“Getatchew Mekurya, 81, Jazz Saxophonist Known for an Imposing Sound and Presence” was the title of the story The New York Times published in its New York edition on April 12, 2016. True to form, the legendary Ethiopian saxophonist was an exceptional performer and loud cheers usually accompany his energetic performances. Now many in the Ethiopian music scenes—including his protégés—are saying that Ethiopian music has lost a legend, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
Ethiopia’s long history is filled with wars—local and international. These wars are associated with melancholic texts and melodies honoring those who sacrificed their lives in battle. That is done by praising the courageous ones in a form of chanting known as fukera and shilela. In the six decades of Ethiopia’s modern music history there is none other like the late Getachew Mekurya a.k.a. the King of Sax who can tell the unique story of patriotism and heroism with his saxophone.
Often appearing onstage in a warrior's animal-skin tunic and lion's mane headdress, Getachew Mekurya is synonymous with fukera and shilela. With his impressive stage performance the legendary saxophonist shows his audience why Ethiopia is labeled as a nation of warriors.
Many, who worked with him, say that he lived through his music and has a deep sense of patriotism. The renowned dancer, Melaku Belay, who toured with him in many festivals abroad for nine years, remembers an incident of that kind.
According to Melaku, in one of the festivals, he was faced by a racist man who tried to attack him alleging that Getachew pushed him. “Getachew was fired up with anger and chocked the man,” Melaku says adding that for Getachew, Ethiopia is his everything and he is always proud because he manages to outrival foreigners by his mesmerizing sax performances.
Getachew— a man who recorded the first instrumental shilela—was born in Yifat, North Shoa. His introduction to modern music came when he was hired in the Municipality Orchestra in 1948. Hired with a salary of ten birr, Getachew— in a 2012 interview with The Reporter—said that he started by playing the drum, which was followed by a clarinet, and finally settled with his sax. He says that his family was not happy because they could not come to terms with the fact that he has become an “azmari” (a belittling term used to describe a musician).
Getachew, who also glorified the 1960s art scene, joined Haile Selassie Theatre, which many believe heralded the advent of a new era of theater and music. Many say that this was the place where great composers, artists, playwrights, musicians and dancers were groomed through intensive trainings and performances.
After Haile Selassie Theatre, Getachew’s next stop was the famous Police Orchestra, which gained popularity by assembling young and vibrant musicians. Apart from playing music, he used to teach at the Police Orchestra. He worked for over 36 years before he retired. “I remember our jokes with Hirut Bekele when we used to say we are colonels,” Getachew said.
Described by many musicians as being exceptional—particularly his ability to perform for long hours on stage—he was also a versatile musician who was able to adapt Ethiopian traditional music tunes to the saxophone employing a free jazz style.
The founder of Ethio-Jazz, Mulatu Astatke, says that he has great respect for Getachew. “He is a legend and is one of the personalities I admire and respect. He is the only personality who was able to bring the elements of Ethiopian traditional instruments into his sax,” Mulatu says.
Before going abroad for school, Mulatu used to listen to Getachew in Haile Selassie Theatre Orchestra and after he came back he says he was fortunate enough to work with him in his unforgettable shilela and fukera pieces. They performed on the same stage on numerous occasions including in South France while Getachew performed with The Ex Band; an underground punk band from the Netherlands.
They shared a meal and talked about music and life. Mulatu describes him as a hard worker. His hard work can be noticed in his six decades of uninterrupted musical journey. His performance at the National Theatre, which was a little over a year ago, revealed is deep passion despite his physical weakness. He performed for more than one hour. Apart from performing he also tried to do the eskista. A musical genius, who gave old sound a new life, produced memorable works such as Akale Wube, Ethiopia Hagere and other musical masterpieces. Under Philips Records he released five CDs and five cassettes over the years.
Getachew reached international audiences after his album Negus of Ethiopian Sax was released as part of the Ethiopiques compilation. Inspired by his work, a French band was named after one of his songs, Akale Wube. In addition to this, renowned Somali rapper K’nnan featuring Damian Marley sampled shilela.
“I did not follow in detail but I heard a rumor about it. I would have given him more, had he met me. I have collections, which are not released yet. I will be glad if they visit me; they are welcome. I can share any experience for any musician who is willing to learn,” Said Getachew
His music was internationally renowned where he performed for tens of thousands in a sold out concert. Featured by The Ex band he highlighted many shows which overwhelmed many. According to Melaku, Getachew was able to change the perception of westerners who assumed African musical rhythm as being one.
“After the shows many in the crowd pushed and shoved each other to great him and bow down humbly as an expression of their admiration. He feels proud in representing Ethiopia,” Melaku says.
His last album, Ye Anbessaw Tizita, (Memory of the Lion) featured by The Ex was able to reach the top of international music charts. Talking about his concerts abroad Getachew said: “For me the music is what matters. One thing I can tell you that it was not an easy road getting here. I was one of the pioneer saxophone players in the country and it gives me much pleasure to represent Ethiopia worldwide,” he said.
“I know that they [westerners] taught us how to play the saxophone but what I can say is that I outsmarted them. Through the years I developed my own style. I can do my own thing just by performing a sax solo. That is something many musicians cannot do,” he said.
He inspired many sax players including the Ethio-American founder of Debo Band Daniel Mekonnen, who was given lessons by Getachew. The other sax player is the former Roha Band saxophonist, Yared Tefera, who was also inspired by Getachew.
Yared says that playing with Getachew was a great opportunity. Being one of Getachew’s protégés Yared says that he felt overwhelmed when Getachew commented that he plays good and encouraged him to play more. “Musically he was one-of-a-kind and getting this kind of encouragement from him was truly inspiring,” Yared says.
Yared, who tours with musicians such as Mahmoud Ahmed and others, states that as an instrumental player there is no musician who can be compared with Getachew. “Many instrumentalists usually feature vocalists but Getachew is a solo performer and does it brilliantly. His synchronization of sax with Ethiopian music and his energy were both unique,” Yared says.
For Yared his musical contribution is bigger than life. Apart from his musical contribution Yared says that Getachew is unapologetic for issues he believes in.
It is not only Yared who describe him as being a straightforward and persistent personality. Melaku also says that Getachew is a persistent man for the things he believes in. “His persistency is observed through his musical journey and through his ups and downs. Even in extreme cases he did not stop playing music. He was a strong-willed man who goes against all odds,” Melaku says.
It is not only his colleagues who believe in his straightforward personality. Yoseph Getachew—his sixth child and a sax player—also believes that his late father was a strong-willed man. Getachew is a father of ten children from two marriages and his son Yoseph says that he does not compromise and wants things to go in a straight line. While Yoseph was growing up Getachew was busy with his musical tours but with his spare time he trained him how to play sax.
Yoseph says that in his spare time Getachew loved reading books that address political issues. He also enjoyed gardening and listening to slow and traditional music. Melaku says that Geetachew’s love for Ethiopian music is deep where he listened to musicians such as Kassa Tessema, Hirut Bekele, Muluken Melesse and other traditional musicians. According to Melaku, Getachew’s taste was not limited to Ethiopian music. “He loved jazz music and improvised it,” he says.
On many occasions, Getachew expressed his love for raw meat and tej. Yoseph also confirms that. Similarly, throughout their tours Melaku witnessed Getachew’s love for meat and wine.
It was two years ago that Getachew’s health started to deteriorate because of his diabetes and an infection related to that. According to Yoseph, his situation worsened after losing his wife who he was married to for 56 years. Getachew passed away on April 4 at the age of 81 one year, one month, and one day after his wife’s death.
In his last Ethiopian concert, which was held at the National Theatre, featured by the punk band, he played many songs and received a standing ovation from the audience. He welcomed the admiration and finally saluted everyone and departed. After the concert he told The Reporter that his health was deteriorating. “If I can I might sing but I think this would be my last and want to say my farewells to everyone.”