision afterwards. They jailed my father, as he was demanding financial compensation, and also the sound engineer who had nothing to do with the situation. The singer was investigated. My family let me know that I better not come home. Luckily, I had left the master discs in Athens.

This was the start of your exile to the United States…

At almost nineteen-years-old. I went via London, then landed in Washington DC, with $ 3,000 in my pocket.

Did you try to start another label over there?

There was a big Ethiopian community, and a lot of artists, but the competition was much tougher. I quickly knew that if I wanted to keep one foot in music, I had to look at another option. So I set up a nightclub-restaurant [The Blue Nile; editor’s note]. There was a nightclub on the first floor, concerts and shows on the second, and an Ethiopian restaurant on the third floor…

Did American musicians come there?

Yes, every weekend. It was a very distinguished place, close to the White House, so certainly not located in the Ethiopian district on 18th Street. I even had Nina Simone in the audience once. She was quite a personality, if only you knew.

Hailu Mergia – All Rights Reserved

This is where Walias Band, featuring Hailu Mergia, performed on their famous 1981 tour…

Yes, I had organized a big tour – including Mahmoud Ahmed and Getatchew Kassa too – on the East Coast, but also in Dallas and in California, which required a lot of preparation. One has to imagine that Ethiopia was then under an authoritarian socialist regime and that the United States had just entered the Reagan era: their country was the imperialist monster. It was an extremely hard task. People would tell me things like, “Did these people come by boat? On a donkey’s back?” I leaned on the diaspora, but at the same time some people called for demonstrations against the tour on the grounds that the artists represented the DERG. In fact, the first concert in a big venue in Washington, where artists like Aretha Franklin and James Brown had performed, was unsuccessful because of the call for a boycott. I was even accused of being a spy for the Ethiopian regime. I who had fled this regime! Too many bad vibes.

But that band was fantastic!

No doubt they were but I only remember a lot of hardship. After the shows, everyone went about their business, hanging out in bars, and it was always a race against time to get them together and back on the tour bus. And it cost me a lot of money: two years of preparation, thousands of dollars, since they demanded individual hotel rooms and refused to eat at my restaurant… What a dream. Their contracts stated they were to come with their instruments, but they arrived with their hands in their pockets. And no one to help me out. Frankly, it was one of the worst times of my life. After that, I declined all the tour offers I received.

Nevertheless, once again you have opened the door that others have been able to step into, like Aster Aweke…

Probably yes. But for me, it was enough. Today, it makes me happy that I allowed that to happen. I even laugh at it now, as you can see.

And four of them – Girma Bèyènè, Mogès Habté, Mèlakè Gèbrè and Hailu Megia – chose to stay in the United States…

Yes, but it was no longer my story. I gave them their passports back, and that’s it. As far as I was concerned, I was immediately blacklisted back home. I could forget about my dream of going home one day. When my father died, I couldn’t go to his funeral. For quite a while, I resented them, and then gradually it faded out. I liked certain personalities, like Girma for example. And today I’m not the last to congratulate myself on seeing his current success in Europe: it is a well deserved career, as Girma was the first of us all.

Was being an African in the United States difficult for business?

I had the chance to work with North Americans in Addis, so I already knew their mentality. It’s an easy nation to integrate with once you understand them. And that’s why I feel part North American. I have a daughter there, grandchildren, and even a sister. I had a very good life in the United States, but with the fall of the DERG, when the opportunity arose to return to Ethiopia, given my age, I thought it may be the right moment. The first time I came back, it was just to see. I saw all my friends again, and it was great. Then a second time. And so eventually I decided to live in Addis again. But being a visitor and a permanent resident is not the same. And since then, I have to admit that I have regrets, even though I was able to accompany my mother until her last moment. All the friends I had became husbands with orderly lives. And today they are no longer here: either they passed away, or they moved out… And then I gradually lost contact with my friends in Washington: at the beginning we called each other every month, then it became less and less frequent, and then nothing. It’s like that.

The second and final part of our long-form interview with Amha Eshèté, founder of Amha Records. Ethiopia’s very first independent label recorded the most beautiful sonic era of Swinging Addis.
Girma Bèyènè and Amha Eshèté – Credit: Michael Temtèmé

Upon your return, you set up a club in Addis, The Tunnel…

Yes, it worked very well for two years. It was the place to be! Until it stirred up greed, and then we had to shut down the nightclub. I had to fight and solicit with the Prime Minister’s office so I could win my case. But it was too late. The trend has reversed now. It’s club life everywhere: the same story went for Studio 54 in New York. You initiate things, then the market takes a hold of it, and if you are not in a strong enough position, it’s tough.

How do you consider nightlife in Addis now compared to the one you had experienced?

[In French in the original text] Comme ci comme ça. If you are looking for quality, this isn’t really the place for it. When I returned, I found the same city I had known, more or less. The DERG didn’t build or destroy that much. In any case, nothing comparable to what has happened in the last ten years or so. Today we are living an era of transition, with President Abiy Ahmed who promised more changes than the previous ones. Either way, it couldn’t be worse! The younger generation is trying to make the situation better, but everything remains very uncertain. The people of Addis like to go out and have fun, but I have the feeling that they are a bit limited. Politically, there is a lack of leaders capable of making us dream, and above all you still feel the weight of the old networks which once had the power, in particular the military: they have economic power, which is the key to everything.

The economic situation of the country has also changed, compared to the one you experienced in the 1960s…

Everything has changed, 500%! Especially in terms of prices. It is sheer madness. This creates a multi-tiered social system in the city. When I look at the public health situation, it is outrageous. Who can afford to go to private clinics?! I see the prices of restaurants too, and I wonder who can afford that. But at the same time, given my great difficulty in getting around, and even though a chauffeur’s salary is already very high here, it is nothing compared to the United States. It’s just impossible. Being here is the best of two scenarios given my health [Eshèté is suffering from the Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disease that affects both upper and lower limbs, until their complete paralysis; editor’s note].

Since the success of the Éthiopiques series initiated by Francis Falceto, there has been a huge second-hand market for Amha Records vinyl releases. Ironically, they were only worth a handful of dollars, and people pay a fortune for them now…

I don’t know if it’s the market or if it’s the people who turned crazy. Still, it makes me pretty happy to know that this music holds such value. All this because Francis has been doing a good job for years: I’m not sure it would be the same without him. Seriously, who knew about Ethiopian music before he came around? It all seems obvious today, but not at the time. And it’s a shame that some people forget it. Just as I cannot accept that some believe that Francis got rich off our backs. They do not know anything. He gave a lot, more than he ever received in the end! Ethiopians are not grateful people, yet none have done a quarter of an eighth of what he has done for our music. Not to mention the help he was able to give to certain artists. Mulatu, Mahmoud, Girma… they all owe him something. Even the Azmaris: who before him had brought a troupe of eighteen musicians to Europe? He was our guide.

Do you still listen to Ethiopian music being produced today?

Yes, I buy 99% of the CDs that come out. I am talking about modern productions. Some, I play them once and put them in my library for my grandchildren to listen to. Others, twice; and then there are only a few which I listen to all the time.

Teddy Afro for example?

I really like this artist. He’s a little genius, and his music is 100% himself. And I won’t tell you about the lyrics.

Don’t you want to produce again?

No. It takes money and energy. These things are for young people with good ideas.

Suite de notre grande interview avec Amha Eshèté, fondateur d’Amha Records, le premier label indépendant qui grava les plus belles heures du Swinging Addis.