By Alemayehu Seife-Selassie
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – In the stagnant Ethiopian musical scene, not many sparkling sounds are heard. In fact, with the exception of a handful of artists, lazy synthesizer sounds and poorly controlled voices are becoming the identity of modern Ethiopian music.
With just a few singers having the ability to produce both low and high pitch notes, it is very rare that good music appears. Yohanes Bekele, a.k.a. Tokichaw, is one young artist that seems like he has the ability to buck this trend.
The well received display he put on for Birhanu Tezera’s Yambule, is one recent example of his talent; and his recent single - the overnight hit Chambalala - highlights his skills more vividly than ever.
The song is about the dawn of the New Year in the southern Ethiopian region of Sidama. Chambalala is chanting music that often leads to a rewards for the singers of Bure Samita – a special mixed meal of milk, Kocho (bread), and butter. But for this artist, the Chambalala culture has become his trademark and has given him more than a special meal for a day.
Tokichaw explains what Chambalala means to him: “When you go to a house the day after the Fiche (New Year) has been celebrated, you say Ayde Chambalala’, and the crowd in the house will welcome you saying, ’Adona Buro.’ Originally the chant has a slower rhythm, but I mixed it in a way that makes it a club song.”
For Tokichaw, the fun part of this song goes further than performing it: “Today, people ask me what Chambalala means, and I always explain; in the process I promote my beautiful culture.”
Tokichaw performed the song at this year’s New Year celebrations in Sidama. Its popularity was apparent due to the fact that he was asked to play it again three times for the different audiences he performed to. But for the Chambalala craving crowd, the three live renditions were not enough, and the song was played over the radio and in the clubs the whole day. In Awassa the crowd was also cheering for Tokichaw when he sung his smash hit.
The 27 year old had his first stage appearance with the hip hop group Messengers, who he started out with in 2000. When they disbanded after an unsuccessful album, Tokichaw - then Yohannes - came up with a new plan: giving himself his current stage name, he decided to pursue a distinct style of music.
After meeting the young music arranger, Hunante Mulu, who was working on his single Seleleta for the Lasta album, Tokichaw was recommended to feature in Birhanu’s Yambule. As Birhanu had decided to do the single without his long-time colleague, Tadele, the duo that comprised Lafontain, he was in for a challenge. But the featuring of the gifted young musician helped earn him popularity. After Tokichaw breathed life into Yambule, he got a lot of commendations, but it was his second public appearance that earned him the most respect.
Today, Chambalala has become one of the most requested songs in most of Addis’ clubs. Having performed at the Falcon five years ago and starting playing at Abu Dhabi the following year for six months, Tokichaw was honing his voice before he got his recording breaks: “I was encouraged to sing more by some club goers. That has made me want to do a song of my own. But I had to tune my voice,” he says.
A few years later, the live shows get an enthusiastic response from the audience: “It was a great boost for me to hear the crowd cheer out my name when it was announced that Yambule would be played. I had to think of something special to provide for this great people; I came with Seleleta and something of my own, Chambalala.”
Tokichaw’s collaborations are going to be released sooner than his full album, which will include more songs with distinct cultural touches. Among the songs that will hit the radio soon is a single he did with the young singer, Tamirat Desta, which is likely to be out in a couple of weeks. The song he did with Hailye Tadese and Abraham Gebremedhin is also set to be finished soon.
Currently, Tokichaw is preparing his own album, but he does not want to rush the work. “If it is God’s wish, I will prepare an album that will be a hit,” he says.
Among the other projects that Tokichaw is involved in is a musical production with German and Spanish musicians. However, his ultimate goal is to have an audience that transcends national boundaries: “I would really love it if I could at least go beyond our border and reach out to our neighbouring countries such as Kenya,” he reveals.