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