Ethiopian pop star Teddy Afro delights fans, irks authorities

Ethiopian singer Teddy Afro at his home in Legetafo, a surburb of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 27, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 28 December 2017
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Ethiopian pop star Teddy Afro delights fans, irks authorities

LEGETAFO, ETHIOPIA: He may be Ethiopia’s biggest pop star but Teddy Afro hasn’t held a concert in his country for years, some of his songs have been effectively banned, and the launch party for his last album was broken up by the police.
But sitting in the living room of his spacious house outside the capital, Addis Ababa, the 41-year-old musician is relaxed and says he is focused on promoting peace and unity in Ethiopia.
“As a child, I remember that we lived as one nation. We knew a nation that is called Ethiopia,” Teddy said.
“But nowadays, we are identified and called by our ethnic background. And this has already become dangerous.”
Ethiopia has been rocked by widespread anti-government protests over the last two years, killing hundreds and leading to a 10-month state of emergency that was only lifted in August.
In this context, Teddy’s latest album, “Ethiopia,” was released in May and shot to the top of Billboard’s world music chart — despite his songs not being played on state radio and TV.
His lyrics and music videos have often been controversial, and viewed by many as critical of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a formerly Marxist guerrilla movement that has ruled the country since 1991.
While fans adore Teddy’s catchy melodies and nationalistic, often historical songs, written mostly in the national language Amharic, the authorities — who brook no opposition — view him with suspicion.

A protest anthem

Teddy — real name Tewodros Kassahun — first crossed the authorities in 2005 when his album “Yasteseryal” came out days before an election that descended into violence after the opposition denounced it as rigged.
That album was a homage to the country’s final emperor from 1930 to 1974, Haile Selassie I, and its lead single “Jah Yasteseryal,” questioning whether the government was improving the country, became a protest anthem.
In 2008, the musician was jailed for more than a year over an alleged hit-and-run killing in a case that many fans believe was politically motivated. He has always protested his innocence, saying he was not even in the country at the time of the accident.
While Teddy’s songs can today be heard blasting from bars and buses across Addis Ababa, Ethiopians still fear playing “Jah Yasteseryal” in public, lest they be seen as agitating against the government.
In 2012, Teddy released “Tikur Sew,” an album that took as its theme Emperor Menelik II, whose victory over 19th century Italian colonial invaders is a defining moment in Ethiopian history.
Yet among the country’s largest ethnic group the Oromos, “Tikur Sew” was seen as an affront because it glorified an emperor who brutally absorbed Oromo territory into Ethiopia’s borders.
The backlash was fierce enough that Heineken — whose beers are popular among Oromos — backed out of a deal to sponsor Teddy’s concerts.
But Teddy says he is unbowed.
“There may be groups that have a negative attitude toward the last Ethiopian kings and history,” he said, sat with a sword belonging to Menelik mounted on a wall nearby.
“While respecting their views as a perspective, the fact that they like or dislike my views will not change the truth.”

End of communist rule

Ironically, it was the EPRDF’s takeover of the country that allowed Teddy’s music to flourish, as it ended the brutal communist dictatorship of the Derg, during which nightlife was suppressed.
While some musicians went on to reimagine traditional styles of jazz or dabble in rock, Teddy distinguished himself by making nationalism a centerpiece of his compositions.
When a rumor spread early in his career that he committed the taboo deed of autographing the breasts of female fans, Teddy batted down the allegation by saying that as an Ethiopian he could never do such a thing, a remark that won him admirers across the country.
His songs have urged harmony between Muslims and Christians and lampooned members of the diaspora who return home with nothing to show.
“He’s preaching what he’s living. We like that, Ethiopians like that,” said Eyuel Solomon, program manager for the capital’s Afro FM radio station.
But the authorities remain firmly opposed to helping Teddy showcase his music.
Not only did police halt his launch party for “Ethiopia,” but a planned concert to celebrate the Ethiopian new year was refused permission and he is still waiting for approval to play a concert marking Ethiopia’s Christmas, in early January.
He insists the restrictions and setbacks do not damage his resolve to use his music as a force for good in Ethiopia.
However, his plans to spread his music more widely are likely to anger the government even more.
Teddy says he hopes to perform in the capital of Eritrea, a one-time territory of Ethiopia that is now a bitter foe, believing a performance in Asmara could improve relations between the two countries.
“What we need is the spirit of love, peace and forgiveness. This is because the current problems are the results of historical resentments,” he said.
“We have to shake them off. We have to leave it behind.”


West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

Updated 20 June 2018
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West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

  • The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle.”
  • The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.

LONDON: London theatergoers used to spectating in comfort are in for a rude awakening after the authors of a play swapped the traditional plush velvet seating for wooden benches and covered the floor with soil to simulate the feel of a migrant camp.
The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle,” whose authors hope their play will stoke debate about migration.
“People often hold strong opinions about this subject because it doesn’t seem to have any immediate answer,” said Joe Murphy, 27, who co-wrote the play.
“Discussion is the only think that is going to get us forward ... and hopefully this play can provide some of that space for debate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Co-author Joe Robertson said the pair had “tried to depict both the terrible conditions that existed in the Jungle camp, but also the hope that existed in that place.”
Up to 10,000 people seeking ways to reach Britain used to live in the giant slum before it was cleared by authorities in late 2016.
Immigration remains a major political issue across Europe, as well as in the United States, where the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border has caused an international outcry.
Several European leaders including those of France, Germany, Italy and Austria are to hold talks on Sunday to explore how to stop people from moving around the European Union after claiming asylum in one of the Mediterranean states of arrival.
Murphy and Robertson, 28, based the script on their experience as volunteers in Calais, where they ran a temporary theater within the camp.
The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.
“There were 25 different nationalities of people all forced to live side by side often on top of each other and the phenomenal story about that place was people did make an effort to come together,” said Robertson.
Theatre-goers are invited to seat at the tables of the camp’s makeshift Afghan café, where the action unfolds.
“The closer you are to the audience the better the message is delivered,” said actor Ammar Hajj Ahmad, who plays one of the leading characters.
Ahmad, from Syria, is one of many actors from a refugee background featured in the play. Several asylum-seekers the authors met in Calais are also part of the cast.
“I am proud of this, I love telling stories ... about the many people who lived in Calais,” said cast-member Mohamed Sarrar, a musician from Sudan who arrived in Britain two years ago.
The play, which premiered at another London theater The Young Vic, last year, runs from July 5 to November.