Ethiopian superstar Mahmoud Ahmed is not Bono

July 2005 -

For more than forty years, Ethiopia has been entranced by Mahmoud Ahmed. During the living legend's 2005 summer tour through Europe, he will also visit the Netherlands. On 6 July he performed with his 6-man band during the Music Meeting in Nijmegen. A day later the group performed during the Africa Festival in Hertme, in the Dutch province of Overijssel.


Ahmed, now 65, started his career as a member of the Bodyguard Band: a band consisting of the bodyguards of the now-deceased Haile Selassi. Although the empire's era has passed, the situation in the country is still far from promising. After the free elections of May 2005, which the opposition won, heavy-handed repression by the government has cost dozens of lives. Criticizing the regime is extremely dangerous.

With his coarse, melancholic voice Ahmed touches the hearts of many Ethiopians, irrespective of their ethnic background or place of residence. His songs are primarily about love and are a-political. 'For centuries the tradition in Ethiopia has been not to speak freely,' says Francis Felceto, who publishes Ethiopian music, including Ahmed's, from Paris. 'This tradition known as 'senna werq' or 'double interpretation' is also evident with artists. In the 1960s, Tlahoun Gessese sang about his broken heart. But everyone in Ethiopia knew that I can't stand it anymore really referred to the emperor's regime.'

However, musicians absolutely do not play a political role, according to Falceto. In that respect, they cannot be compared to engaged superstars like U2's Bono. 'They are popular thanks to their beautiful music. Thinking that Ethiopian artists would get mixed up in the public debate is a typically-Eurocentric way of thinking. They stay well away from it. Those who listen to the lyrics of their songs hear them say what they want them to say.'