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Mahmoud Ahmed: Ethiopia's Greatest Singer Interviewed

If you went to Summerstage for their production of "The Power Of The Trinity" in late July, Mahmoud Ahmed will need no introduction. 

During an all too brief two song addendum to "The Power Of The Trinity",  Ahmed brought Summerstage to its knees in awe. From where I was standing, all I could see was a rush of people wilding, taking pictures the moment he reached the stage. On one of Mahmoud's own songs and then on a Tomas reworking of the myth of Ethiopia, the dynamic "Abet Gurage", the reason for this rush of affection is immediately clear. This man has star appeal to burn.
The latter song is the greatest expression of Doncker's "Global Soul" concept, with the strands of sounds from East to Middle east to West, explode in a joyous noise and Ahmed streaks through the song. But that Ahmed might steal a song simply by being there  is not a surprise. For 40 years he has been the premiere singer of Ethiopian soul, a voice so soulful yet playful, sexy yet statesmanlike, he is viewed in Ethiopia as a Mick Jagger (to Selam Woldemariam's Keith Richards) type figure, watching Ahmed sing is a masterclass where poise and abandonment, control and release occur.
It leads to a state of ecstatic joy in the listener and that's where I began my interview with the great singer:


PlPlease explain "ecstatic" music?

This is the term usually used by my fans explaining what they feel when they listen to my music. It is an overpowering emotion to them. Even people who don’t know Amharic (the Ethiopian language) are moved by it. I usually sing from my heart, totally immersed in my world, and I think that’s why I am able to touch the audience differently.


2. How did you begin your career?

I used to sing with my friends while in school and later improved by listening to various Ethiopian singers on radio (TEK’L Radio…the only radio station at the time, c.40s and 50s).Later I was employed in a well-known club…the Arizona Club, as a carpenter and later as a helper in the kitchen. Most of the popular Ethiopian singers used to perform in this club and one day I was given a chance to show my talent on stage and was immediately hired by the Imperial Body Guard Band until I joined the IBEX BAND at Ras Hotel circa early 70s.


3. Would you consider your Ibex years the height of your career?

Yes, that’s where I recorded most of my music including Ere Mela Mela …(Ethiopiques #7) …the first CD ever in Ethiopian music history, but later I was also able to join other well-known European and American Bands and toured throughout the world and even won a BBC award.


4. How does Ethiopian soul compare with American soul?

As you know, music is a universal language and I don’t see any difference in Ethiopian and American Soul music. I believe we are all connected through it although there might be some minor variation in expression.


5. Can you describe your singing style?

Mainly the root is traditional and I was able to develop my own after being exposed to different kinds of music styles. Currently, I feel I have my own style.



6. Who would you consider your influences?

Some of the main ones were, Kassa Tessema, Assefa Abate, Tilahun Guessese, Bizunesh Bekele. And as time went by others were, Teffera Kassa, Essatu Tessema, Tezera Halemikael, Menelik Wossinachew.


7. What do you feel of your crossover work with Mr. Doncker?

Eventhough I have collaborated with various European, American and African music groups, the current collaboration with Tomas Doncker and Selam Woldemariam on Power of the Trinity Project (July 28-August 5, 2012,)in SummerStage NY is an experience that I treasure throughout my life.


8. I have heard you are recording a new album?

God willing, I am planning to record within this year.


9. Do you think Fela's success will lead as a gateway for your crossover into Western music?

Hopefully yes.


10. What do you think of current East African music?

When one compares the music scene in North, West and South Africa, it seems that East African music is yet to break in to the world music market. I believe now is the time and, if we are persistent, it seems that the sky is the limit.

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