A few years back I stumbled upon an ’80s Ethiopian synth-pop track by Tigist Mekonnen. At the time I was really into post punk and new wave. So this song really did it for me. The instrumentation was cheap but effective, Tigist’s voice was beautiful, and I thought there might be dozens and dozens of equally great Ethiopian synth-heavy songs. Sadly, I came to realize the appealing balance on this song between synths and Amharic vocals was more of a happy coincidence. The deeper I dug for similar songs, the bigger my frustration grew.
So when I flew to Addis Abeba last July, I was scared I’d end up drowning under layers and layers of not-as-dope synths. I was right. Most of the pop music I heard on the radio was a blend of R&B, tons of synths and sometimes a distinguishably Ethiopian pentatonic scale. Not all that exciting. I wasn’t sure where to look to next: purely traditional music? 1970′s Mulatu Astatke-type Ethio jazz? I love both types of music, but I’m not much of a folklore buff or a vintage digger. I left Addis feeling frustrated.
Luckily, my love affair with Ethiopian music was far from being over, and I started receiving songs from various missed connections. In particular, Ethiopian Brooklynite DJ Sirak has been feeding me amazing goodies, especially songs by Saba. I didn’t meet Saba while I was in Addis. It seems she is always at home writing songs, or in the studio working on her first album, which she hopes to finish by the end of the year. Although she’s young, she’s no rookie. She performed very regularly in Addis from 2006 until 2009, singing mostly covers, until she decided to focus on her own material. And when it comes to writing songs, she has a pretty insane background to fuel her creativity.
Saba grew up in Eritrea, the country with the worse press freedom index in the world, right below North Korea. It’s hard to imagine what life is like when a government kicks you out of your home, seizes all of your belongings and harasses you and your family. Yet this was a routine Saba had to get used to when she was still a child. She told me about one episode in particular, which she says changed her life forever. Her entire school had to attend a government meeting: “It was government officials encouraging Eritrean students to kill, beat and in any way they can harm Ethiopians,” she said. Shortly after, Saba’s parents sent their ten children to live in Addis, where for the first three years they had to make things happen without any reliable income. It was a big departure from the more comfortable first years they spent living in Asmara.
Even before the political turmoil, Saba found comfort in singing. She grew up watching Boyz II Men or Brandy videos on MTV, but also soaking in the classic Eritrean melodies her mom played all day long in her shop. Today Saba successfully bridges the gap between these Western pop vocalists and her deep roots in Tigrigna and Amharic folklore. When I asked Saba about the music scene in Addis, I could sense her frustration. On the business side, she told me, “there is no concept of artist management going around in this town.” About the nightlife she added, “Ethiopian crowds are hard to please, unless you sing cover songs.” But Saba’s looking beyond Addis and she realizes her music speaks to a much wider audience. “I can see myself going global with the work I am doing,” she says, “I often get comments such as, We can understand your music and your emotions, from foreigners in the audience.”
This song definitely spoke to me when I first heard it, it’s called “Lene Yalew,” or “What’s Meant for Me” in Amharic. It’s a love song, but also a spiritual song about accepting one’s destiny. Saba sings about finding the right person, waiting for the right time, and not worrying yourself to death until that person and that time comes. I’m not that spiritual, or patient: I can’t wait til her album drops!
Download: Saba, “Lene Yalew”