VAHE TRANSFORMED THE OLDEST SONG KNOWN TO MANKIND, MIXED IT WITH DEEP BASS AND SOME JAZZ/ROCK FUNK AND DELIVERED TIZITA FROM THE DISTANCE FUTURE.Published Posted on | By TZTA News
By Samuel Getachew –
More than a century ago, the family of Vahe Tilbian (www.vahetilbian.com) became stateless after escaping genocide and made their way to Ethiopia. In time, Emperor Haile Selassie offered them Ethiopian citizenship. Today, the footprints and influence of Armenians, in business, academia and art, is everywhere in Ethiopia. Artist Vahe Tilbian is continuing that journey with a new soul CD of Amharic and English songs. One music critic has described it as an art that has “transformed the oldest song known to mankind, mixed it with deep bass and some jazz/rock funk and delivered Tizita from the distance future”. The Tizeta crooner who recently released his full length CD reflects on history, music and why he chose to return home to Ethiopia once he completed his post-secondary education in Canada.
Samuel interviewed Vahe to get an insight into his life, his work, and his outlook on
the Ethiopian music world.
Q: You have a very interesting background. You were born in Ethiopia to an Armenian heritage and went to school in Canada. Please tell us about this experience.
A: My family came to Ethiopia as early as the early 1900’s, to find work and escape Genocide, and we’ve been here ever since. I finished high school in Addis and had the chance to continue my post-secondary education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Once I finished my undergraduate degree, I moved back home to Addis.
Q: It is rare to find Armenians in Ethiopia these days. Tell us about the rich connection between Ethiopia and Armenia.
A: Unfortunately that is true. There are very few of us left in Ethiopia at the moment and most of us belong to one family. The historical connection between Armenia and Ethiopia starts in the 1500’s (European Calendar) with Mateos Armenawi(Mateos the Armenian) who was sent as a diplomat to Portugal by way of India to ask for help to curb Ottoman expansion in Africa. Through the years that followed more Armenians have come to Ethiopia, especially after the 1915 massacres and expulsion of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, Armenians found themselves accepted in Ethiopia.
The fact that both Ethiopia and Armenia were Orthodox Christians helped seal the bond as the churches were always connected. Historically Armenians worked as goldsmiths, carpenters, builders, teachers, embroiders, silk makers, carpet makers, the list goes on. My great grandfather was a carpet maker in the palace during Empress Zewditu’s time.
The presence of Armenians in Ethiopia was further strengthened by Emperor Haile Sellassie who adopted 40 Armenian children (Arba Lijoch) who were orphaned by the Genocide and were living in Jerusalem. By the leadership of Captain Kevork Nalbandian (the uncle of Nerses Nalbandian) they formed the first brass band of Ethiopia. Actually an aside fact also is that the Armenian Quarter
in Jerusalem also houses the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. When I visited Armenia for the first time in 2005, I was shocked at how similar the two countries are and realized why Armenians came to Ethiopia and stayed here. Two countries that are far away from each other have similar scenery, people’s attitudes, energy, spirituality. It’s amazing!
Q: Most young people your age leave Ethiopia for promising lives to western countries. Why did you return to Ethiopia once you completed your education in British Columbia?
A: It’s not promising. It’s a suggestion. Money doesn’t grow on trees in the western world as a lot of people believe. Life is just as tough as, maybe even tougher than living in Ethiopia. Primarily my decision to move back was because of my family in Ethiopia. Life is too short as it is and I made a conscious decision to be with them for as long as God allows us to be together. I couldn’t bear to be thousands of kilometers away from my parents and my sister and the rest of my very tight knit family. To me it is more important to spend my life with them than to spend it trying to look for a suggestion of a “better” life that is hgh human growth never guaranteed. I feel very much at ease in Ethiopia. If anything I find it better here than anywhere else.
Q: You are fluent in Armenian, English as well as Amharic. You songs are mostly bilingual. How did you get in to the music business?
A: My songs are trilingual actually. I got into music as a joke. I happened to be at dance practice and for some reason Michael Buble’s version of “Feeling Good” started playing and I sang along
with it. My friend Bitik Emlaelu asked if I would be interested to join the band she was putting together. Naturally I said yes and here I am.
Q: You are also a professional dancer. Tell me about that.
A: Actually in the ballroom dancing scene I’m NOT a professional dancer. One has to earn that label. While I was at university I joined the UBC Dance Club to pass the time, do something new
and different. I ended up loving the art of dance and was formally trained in the international style Latin American ballroom dances for about six years. I competed in many competitions
mostly with my dance partner Naomi Goffman and through winning and getting points through placing (1st, 2nd or 3rd) we reached the “prechampionship” level right before I moved back
to Ethiopia. (The highest level within the amateur category is championship and then one chooses to move up to be a professional dancer)
Q: Teddy Fikre of remarked recently that the first time he heard your song, he felt like “he died and returned from the dead” and that you had “transformed the oldest song known to mankind, mixed it with deep bass and some jazz/rock funk and delivered to me a Tizita from the distance future”. That is a great compliment. What does this complement mean to you and how do you describe your music?
A: You’re right it is a great complement! I feel humbled and much moved by the Teddy’s reaction and even others who tell me they really liked my version of the Tizita. Of course I am grateful to everyone who open heartedly lent me their ears and thankful to my producer and fellow artist Kenny Allen who is producing my album. I describe my music I describe as a “mixology” I don’t really stick to one type or one genre or one language, but within this disorder I find my order.
Q: If there is one entertainer you would most like to collaborate with, who would that be?
A: It’s not easy to answer this, since like I said before I don’t really stick to a certain style or listen to a single artist but perhaps, Bruno Mars. I admire his work and perform a lot of his songs. It would be great to collaborate with him.
Q: You have recently been nominated for a prestigious musical award that is by popular vote. Tell us about that.
A: It’s the 1st Armenian Pulse Music Awards (www.armenianpulse.com) an online radio and entertainment website. I am excited to be nominated in the Best Artist in English category
for my song “Don’t Stop”, especially since I am in the same category as the internationally known Tamar Kaprelian. It is by popular votes and those who wish to vote for me can do so at the website
(click here) and I’ll be extremely grateful.
Q: Ethiopia has changed over the years. What is one change you would mostly like to see in your lifetime?
A: I would love to see the end of poverty. I would love to see everyone have access to clean drinking water. I would love to see HIV/AIDS wiped out. Musically, I would love for more international
artists to visit Ethiopia and perform here. We don’t get as many concerts as some other African countries. I’d love to see them collaborating with more Ethiopian artists too, much like we see happening in Nigeria and South Africa, except Ethiopia’s music is so unique that the possibilities are limitless.