Ethiopia: Bridging Cultures Through Music

Girma Yifrashewa, a classical pianist, performed at skylight hotel his newest album on January 30. Girma asserted that art has the ability to bridge cultures especially music. “Even if you don’t speak the language, music can help bridge cultures. Music is a universal language that can bridge cultures”. Girma said that this has been on his agenda for about two years now.

Currently, the US Embassy has been holding a week of art celebrations. A group of American artists, DJs, dancers, and a graffiti artist have been doing a series of workshops at Yared School of Music, which is under the College of Performing and Visual Arts at Addis Ababa University.

Girma narrated how he came to do this project during the press conference. Grima said: “A visual artist from Pennsylvania University contacted me. The artist wanted me to be part of the project and to promote Louis Moreau Gottschalk music in a bigger art exhibition, and he was happy to include me and do this recording if I was interested in this project. When he contacted me, I was not aware of the American composer and I was then curious to listen to Gottschalk music. Once I listened to his music, I was in awe. In order to get this project done I requested the support of the US embassy and the current Ambassador was very supportive of my idea.”

Girma describes Gottschalk’s music as traditional and classical that were inspired from Latin America and others. The visual artist David Hart said the music was very similar adding that he noticed that love and peace was similar to Gottschalk styles. Girma said: “I appreciated how he discovered this similarity between my music and Gottschalk. I was very surprised because Gottschalk composition is traditional inspired and collected from Latin America, traditional folk music and the Banjo from West Africa.”

Girma said that he wanted to inspire other African musicians with this and thought it was a wonderful opportunity. He was especially awe-struck with Gottschalk banjo inspired music as it was the most popular piece and closer to home as it is easy for the African audience.

Girma had released four Albums: the Shepherd with the Flute in 2001, Meleya Keleme in 2003, Elilta in 2005 and Love and Peace which included 5 pieces, The Shepherd with the Flute, Ambassel, Sememen, Elilta, and Chewata.

Organizing such an event in Ethiopia takes courage as classical music is not as favored as other trendy music in Ethiopia. This project had some challenges that needed overcoming. Sadly, as there is no grand piano in Ethiopia, Girma had problems with that and only Sheraton Hotel has a piano that can be used, but it is very expensive to use. Yet they were able to overcome this. Organizers of the event expected around 1000 people to attend. The podium was full of people excited to see the performance and the exceptional stage and lightning system was also notable.

Girma expressed his excitement to be able to perform both pieces from two cultural continents. The pieces were beautifully orchestrated. Girma expressed Gottschalk pieces that have been picked up from common pieces and applied to the piano for everyone to understand even with no piano knowledge. He further elaborated his appreciation by saying the pieces are well written, composed and orchestrated for all kind of audience to enjoy. “I found it to be the most international traditional music”. He commented that he hoped this will bridge cultures for coming generations as well.

Girma’s solo concert at Ethiopian Skylight Hotel, where he showcased both traditions, was one of the most mesmerizing concerts. The concert is the first of its kind as it is the first grand piano concert in Ethiopia. Girma is a world renowned artist who has played in about 50 countries. The grand piano that could have cost around USD 150,000 to 200,000 was gifted to Girma for less than a fraction of the fee as a symbolic fee. This project hopes to bring bridges between cultures and continents especially understanding and awareness of cultures of Africa.

Seeing Girma perform live on a grand piano is a rare treat and an extraordinary experience. The event started with opening remarks from Michael Raynor, United states Ambassador to Ethiopia. Admiring Grima’s work, he showed his support to the bridging cultures project.

During the concert, three young and talented musicians performed. Leben Tinos, Girum Tamirat and Brook Girma, who is Girma’s son showcased an amazing performance. Arts, a local TV stations was one of the sponsors and documented the event. Girma expressed his gratitude.

This current project is a unique presentation of his own selected piano compositions based on indigenous Ethiopian music traditions and the American composer Gottschalk. This project, bridging cultures is a three-CD collection series that started in 2017. What was unique about this album is that the music is based on prominent music modes of Ethiopia like Tizita, Bati, Ambassel yet the instrument used are all western instrument such as the piano, violin, viola, cello and clarinet.

At the last part of the concert, Grima performed some of his pieces from Love and Peace, Ambassel, Elilta and Sememen.

What made this concert unique is that Grima acquired and imported the first ever grand piano from Europe for this classical music extravaganza in Addis Ababa. Attending the concert, Genet, who is a longtime fan of Girma, was awed by the live performance. “I was impressed by how Ethiopian music has been composed for an international audience as well as local audiences. The fact that his song was nominated best song of the year proves how he has attracted international audience by his amazing composing skills. He presented Ethiopian music in a way non-Ethiopian people can also understand the feel of Ethiopian music. The kids following his footsteps were also impressive,” she told The Reporter.

Girma said: “This is a dream come true. I have always wanted a grand piano for my country. I have had an upright piano for 22 years that came from Italy and I have always wanted a grand piano, but I knew it will be hard to acquire. But now it is here and I would like to thank the Piano House located in Poland, my fans and supporters who contributed for the symbolic fraction price of the grand piano, Skylight Hotel for hosting this event for free and Ethiopian Airlines for importing the grand piano for free as well.”

Contributed by Sesina Hailou

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