He was a singer like no other with tremendously charismatic appearance, holding his rightful place in Ethiopia as the country’s one and only king of pop. The veteran singer was not just a renowned artist – he was also a national treasure of highest standards. From love, family and friendship to liberty, unity and justice, there isn’t an aspect of life that he didn’t sing about. Music has a special place in the everyday lives of Ethiopians and no singer has been able to win the sentiments of the people the way he did over the years.
Today’s Addis Insight inspirational hero is Tilahun Gessesse. He was born on 29 September 1940, in Addis Ababa and died on 19 April 2009.
Tilahun was born to Woizero Gete Gurmu and Ato Gessesse Negussee. When he was fourteen years old, he was taken by his grandfather to Waliso Oromia where he began attending Ras Gobena Elementary School.
As time went by, his interest in music became increasingly clear, although his grandfather urged him to concentrate on his academic studies. The Ras Gobena School Principal Mr. Shedad (who was from Sudan), encouraged Tilahun’s interest in music and urged him to go to Sudan to pursue his music career. Although Tilahun did not go to Sudan, he took Mr. Shedad’s advice very seriously. When Woizero Negatwa Kelkai, Ato Eyoel Yohanes and others artists from the Hager Fikir Theatre came to his school to perform, Tilahun took the opportunity to discuss his interest in music with Ato Eyoel. He was told to go to Addis Ababa if he wanted to pursue a career in the field.
Tilahun left school to go to Addis Ababa, a journey he began on foot without his grandfather’s consent. When his grandfather realized that Tilahun was no longer in Woliso, he informed Tilahun’s great-aunt in Tulu Bolo. After Tilahun traveled fifteen kilometers on foot, he was caught in Tulu Bolo and stayed overnight with his great-aunt Woizero Temene Bantu. The next day, he was forced to return back to his grandfather in Woliso. Since his interest in music lay deep in his heart, Tilahun chose not to stay at his grandfather’s house in Woliso. After staying only one night at his grandfather’s house, he again began his journey to Addis Ababa, this time hiding himself in the back of a loaded truck.
In Addis Ababa, Tilahun was first hired by the Hager Fikir Association, which is now known as Hager Fikir Theater. After a few years at the Hager Fikir Theater, he joined the Imperial Bodyguard Band where he became a leading star singer. During his time with the band, Tilahun ran afoul of the government after the attempted coup d’état of December 1960 by the Imperial Bodyguard. He was arrested and put in prison for a time.
Tilahun moved to the National Theater where his success continued. He was so famous that he appeared three times in front of Emperor Haile Selassie I. During a visit, the Emperor advised him not to abuse his talent.
Tilahun’s recordings are in Amharic and Oromo.
He received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Addis Ababa University, in appreciation of his contribution to Ethiopian music. He has also received an award for his lifetime achievements from the Ethiopian Fine Art and Mass Media Prize Trust.
Tilahun Gessesse died on April 19, 2009. He had been in poor health for several years due to diabetes.
Tilahun has not only been an inspiration for a lot of young Ethiopian singers but also for various country singers. The voice he had was very mysterious. For him it is just a piece of cake to sing without breathing though for the audience it is such a miracle. He had his goal and never give up to let it down. So he became what he love. But that is not the only thing he had, to be a role model and an inspiration in his field is also what he had achieved.
May his soul rest in peace!