When Girma Bèyène took to the stage last month at the Alliance Française, there was an immediate hush as his golden voice serenaded the audience.
Accompanied by the Akalé Wubé band composed of David Georgelet on the drums, Paul Bouclier on the trumpet, Oliver Degabriele playing bass, Olivier Zanot on the sax and flute and Loïc Rechard playing the guitar, Bèyène enchanted the crowd for two hours, with several encore calls leading to a standing ovation.
The singer performed far from his adopted home in the US, but close to his homeland of Ethiopia.
Bèyène is a composer, vocalist and pianist. He is one of the few remaining legends of the country’s musical renaissance in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Addis came alive every night buzzing with a unique blend of Ethio-funk-jazz music.
And then he vanished from the scene.
Born in Adds Ababa, the self-taught Bèyène who never had formal training in playing music instruments or arranging music, became an overnight sensation and went on to form several bands.
Ethiopia’s political scene turned socialist after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1974 coup led by the Marxist-Leninist group known as the Derg military junta. Political opponents in their tens of thousands were imprisoned and executed without trial.
By the mid-1980s, Ethiopia economy had crashed.
“All these people left,” said Zelalem Mulat Teklewold, the owner of Beit e Selam, an Ethiopian-fusion restaurant in Nairobi, as he sang along with Bèyène in the audience. “They were forgotten legends. Now they are coming back slowly.
''I’ve always found Bèyène’s music to be playfully romantic, and appreciated his contribution to Ethiopia’s golden age of records. It’s special to see him perform live and hear his timeless vocals here in Nairobi. As someone who cares deeply about Ethio-jazz, you can imagine my thrill at hosting a musician of his stature - along with the remarkable Akalé Wubé.”
In 1981, while on a tour in the US with the Walias Band, Bèyène went into self-exile for 25 years. In that time, his wife died and he left the music scene.
Bèyène worked at a petrol station, living in relative obscurity, a forgotten legend. Until the world found him again.
In 2019, Akalé Wubé invited him to perform with them at a concert in Paris.
Under the direction of Francis Falcetto, Bèyène and the group recorded an album — the Ethiopiques compilations — a dedication to Ethiopian music. They also produced the documentary Ethiopiques Revolt of the Soul which also tells the story of Bèyène.
“Alliance Française invited the group to mark the World Music Day which falls on June 21,” said Harsita Waters, the head of cultural affairs at the centre.
“Falcetto is responsible for bringing Bèyène back to Ethiopia from the US where he was working the night shift at a gas station, and getting him to perform again,” Waters said.
Ethiopiques: Revolt of the Soul
During the golden era of Ethiopian vinyl records (1969–1978), Bèyène recorded four songs as a vocalist, arranged more than 60 titles, and collaborated on at least 25 other tracks.
He now lives in Addis Ababa and back on stage serenading jazz lovers.