TAITU: Digging Ethiopian 45s with Ernesto Chahoud
“I was born on May 1981 in west Beirut, five years after the Lebanese Civil War started and one year before the Israeli invasion. Being born into a communist militant family in the middle of a civil war that lasted 30 years meant that scores of armed fighters – both women and men – would be in the house around the clock. They would eat and drink with the family, sleep alongside us and prepare for military operations at the kitchen table – some I’d see again, others wouldn’t return afterwards.
Most of my childhood toys were guns – real handguns and machine guns. This kind of life also meant always being on the move, constant forced migration because of constant threats. I grew up reading a lot of ideological books to understand the cause we were fighting for. My dad would often disappear for months and months and there was always the likelihood of being kidnapped. In the mid 80s, my mother was kidnapped and kept hostage for over a year by right wing militias and Syrian secret service police – we didn’t know whether she’d be released. At the age of 13 I was initiated with my own military training with an AK47. I grew up surrounded by the books of Lenin and Marx and Engels and with an early knowledge on the history of the October Revolution and the Soviet Union where our loyalties lay.
The music we listened to at the time was all revolutionary songs – Soviet, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Sudanese, Egyptian, Yemeni and many others. When I look back at it now, the variety of music I was exposed to under the umbrella of these songs of resistance was immense. This taste for eclecticism in music developed in me naturally while growing up because of all that music I’d hear on a daily basis.
After the war was over, and we were defeated, I remember a news broadcast on TV announcing that all sectarian groups were giving up their arms. All the communist militants who were still camped out in our house were shaving their beards while watching the screen, thinking about where to go and what to do. Most of them got depressed and never left their homes; my father was one of them. Others managed to get jobs and carried on. We moved back to west Beirut where everything was destroyed.
One year after the war was over there certainly wasn’t any music scene in Beirut and it was hard to imagine there ever was with the state of destruction the city was in. I liked music that sounded good and that was that. Though we had no music magazines and no CDs at the time, I couldn’t quench my thirst for new music that I’d never heard. I didn’t care about one genre in particular; it just had to sound good enough, serious enough and exciting enough.
I would visit the tape shacks and follow the street sellers who used to wheel around trolleys full of tapes with a tape player hooked up to big shitty speakers playing loud music – a kind of DIY boombox. When I had a bit of money I used to go to the record stores that survived the war and buy records. My music knowledge was zero back then, so I used to buy one or two records and listen to them for days. My ears were leading, like what Duke Ellington used to say: ‘If it sounds good, it IS good’. After school, I used to invite a couple of friends to my room and we’d sit and play these tapes and records and drink and then go out.
I never liked the music that was playing in Beirut’s bars and decided to speak to the bar owner where we hung out to let us play our records and tapes – he let us do it on a Tuesday. We would come every week to this nice bar attached to the Mayflower Hotel, a group of misfit teenagers playing the records we loved.
My taste was slowly changing. I started getting into ‘60s rhythm and blues, jazz and later some fusion. At that time, I think my family wasn’t very happy with how my tapes sounded. At the age of 16 I started to get paid for my DJing, badly paid but I was getting calls. By then, I was a regular at the flea market and looking for dancefloor music –mainly ‘70s funk, while other DJs from my generation where into rap and disco.
From the mid ‘90s to the 2000s in Beirut, going to the flea market was the thing to do if you were into music. In the ‘60s and ‘70s before the war, Beirut’s music industry was booming, there were a handful of record pressing plants releasing numerous titles, from the big hits to the obscurest international and local artists. Those records all eventually made their way to the flea market. Added to that, as the CD format slowly overwhelmed the market everyone started getting rid of their records, literally throwing them in the garbage. Every time I went to the flea market I found mountains of records. I didn’t have much money, but because there was so little value placed on vinyl at the time it would buy me plenty of records, allowing me to experiment with what I bought. I would buy anything that looked interesting from anywhere in the world.
In the late ‘40s, Beirut pioneered the first international music festivals in the Middle East such as Baalbeck Festival which hosted artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, Miles Davies, Miriam Makeba and Duke Ellington – who even wrote a wonderful song called ‘Mount Harrissa’ about a Lebanese mountain town after his visit. Beirut’s theatres had concerts by The Shadows, Cliff Richard and The Kinks, who postponed the recording of their album ‘Arthur’ (or ‘The Decline and The Fall of the British Empire) to perform in Beirut. Not to forget the legendary performance of Stockhausen in Jeitta Grotto or the kraut-rock band Agitation Free who played in Beirut as part of their tour of the region. So Beirut in the 1990s was a digger’s paradise where you could find records from every genre. Not anymore sadly. For me, post-war Beirut meant records, pinball and defeat. My only refuge was in chasing records wherever I went.
I found my first Ethiopian record in Beirut at the flea market. It was ‘Zemam Sew Lebene’ by Getatchew Kassa on the yellow-labelled Kaifa, which I later traded with my friend and DJ Partner Jan Weissenfeldt aka J.J. Whitefield, with whom I share what you can call the Ethio fever. The first Ethiopian record that triggered this fever though was ‘Ewnetgna Feker’ by the legendary Ethiopian singer Hirut Bekele. The first time I heard this record I wanted more and decided to go and dig in Ethiopia. It took me 10 years to make it, but I eventually did and it was as exciting as it gets.
I went to Addis Ababa with my friend Martin Armstrong, who documented the trip in a series of articles. I didn’t know anyone in Addis, I only had a small notebook of record and tape stores that I’d heard about, including a store owned by the legendary singer Mahmoud Ahmed and one for Ali Tango, the owner of Kaifa Label.
I booked myself a room at a cheap hotel in Piazza, the old centre of Addis. Itegue Taitu Hotel, known as Taitu, is the oldest hotel in Ethiopia. It was built in 1898 (following the Ethiopian calendar) by Empress Taitu Betul (1851-1918), the founder of Addis Ababa and the third wife of emperor Menelik II. Before I arrived, I was wondering why the rooms of such a historic hotel were so cheap – only 5 USD per night. I took a mini van from the airport, and it dropped me in Piazza. I walked all the way down a grimy, busy and run down street full of character. Taitu Hotel was located at the end of the street on a hill. The closer I was getting the stronger the smell was becoming. I looked up at the hotel and it was completely burnt down, with smoke still rising from the building. I went inside and surprisingly found two employees sat at the reception. The room they gave had a broken toilet, one tiny window and a miserable bed pushed against the wall.
Later, I decided to go out for a drink in the area. I stepped out of the hotel to find that the whole dynamics of the neighbourhood had changed completely. There was a long queue of prostitutes standing against the wall of a public toilet. Further down, not far from the police station, a long white sheet was hanging above the sidewalk – a screen of limited privacy created for customers who couldn’t afford a hotel room. Drug dealers were everywhere – mostly teenagers hustling. The busiest bars had toilets without doors, so everything smelt of piss. It was loud and exciting! The next morning, I woke up early to hunt out my addresses and found the street was back to normal again with big groups of kids and teenagers that I recognized from the night before still sleeping in the street knackered by drugs and alcohol.
All the addresses I had were long closed down or had become clothing shops. There was nothing to find. I ended up going around and just asking random people if they know where I could find records. Everyone would tell me they know and then take me for a long walk, sometimes for hours, under the midday heat. I went down so many dead ends on my hunt for records – so many times ending up in the backyard of someone who only has CDs, or maybe one single scratched up unplayable record. For days and days it went on this way, until on my way back to the hotel after a day of the usual disappointment, I heard some Yemeni music and followed where it was coming from. The shop had some American pop records hung on its walls. I asked him about the tape he was playing and we chatted a bit and I asked if he knew of a place that I could get Ethiopian records. He gave me the number of a guy called Mohamed who he said is a chemist. I called the number three times and there was no answer. The next day Mohamed called back. I told him that I’m looking for records and he asked where I was. ‘Taitu’ I said. His immediate response was ‘I’m on my way’. He didn’t show up until four hours later, but came with a big bag of dusty records. After that he came everyday with 100 records. He saved my trip. At Taitu Hotel I also met the Ethiopian singer and musician Getatchew Kassa. One of his finest songs, in my opinion, is compiled here. After all that, the name Taitu is kind of stuck. Try to stay there and let me know how it is.
In the ‘60s, as in the rest of the world, Addis Ababa was hit by a wave of modernity, which filtered down through everything from its fashion and architecture to its night clubs. The early music scene was dominated by The Army Band, The Police Orchestra and The Imperial Bodyguard Band – big name artists such as Tilahun Gessess, Bezunesh Bekele and Hirut Bekele, and more obscure ones like Tadele Bekele, all cut their teeth in music through these bands.
Later on, more and more independent bands were appearing such as The Venus Band, who later became known as The Walias Band, and was active from 1974 until the 1990s. There was also The Ekos Band, The Dahlak Band and The Sensation Band. Most of them adopted the names of the clubs where they regularly performed. The main record labels they were releasing records on were Amha, Kaifa and Philips, alongside other independent labels such as Axum, Amin, Emporio Musicale Records and Mahmoud Ahmed records
Amha Records was active from 1969 to 1975 and put out a catalogue of exactly 103 45s. It was founded by legendary producer Amha Eshete who was the first to record for great artists like Alemayehu Eshete, Mulatu Astatke and Girma Beyene.
Kaifa Records was founded by the legendary producer Ali Abdalla Kaifa, who’s better known as Ali Tango, taking the name of his music shop Tango Music. In a short five year period between 1973 and 1977 Tango released 53 45s for artists such as Syom Gebereyess, Aster Awake, Muluken Melesse and Ayalew Mesfin before he switched to tapes.
Philips, the local branch of the international label, was active between 1970 to 1976 with about 200 releases
This Compilation wouldn’t exist without the patience and support of Natalie Shooter, my better half and the love of my life, nor without the efforts of my good friend Keb Darge.”