Ethiopian singer Tilahun Gessesse died on Sunday night, April 26 in Addis Ababa. He was 68. Tilahun, who was getting treatment for diabetes in the United States, returned home to Ethiopia to join his friends and family for the Easter holiday on Saturday and died this Sunday. According to his family and friends the singer was feeling healthy when he arrived home but Sunday night he started complaining about pain in his chest and while he was being driven to the Hospital he passed away.
The national television and several FM radio stations in Ethiopia began playing his songs in tribute and fans called to express their sorrow as well as honor to the legendary vocalist. According to his family, Tilahun always wished his death would be on Ethiopian soil.
"Most people will agree that he is the King of modern Ethiopian music, inspiring listeners for more than 60 years. JM Ethiopia will participate in the funeral program of next days… it is a time of sorrow for all Ethiopian people". Emlaelu Fesseha – Jeunesses Musicales Ethiopia
Tilahhun Gessesse who was born in Born in Addis Ababa in 1940 was the most dominant figure in Ethiopian music for more than half a century. He started performing in the days of the Emperor Haile Selassie and was for a time the lead singer in his imperial bodyguard band. He sold millions of albums singing about love, family, unity and the situation of his country. He received a Honorary Doctorate Degree from Addis Ababa University for his contribution to music during his five decades of career and also an award for lifetime achievement from the Ethiopian Fine Art and Mass Media Prize Trust.
His death prompted waves of tributes from fans, fellow musicians and prominent personalities. Athlete Haile Gebre Selassie described him as "a national monument and his death as a serious blow to the nation."
“We extend our condolences to the friends and family of Tilahhun Gessesse, and to those across the global music community who mourn the loss of this great artist,” said Blasko Smilevski, Jeunesses Musicales International Secretary General
The U.S. African Chamber of Commerce says that tens of thousands of Ethiopians attended a state funeral for legendary singer Tilahun Gessesse, considered a symbol of national unity since the time of Emperor Haile Selassie. Many of Tilahun’s songs were considered anthems, binding together a country through war and famine, monarchy and dictatorship.
Hours before the service began, tens of thousands of fans, many with tear streaked faces, gathered under a blazing sun in Addis Ababa’s main square, chanting and singing along with Tilahun Gessesse’s songs.
Fifty-year-old Antene Gizachew said nobody will replace him in Ethiopia’s heart.
"He’s a legend for Africa," said Antene Gizachew. "He was motivator, humanitarian, so the United States has legends, as a young man I remember Elvis was a legend. He’s like our Elvis. He lives in each Ethiopians hearts and minds forever."
Tilahun’s golden voice captivated a struggling nation, transcending politics and time. He was a favorite of Emperor Haile Selassie, and served in the Imperial Guards.
Martin Mohammed, President of the U.S. African Chamber of Commerce, said his fame grew through the years of Marxist dictatorship known as the Dergue, under Mengistu Haile Mariam. His songs about starvation raised millions of dollars for a famine-stricken nation. He traveled abroad, thanking the world for its support during the famed "We are the world" campaign.
But unlike many who fled the terror of the Dergue, he overlooked politics and kept on singing to his adoring public. He won over the current government a decade ago during Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea when he went to the front to entertain the troops.
The front row of seats at the memorial service was dotted with the faces of top government officials. Also prominent at the service was a massive floral bouquet sent by the young singing sensation Teddy Afro, whose songs were adopted by the opposition during the violent anti-government protests following the 2005 elections. Afro is currently serving a prison sentence for a fatal hit-and-run traffic accident.
Famed artist Sileshi Demisse says even though Tilahun’s music sometimes had a political edge, politicians of all stripes embraced him. "He was not anti any government personally, but through his music he expressed his feelings during all these three regimes, and all these governments were going to give him a hard time," said Sileshi Demisse. "But he wasn’t that politically hard, but he was saying what he wants to say."
Prominent actor Abdullah Balcha, who also served as Tilahun’s personal attorney, says the singer not only had a knack for expressing the people’s feelings, but could do it in several languages.
"There was some operation in every form at the time of the emperor, at the time of the dergue, there was that feeling of expressing, and he was always the voice of the people," said Abdullah Balcha. "He used to sing perfectly and eloquently in Amharic and Oromifa and in Sudanese, Arabic as well."