12 August 2017
The UK reggae pioneers and the rising stars of Ethiopia’s reggae scene find common ground in message and music.
Day one of the 11th annual Rototom Reggae University wasted no time in getting to the heart of the festival’s theme Celebrating Africa. The connection between reggae and Africa was the main topic of discussion between David Hinds and Selwyn Brown of Birmingham England’s foundation Rastafari reggae band Steel Pulse, and the Ethnopia Reggae Ambassadors – a collective of vocalists and musicians on a mission to spread Ethiopian reggae to the world. The conversation was chaired by long time university panel member, reggae historian and author David Katz.The Steel Pulse members began by explaining their connection to Ethiopia and the project. Hinds had come to the unconquered centre of Rastafari African repatriation through happenstance, when a tour in Costa Rica was cancelled. He met the Ethnopia musicians, jammed with them and gave the project his blessing. Selwyn never got the chance to visit Ethiopia himself – although Steel Pulse had been a presence in West Africa since their first Nigerian tour in 1982.
The Ethnopia Ambassadors introduced themselves as musical director and bandleader Henok, male vocalists Jonny Ragga, Haile Roots, Sami Dan, Ras Yohannes, and Yohana, plus female singers Chelina and Tsedi (the latter arriving midway through the session). The audience were then treated to soundclips of their music. These illustrated a wide range of styles from Chelina and Sami Dan’s soulful one drop reggae to Jonny Ragga’s foundation dancehall to Haile Roots’ song Chiggae – which melds reggae to the local Chick Chikka beat. Johana and Tsedi sang live a capella for the people.
Despite this diversity, most of the artists were inspired by the roots anthems of Bob Marley. According to Henok, who started his Mehari Brothers band after falling in love with Marley’s music: “Even though Bob is from Jamaica, he’s like an Ethiopian”.The artists faced struggles in the last decade to get their music to the level of popularity it now enjoys at home. Jonny Ragga, the veteran of the collective, said that at first it wasn’t possible to hear reggae on the radio and know what was happening in Jamaica. Henok said the Ethiopian tax system and the lack of a musical copyright organisation for many years were barriers to progress. Chelina’s love song Sai Bai was written for their fellow local artist Eyob Makkonen, who died before he could participate in the project.
Steel Pulse then played some tracks highlighting their longstanding connection to Africa. These included the first song they ever wrote Kibudu, Mansetta And Abuku about freed slaves, and Tribute To Desmond Tutu concerning the bishop’s role in the freeing of Nelson Mandela. Hinds explained that like their Ethiopian colleagues, they had faced great struggles getting their music heard. Racist UK media, unsympathetic studio engineers and the lack of respect for UK reggae in Jamaica were barriers they had to break down. Selwyn was proud that today the young artists in Jamaica such as Jesse Royal and Chronixx grew up with their music.
There was more good news from the Ethiopian side of the table. Ambassador Haile Roots said that after years of difficulties, their government had granted citizenship to the Jamaican repatriated community in Shashamane. “Brothers and sisters – you can come home any time”.