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Gallery: Getatchew Mekuria’s life in music

January 2017

Getatchew Mekuria grew up in the countryside in Shoa, north of Addis Ababa. His father was a honey merchant. Young Getatchew played the washint, the traditional flute. One day he heard a saxophone on the Ethiopian radio and right away knew that was the instrument to play. At 13 he went to Addis to make his dream possible. He applied for the Municipality Band, the main Addis Ababa marching band, borrowed a saxophone and didn't stop since. This is Getatchew as a teenager in the Municipalty uniform, around 1952.

Getatchew’s career took off fast. Here he is in the Haile Selassie 1 Theatre Orchestra, the main Addis Ababa National Theatre big band in 1956, standing in the second row, second from the right. On some of his many state visits, Haile Selassie was welcomed by big brass bands. He started importing brass and wind instruments and employed foreign music instructors – here Austrian big band instructor Franz Zwelwecker.

The big orchestras were official institutions: there was Police Orchestra, Imperial Bodyguard Band, Army Band, etc. But soon the musicians played in different combinations, places and occasions. The 1970s was a big burst of energy and inspiration, with dozens of bands and songs, and hundreds of cassettes. Here Getatchew is in the front with the Police Band in a hotel party in Gondar, Northern Ethiopia, 1969.

In the 1970s Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, then still a province of Ethiopia, was a modern town. Getatchew loved it. He went there often with Haile Selassie 1 Theatre Orchestra and Police Orchestra. Here he is on top of the roof of Cinema Asmara.

From 1974–91 Ethiopia was ruled by a cruel communist military dictatorship. Bit by bit music was restricted and censored. Many musicians stopped or left the country, but some were famous and remained unaffected, like Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahoun Gessesse and also Getatchew. But the spirit from the earlier years was gone. Here is Getatchew on an Ethiopian TV program from the early 80s.

Getatchew was also an actor. He performed in Western plays like Hamlet at the National Theatre, and also in Ethiopian theatre plays. This is him dressed up as a traditional Ethiopian warrior. In the 50s he translated the vocal war chant, the shellelle, to the saxophone. Some music journalists concluded that Getatchew was the inventor of free jazz – writers even came to Addis to interview him.

The relationship between The Ex and Getatchew started with an obscure Ethiopian cassette – recordings from 1972 and later released as Ethiopiques 14. We wanted to invite him for our 25th anniversary tour in November 2004 so we went to Addis, found him, and he agreed right away to come to Amsterdam. A miraculously successful cooperation followed: ten years, more than 100 concerts all over the world, two CDs and a DVD. This photo was taken at Paradiso, Amsterdam, 2006.

Playing the shellelle with The Ex, Getatchew always wore the gofere, the headgear with lion hair, and an animal skin cape. It was serious, but also for a joke. Ethiopian double meaning. Getatchew was good at that – like the time he made a journalist believe that there was a connection between raw meat and sound. The big headline in one of the main Dutch newspapers was: "Raw meat is good for the sound"! (photograph by Matias Corral)

Getatchew was many characters in one person – extremely hospitable and polite, but not when someone touched his sax. A top actor but totally honest. Sweet, but sometimes even aggressive, for example when someone lowered the airplane seat in front of him. Not always easy, but super inspiring and challenging to work with! (photograph by Andy Moor)

In 2006 we recorded the Moa Anbessa album. Quite unexpectedly in 2012, Getatchew said he wanted to make his final album with us. He gave us about 12 melodies, totally unknown to us. We did a lot of research and practising. Most of it we could record in Holland after a tour. But for some final solos we went to record in Addis Ababa's famous Fendika music bar. Quite an operation, but the result was amazing. Y'Anbessaw Tezeta (Longing For The Lion) was a double CD/LP with lots of bonus material from recordings of the 1950s with the Haile Selassie 1 Theatre Orchestra and live tracks with the ICP and The Ex. (photograph by Matias Corral)

In 2014 we realised Getatchew couldn't really travel anymore. Because of diabetes his legs were badly swollen. We decided to organise some celebration concerts in Addis Abeba. We could get the National Theatre. It sold out, 1500 people with a standing ovation, and lots of TV and press. Getatchew was happy. Here’s the soundcheck with Getatchew as critical and involved as always: “Terrie! Listen!” He sat the whole concert on a chair, but played stronger than ever. (photograph by Nick Helderman)

This is backstage at the National Theatre during the last ever concerts. In 2015 his health went downhill very fast. When we visited him in January 2016 he had been sitting and sleeping in a chair for months and was unable to do anything. We bought him an adjustable chair. He was happy to finally sleep lying down. But it was too late. He passed away on 4 April 2016.

A new photobook documents the Ethiopian saxophonist’s long life in music, from early government ensembles such as The Municipality Band all the way through to The Ex

Following the death in 2016 of Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, Dutch underground punks The Ex have published a photobook documenting his life in music from government ensembles such as The Municipality Band all the way through to The Ex. “It's Ethiopian tradition to do something strong after a year,“ writes Terrie from the group. “We decided to release this tribute photobook. The whole amazing history, with the impressive photos of three, very different photographers, Matias Corral, Nick Helderman and The Ex-guitarist Andy Moor. Nobody in Ethiopia has really seen these pictures or knows about the whole history – just lack of media. We try to make it affordable for everybody. Out now, and presented in Ethiopia on 4 April 2017!” The above images from the book are annotated by Terre Ex, and Getatchew Mekuria: The Lion Of Ethiopian Saxophone, is published by Terp.

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