By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / February 4, 2010
It is really great to be young; but for those who are not, the next best thing is to be at a Teddy Afro concert and jam late into the night with a ballroom full of irrepressible and euphoric young Ethiopian Angelinos. On January 30, Proud Teddy brought his triumphant “Love Conquers All” world tour to the Proud Bird, a well-known LA institution for one-half century themed around vintage WW II war birds. Teddy was in top form belting out one hit after another as he almost levitated on stage. His Abugida Band and backup singers bellowed flaming rhythms and roots-style music combining traditional Ethiopian melodies with reggae beats. Teddy was on fire at the Proud Bird, as was his enraptured audience.
I have listened to Teddy Afro on CD and viewed his Youtube videos countless times. His voice, his message and powerful lyrics and his melodies have moved me, rocked me, soothed me and lifted me when I was down. But there is nothing that compares to watching this young musical genius live. The difference between watching Teddy live and listening to him on CD/Youtube is the difference between listening to gospel music on the radio and singing it in the choir with the preacher directing. The Proud Bird concert was a quasi-spiritual experience, almost like being at an old time southern Baptist revival. His audience was not only passionately and emotionally involved with the lyrics and melodies in his music, they were spiritually bonded to him with some invisible gravitational force. There was not a single person at the concert who was not movin’, swingin’, rockin’ and rollin’ and groovin’.
For those us who had never seen Teddy perform live and witnessed the standing-room only crowd go into semi-conscious trance, it was a walk down memory lane. I recall seeing such deep spiritual connection between an artist and his audience decades ago when Bob Marley came to my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, on May 30, 1978 (Kaya Tour) and November 15, 1979 (Survival Tour). Those fortunate enough to have present at a Bob Marley concert know exactly what I mean.
As the show began, for nearly a minute we could only hear Teddy singing from backstage using a remote microphone. It was an electrifying moment of anticipation. As Teddy burst on stage wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Marley’s image, the audience went into total frenzy. I could not help but feel the palpable spiritual presence of Bob Marley on stage that night. Teddy was unbound; he sang and danced and pranced, leaped and twirled and fluttered on stage as streams of sweat flooded down his face. The jam-packed audience cheered, clapped, screamed, shrieked, shouted and hopped; and a sea of upward stretched hands swung side to side in the cavernous hall.
Having seen Teddy live, it is plain that he does not sing just to sing. I really believe the man sings for one reason only: He is hopelessly in love with Ethiopia. How is it possible for anyone to sing for over two hours and manage to include in every song something about Ethiopia, its people, its cities and towns, rivers, mountains and valleys, religions, history, geography, politics and on and on? He sang nearly all of his classic hits, but he ignited the audience on a five-alarm fire when he sang about Africa’s “father” H.I.M. Haile Selassie and Yastesereal. “How is it that thousands of young people who were not even born at the time the Emperor was murdered by the Derg military junta have such connection to him”, I wondered. What is it about the song “Yasteseryal” that drives Ethiopians into near-convulsive ecstasy when they hear it?
To say that there is something extraordinary about Teddy as an artist is to state the obvious. But perhaps what is less obvious is the fact of how Teddy has inherited the mantle from the Bob Marley and adapted it for Ethiopia. Some have indeed compared Teddy to Marley for his ability to bring a political, spiritual, and rhythmic power to his music and his raw ability to electrify his audience. Like Marley whose passion was African liberation and pan-Africanism, Teddy’s passion is the freedom, unity, reconciliation and harmony of the Ethiopian people. Like Marley, Teddy’s music is stirring, thrilling and even heart-wrenching. Like Marley, Teddy sings songs of love, peace, hope, faith, charity, justice, reconciliation, understanding and forgiveness. These are the sources of Teddy’s rhythmic power which enable him to reach deep into the Ethiopian soul and psyche and suture the festering wounds of despair, soothe the unendurable pain of oppression and prophesy the coming of a new day of love, peace and justice in Ethiopia.
To describe the “Teddy Afro musical experience” as a mere concert is to do injustice to the truth. It is really more than that. It is the closest thing to a spiritual revival meeting. Teddy just does not sing about the love he has for Ethiopia and its people, he makes you feel it in your bones. He does not just talk about bringing Ethiopians together, he brings them together in his concerts. He doesn’t just warn against hate, he teaches how love conquers hate. He is not nostalgic about the past, but he wants us all to understand it, learn from it and honor those who have made contributions despite their mistakes. Like any revival meeting, Teddy has the audacity to believe in the coming of a new day, and to prophesy Ethiopia’s redemption. Now I know why this young musical genius is loved by millions of Ethiopians, and why he is a national hero and not just an extraordinary artist.
On stage, Teddy appears to be a man of small physical frame and stature, but he is a powerhouse of endless spiritual energy and musical creativity. He not only can mesmerize his audience with the sheer power and purity of his message, he can actually be seen “curing” souls. His uses his voices to dazzle, his lyrics to seduce, his melodies to spellbind; and combines it all in an exhilarating stage showmanship that captivates, delights, enchants, charms and simply overpowers. He gives everything to his audience, and his audience give back to him all their love.
The virtuosity of the Abugida Band and the sweet chorus of the backup singers is simply spectacular. They just kept the collective ecstasy jah-ming. The event organizers are to be commended and appreciated for coordinating such a magnificent tour and for making it possible for Ethiopians in exile to see and enjoy Teddy live. Teddy will continue with his world tour. As he does so, let us be mindful that he is that strong steel bridge that spans the generation and geographic gap among Ethiopians.
In our youth thousands of miles away from our homeland, Jimi Hendrix, a great superstar from Seattle, Washington taught us, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” Teddy has now traveled thousands of miles to America to teach our children, “When the power of love overcomes those who love power in Ethiopia, Ethiopia will know peace.” It is nice to feel young once again. Proud Teddy, thanks for a great lesson. More Love Power to you, brother, and to all of us.
Thanks for a great revival meeting in L.A.!
Jah, Yasteseryal! Love Conquers All! (Fikir Yashenefal)
Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.