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Remembering the Giant Roha

Tibebeselassie Tigabu | The Reporter   in  · · ·
July 8, 2015

A couple of weeks ago a concert was held at the Ethiopian National Theater. The concert was a tribute to the legendary Mahmoud Ahmed. Apart from Mahmoud, the concert was very special because some members of the famous Roha Band were seen performing on stage after two decades.

The seasoned musicians did not take that much effort to electrify the stage with a different energy. This was a stroll down memory lane for old-timers and an introduction to the celebrated band of the 1980s.

Many music experts say Roha is a collective mind of music geniuses who were able to create a new sound that shaped the country’s music. Roha’s legacy influenced a generation. Even some musicians describe the 1980s as the “Golden Era of Ethiopian music” because of Roha. Their name is bigger than life among the musical community.

However, Giovanni Rico (bass guitar), Dawit Yifru (keyboard and music arranger), and Yared Tefera’s (saxophone) performance at the Ethiopian National Theater was not the first reunion for Roha; they actually reunited two years ago for the remaking of Ephrem Tamiru’s new album.

Collectively they came together in Abegaz Shiota’s studio by recreating the whole album. Their togetherness could not have been completed without one of the founding members’ Selam Seyoum (lead guitar).

Considered to be smart as a whip among his peers, Selam is now a highly profiled Eritrean musician. The secession of Eritrea also affected Roha Band. Two founding members, Selam Seyoum and Fekade Amdemeskel (tenor saxophone), departed from the band. However, the data of the new album by Ephrem was sent to Selam, who is currently based in America, to add his part. The involvement of Selam was an exciting moment for Yared. “It was great that Selam involved  himself in this project,” Yared says.

Back in those days, Roha were able to record more than 250 albums  (2500 songs). According to Simeneh Betreyohannes’s thesis entitled Music and Politics in Twentieth Century Ethiopia. Empire, Modernization and Revolution Roha was the force behind the boost in audio cassette sales which increased from 1,000 copies to 100,000.

They worked together with established musicians such as Mahmoud Ahmed, Ephrem Tamiru and Tewodros Tadesse. Addis Ababa Hilton Hotel – the venue where Roha performed – was also the place where starting musicians such as Kuku Sebsibe shined.

Many know Dawit Yifru and his involvement in the Ethiopian Music Association where he is currently chairman of the association. He is doubtful about a permanent reunion. “It was an exciting moment but it is not going to continue. We are in a different position in life and bringing this about might disrupt our lives,” Dawit says.

Not only for Dawit but also for Yared this concert was one of a kind, especially regarding the presence of Giovanni, who was away from music. “His energy was amazing and I actually proved that music does not leave you. Giovanni highlighted the concert,” Yared says.

The making of the Roha band became a reality in 1979 with the disbanding of Ibex and Dahlak bands. Members of Ibex went to Sudan while members of Dahlak went to America with the Walias Band.

The founding members, Giovanni, Selam and Fekade from Ibex Band and Dawit Yifru, Levon Fondachi (son of one of the forty Armenian marching band members who came to Ethiopia during the 1920’s, vocalist), Tekle Tesfazgi (drummer and vocalist) from Dahlak, came together to establish Roha. The band took its name from the ancient name of Lalibela. This name was given by Levon Fonadchi.

According to Dawit, before the coming of popular bands like Ibex and Roha the then Imperial Bodyguard Band and Police Orchestra were the big bands and the arrangers were usually Armenians. That, according to Dawit, influenced the music greatly to have elements of foreign sounds.

According to Dawit, since the audience in the night clubs were mainly Ethiopians who wanted eskista songs bands such as Ibex and the Walias came up with a different sound.

Apart from doing cover songs of renowned English songs they introduced the sound of chic chica. The member of the bands were also reduced to six. According to Dawit, Dahlak also used the same trend and one example was the transformation of Muluken Melesse from traditional music into the new sound. This new sound was upgraded by Roha and popularized. The band began its work at the Hilton in 1980.

Apart from giving it an Ethiopian sound the band was renowned for doing cover hit songs of Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Wilson Picket and James Brown. That made Hilton a popular hangout.

Levon Fondachi did English cover songs and the renowned Tigrigna singer Tekle Tesfazgi started performing Sudanese songs. Especially, Tekle Tesfazgi, who is renowned for his single, Fikrey Telemeney is remembered by Dawit.

Apart from the two vocalists, Dawit remembers the shy Kuku Sebisbe. “She was very young and we encouraged her to go on stage. Her shyness weathered away and she started performing well,” Dawit says.

In the meantime, the band started recording with established musicians. Legendary singers like Mahmoud Ahmed and Hamelmal Abate recorded their album and also started appearing on stage.

All recordings were made on a single track and repeating it again and again was common even if one made a mistake. Dawit says it is not like the contemporary studio. The album is recorded live and if mistakes happen they have to redo it again, which Dawit says “was tiring!” There was no sound proof or sound recording equipment. We rehearse for hours constantly sometimes for more than six hours,” Dawit says.

According to Dawit, their main audience were soldiers and teachers. “We did new music and we were able to captivate people’s heart,” Dawit says.

One proof for being in the mind of people for Dawit was one concert. After the 1984 famine university students were participating in a resettlement program. During their stay in a remote area, the university students asked for Roha Band.

They were called to perform in the Pawe area in different camps where there were more than 10,000 university students. They spent the night in a tent for about two months performing for free. However, at the Hilton, the band performs from dusk till dawn.

Dawit also remembers some unpleasant stories of the time. He says that while people were being killed during the Red Terror, they were forced to perform on the side.

Sometimes the revolutionary guards show up at the Hilton and interrupt with a salute and campaign saying, “Comrades, down with the reactionary!” and Dawit says that the guards tell them to continue their program and leave.

The frequency of the atrocities, according to Dawit, forced them to normalize situations. “Now going back to that period, does not sound real. It looks like a film or a dream,” Dawit says.

Dawit does not deny that freedom was compromised and there was strong censorship. He took a lesson when he was arranging a song entitled ‘Lomi Tera Tera’ by Telela Kebede during that period.

This did not please the Derg regime. He was imprisoned for four months with the singer, the lyricist and also the publisher. “Everything is open tointerpretation but you have to take precautions,” Dawit says.

Though the censorship was high they developed a mechanism to deal with that. The music scene was vibrant with the establishment of various kinet bands. According to Dawit, the highest payment for musicians was during that period.

When they started the band was paid 10,000 birr and when they were on the verge of disintegrating around 1990 they were paid 19,500 monthly. With each album they were paid 2,000 birr. Dawit says that they owned a house and a car

“During that time, a minister salary was hat that much  birr. We lived good and the music paid us,” Dawit says.

The band reached its peak when they toured Europe, America, the Middle East and many African countries. Their first international tour started in France and they went with Mahmoud Ahmed and Neway Debebe. “The French love Mahmoud and it was a good exposure for us,” Dawit says.

They toured all over the world and their main audience were Ethiopians with the exception of a few festivals in Europe. The band also went on a second wave after the introduction of young musicians such as Yared.

While studying in Yared Music School, Yared was playing in Dadimos Band. When Fekade was in the process of quitting Yared replaced Fekade.

He vividly remembers his admiration for the band while he was a student where he and his friends used to go to music shops around Pizza to buy the audio cassettes to listen to the new songs.

“They were very established and the albums were great,” Yared says. “For me joining the band was like going from an Ethiopian football club to the English Premier League.”

Simeneh, in his research says, “Its cultural isolation from the west during the socialist government led Roha and a few other active bands to seek inspiration from indigenous musical materials.”

The band was a privilege for Yared and also a place to learn what band discipline is. Apart from that, the vibe at the Hilton where they performed all night was unique.

Though Hilton is a great part of the band’s history for Dawit the countless concerts at Keftegna 5 Kebele 18 around Merkato area stands out. “They loved us and danced without stopping and gave us whatever they have, even cents. They used to kiss us and their love was great,” Dawit recalls.

Their last major tour was in 1990 in 20 American cities. Roha substituted their young protégés – the Axumite Band  – to cover their obligations at the Hilton.

According to Simeneh, after returning from their tour the Hilton administration demanded an amendment to their contract, asking them to work for one-third of their former salaries, for which the Axumite band has been working.

After working this long, Fekade, Selam and Tekle each opened music shops, Giovanni opened restaurants (Rico’s and Carnivore Addis), Dawit shifted into a family Drugstore. Dawit did not leave music and still performs at Jupiter Hotel.

“We respected each other. The members became more mature and worked collectively. That is the success of the band, says Dawit.

Shortly after this the 1991 regime change occurred causing the departure of Selam Seyoum and Fekade Amdemeskel who were Eritreans.

Sadly, before the change of government, Tekle Tesfazgi passed away in a car accident. His accident was caused while he was rushing to pass curfew.

Yared also went to America in 1993 where he did worked on Tilahun Gessesse’s album. When he came back after one year the band was officially dissolved in 1994. Now Yared plays at Mama’s kitchen and Sheraton Addis but he says that his connection with Roha band cannot be replaced.

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