Te­wolde Redda: ‘Eritrea’s Gui­tar Pi­o­neer 1970-73’

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - Donal Di­neen

Te­wolde Redda lives in ex­ile in Rot­ter­dam. He lives his life with­out mu­sic or any rem­nants of a brief but bril­liant ca­reer that he left be­hind in As­mara, from which he fled in 1979.

In 1974, Haile Se­lassie was over­thrown by the mil­i­tary Derg and this vi­o­lent shift brought to an end a golden age in mu­sic in which Te­wolde was con­sid­ered roy­alty. His stature di­min­ished as the po­lit­i­cal un­rest rose. Mu­sic went un­der­ground. Life changed dra­mat­i­cally.

Since the early 1960s, he had been a sup­porter of the ELF (Eritrean Lib­er­a­tion Front). The rise of a sec­ond party, the EPLF (Eritrean Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Front) put his life in dan­ger and he es­caped through Su­dan and Italy and onto his cur­rent home in the Nether­lands.

The glo­ri­ous sounds he made be­tween 1970 and 1973 are all that re­mains of Te­wolde’s foray into mu­sic. Not only does it stand up to any­thing made by the mu­si­cal gi­ants of neigh­bour­ing Ethiopia but in many ways shines even brighter due to its dili­gence and in­ven­tive­ness. It’s a mag­i­cal but trag­i­cally brief legacy.

His dex­trous play­ing and deep voice gave him a head­start at 16 but it was when he started ex­per­i­ment­ing by ap­ply­ing a pick-up to the ki­rar, a five-string lyre cen­tral to Eritrean mu­sic, that sparks started to fly. He mixed Eritrean folk mu­sic with ev­ery type of sound he was hear­ing on the ra­dio. As­mara was home to a US mil­i­tary base. The huge ra­dio tow­ers con­structed to re­lay and in­ter­cept Cold War com­mu­ni­ca­tions was put to much bet­ter use by some of the mil­i­tary ser­vice­men who set up a ra­dio sta­tion play­ing jazz, R&B and other styles, much to Te­wolde’s de­light. His mu­si­cal uni­verse ex­panded ac­cord­ingly.

His pre­cious few record­ings are joy­ous af­fairs. The easy flow which he per­fected on the elec­tric gui­tar and ki­rar give them a re­laxed but stri­dent air. His voice shim­mers in the most be­guil­ing way. When he kicks back and hits the high notes, it glows like gold it­self. This is mu­sic for the on­set of dusk when light is needed to off­set the dark­ness. A glit­ter­ing prize.

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