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Mahmoud Ahmed
Born: 1941, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Mahmoud Ahmed (1970s Album cover)

Mahmoud Ahmed was born in the Mercato district of Addis Ababa, but he hails from the Gouragué people, who live south-west of the Ethiopian capital. The Gouragué are known for their cuisine, their diligence in business, and their exuberant traditional dances. Young Ahmed showed little aptitude for schooling. Only music interested him, and instead of studying, he would spend his hours listening to the Tèquali Radio, to bands like the Imperial Body Guard Band, and singers like Tlahoun Gèssèssè, the most celebrated Ethiopian vocalist of the 20th century.

As a result, Ahmed soon wound up shining shoes alongside other poor, going-nowhere boys in the capital. In 1962, Ahmed became took a position helping out at the Arizona Club, one of the semi-legal night spots that were popping up in Addis in those days. This was the time when Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Sellassie, in power since 1930, began to sense that his country was slipping away from him. In an effort to appease roiling popular sentiment against him, Sellassie would ultimately relax restrictions on music production, formerly the sole province of the state cultural organization and recording company, Agher Feqer Mahber ("The Love of Country Association"), paving the ways for Ahmed's early releases on Amha Records. But first, Sellassie allowed state bands, like the Police and Army Orchestras, to create side branches that played popular music. Sellassie had had a hand in creating these brass orchestras when, back in 1924, he invited 40 Armenian musicians, refugees from Europe, to come to Ethiopia as state musicians.

Despite their new liberties, these institutional bands were technically barred from performing except when on official government contracts, but many defied this law. As it happened, the Arizona Club where Ahmed worked became a favorite moonlighting hangout for the Imperial Body Guard Band. One night when the band's lead singer failed to show, Ahmed persuaded the band to let him sing a few current hits. Arrangers Sahlé Dègado and Girma Hadgu took up his cause and gradually introduced him into the band's official lineup, where he remained until 1974. Ahmed recorded his first 45-RPM single in 1971.

After Sellassie's demise, the new military government effectively suspended musical nightlife in the country for the next fifteen years, a period know as the "Derg Time." But recording went on, and Ahmed moved beyond the Body Guard Band to record hit records and cassettes with the best of the musicians who remained in the country during these lean, dangerous years.

In 1980-81, Ahmed participated in a U.S. tour by the Wallias Band, Gétatchew Kassa, and Webeshed Fissèha. This was the first time modern Ethiopian bands had performed here. The tour was possible only because of the large numbers of Ethiopians who had by then settled in American cities, especially Washington, D.C.. After that tour, Ahmed began releasing recordings with the Roha Band and soon became one of the most popular singers in diaspora communities.

Back in Ethiopia, though the junta's curfew technically excluded the possibility of any nightlife, some live music did go on at international hotels, available only to foreigners and the country's business and political elite. Ahmed sang the necessary praises to the leaders and continued to operate. One prize was the right to perform at these hotels, where, to avoid troubles, the doors were locked all weekend long so that the party could go on behind closed doors.

The one producer who continued to release music in Addis during this period was a Yemeni man, Ali Abdella Kaifa--aka Ali Tango. A former coffee trader and a skilled talent scout, Tango developed his own label, Kaifa Records, and launched the careers of most of Ethiopia's major talents between 1975 and 1991. A brave entrepreneur, Tango took big chances to record and distribute music not only in Ethiopia but in Yemen and Somalia.

In 1986, Ahmed came to international attention when the Belgian Crammed Discs label released Ere Mela Mela, a set of tracks drawn from two late-70s LPs Ahmed recorded in Addis with the Ibex Band for Kaifa Records. The Ethiopia of that day was best known for famine and political repression, but the vitality and soul of what became Ahmed's first international release created a buzz in the incipient "world music" community. European promoters tried to bring Ahmed to perform, but by the time the succeeded--after the fall of the Mengistu regime in 1991--the spirit of the music had changed. The wildness of 1970s Addis had been tempered significantly by years of playing up to military officials, and retreating to hotel lounges to perform for the elites. Though Ahmed has never quite crossed over as an Afropop star, he remains hugely popular with Ethiopians around the world. He lives in Addis today, still recording and touring internationally.

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