By Samuel Getachew, Toronto, August 19, 2013
In the brilliant movie – “I Dreamed of Africa” – of a noted environmental activist and poet in Kuki Gallmann – what stood out the most for me was the words spoken by the character at the funeral of her 17 year old son. (This happened three years after burying her husband) “To bury a husband was hard. To bury my son is against nature and a pain which words cannot tell”.
What words can ever describe death let alone the death of a young person? In the continent of Africa for instance – a rare unique artistic and activist voice became silent at the young age of 37 this past weekend. The death of the acclaimed Ethiopian artist Eyob Mekonnen has shaken the continent to its core as it was sudden and unexpected at best.
The death of the emerging international artist came mere days after he had a sudden stroke in Addis Ababa and being in a coma for mere days. The death seems to be linked to an ischemic stroke, unusual for a young person of his age, which is the blockage of artery of the neck. According to those close to the artist, the death was caused as a result of “a condition called atrial fibrillation where your heart flutters and you can get a clot in your heart that then propagates to your brain vessels”.
The voice of Mekonnen was powerful in Africa and he mattered. He was an important artist of importance, popularity and he used his talent wisely. In 2010 for instance – he went on a nationwide tour in his East African nation to advocate for peace and called his efforts – Finding Peace. This happened during a disputed national election in Ethiopia that divided the population. This also seemed to reflect a desire he believed peace was better than war as he had first hand experience in real conflicts in Asmara, Eritrea where his father was a government military personnel during the Ethiopian – Eritrean war decades ago.
The “simple superstar” as he was affectionately became known by his fans was born in Jijiga, Ethiopia in 1975 – at the beginning of a horrible Marxist revolution era in the East African country. As a young person – he moved to the capital to pursue a promising talent that was organic and unique. His sound was largely influenced by Bob Marley and Ethiopia’s Ali Birra. He was arguably Ethiopia’s own version of the great late South African international superstar, Lucky Dube.
He mixed Amharic reggae with Oromiffa and gave it an international flavor. He had no success at the beginning as it did not blend in the manufactured popular sound and style that the population was used to by then. He spent many years as an opening act at local clubs for better known stars such as Haileye Tadesse and preformed at small venues all over Addis Ababa.
Then he released his first album – Ende Kal three years ago. After an initial reluctance by the population – it was embraced in due time. The more people listened to it – the more he was liked and appreciated. His once neglected sound moved from shanty town like night clubs to a world stage with sold out concerts all over the world. He also became a regular at Club Fahrenheit with his beloved band – the Zion Band. He preached love, understanding and respect – very popular theme to his fans.
Everywhere he went including many sold out concerts here in Toronto in June, he was liked, respected and admired. It has been a long journey for this superstar who even at stardom rode his bicycle to concerts without any fanfare. His words and wisdom was celebrated here in Canada and abroad by many people. That is why his death is a blow to the potential he possessed. He was a simple everyday man of beautiful and unique Ethiopian sound yet powerful universal appeal.
In the coming days – the young giant will be buried in the proud soil of his beloved Ethiopia – that he dedicated much in his artistic journey in celebration. In his death – I for one cannot help but remember the wise words of the late American poet – Amelia Burrm – in The Song of Living.
It read (in part) how – “I gave a share of my soul to the world, when and where my course is run. I know that another shall finish the task I surely must leave undone. I know that no flower, nor flint was in vain on the path I trod. As one looks on a face through a window, through life I have looked on God, I have loved life; I shall have no sorrow to die”.
For a man who lived and loved life to the fullest, his will be a tough act to follow.