(Taken from my website, www.eastafricaforum.net, where it first appeared on May 10, 2009.)

Charles Sutton — usually known as Charlie — came to Ethiopia with the Peace Corps in 1966. He was a musician, and even before he arrived, Charlie had discovered Ethiopian music through his Amharic language instructors. He describes the impact of that discovery, which directed his life toward a deep and lasting relationship with Ethiopia, its people — particularly musicians, and its language, in which his fluency and elegance continue to astonish.

Charlie needs only a brief introduction from me since he will provide the rest himself. His friends and acquaintances know Charlie to be a gracious, warm and generous man, thoughtful and polite to a fault. He is still a working musician both as a teacher and a performer. In his jazz, Charlie’s improvisations reveal the depth to which Ethiopia has entered his soul. In a recent recording, Charlie played masinko and sang, in Amharic, naturally, with two long-time Ethiopian musician friends. Characteristically, Charlie often directs the proceeds from his CD sales to the Institute for Ethiopian Studies or another deserving beneficiary.

This is the first of a three-part appreciation and reminisence by Charles Sutton about his friend, the supremely gifted singer, Tilahun Gessesse, who passed away on April 19, 2009 in Addis Ababa. All of Ethiopia, and music lovers around the world, are in mourning.

Shlomo Bachrach
Washington DC
May 10, 2009

Oo-oota Ayaskeffam

It has been three weeks since we heard the tragic news of Tilahun’s death. I remain stunned by it. No doubt like many others, I have derived some comfort from the multitude of deeply felt tributes poured out by his family, friends, colleagues, and fans. Although there is little I can add to these, I still wish to offer in Tilahun’s memory my own words of respect, appreciation and love–which I do from my heart.

I am an American. But when an Ethiopian calls Tilahun, as Ahadu Selamu did recently in his moving Aiga Forum eulogy, “just larger than life…Tilahun was a walking history that embodied the narrative of five decades of our lives in his songs,” I understand very well what he is talking about. Before I ever saw Ethiopia, I knew instinctively that something of that country’s deepest essence had been revealed to me when, 43 years ago, on a warm June night, in the unlikely precincts of Salt Lake City, Utah, I first listened spellbound to Tilahun’s voice.

Along with 100 other recent college graduates from all over the United States, I had completed the first day of an intensive three-month Peace Corps training program at the University of Utah that would prepare us to become secondary school teachers in Ethiopia. We studied TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) under the supervision of a youthful Shlomo Bachrach; Ethiopian history, geography, customs, and culture; and Amharic. I was assigned, along with four other beginners, to a gifted young teacher named Mengesha, who had his students exchanging gender-and-status-specific greetings and forming elementary sentences in Amharic on the first day of class.

When we were chatting during a break, Mengesha and I found we had something in common: both of us loved music, sang folksongs, and played the guitar. Finally I had found someone who could explain to me what I had been wondering about for months. (In 1966, the Internet, with its vast store of instantaneously available information on every conceivable subject, was still a quarter-century in the future). “Mengesha,” I confessed, “I’ve never heard any Ethiopian music. None at all! What is your music like?”

That evening, on a bulky Norelco portable tape machine in the dormitory common room, I listened with Mengesha to selections from his extensive collection of Ethiopian popular music, contained on large reels of magnetic audiotape he kept in a suitcase. Though the unfamiliar timbres and modes were strange-sounding at first, I enjoyed everything Mengesha played. There was one song–it had a plaintive minor-key melody made twice as sad by the vocalist’s incredibly intense, passionate, and grief-stricken rendition of it–that I loved. It was like nothing I had ever heard in my life and brought tears to my eyes.

“Could we listen to that again?” I asked Mengesha. “Who is that singer? I can’t understand what he’s singing, but it’s breaking my heart.”

“That is Tilahun Gessesse, star vocalist with the Imperial Bodyguard Orchestra,” Mengesha replied as he obligingly pressed rewind. “Tilahun is a young guy in his twenties, but he’s been performing since he was practically a kid, and a lot of people are already calling him our greatest singer.”

“I’m not surprised. And what is he singing?”

“The song is called “Oo-oota Ayaskeffam”. That means, “There’s nothing wrong with crying.”

Amharic instructors and Charles performing Tilahun’s “Oo-oota Ayaskeffam” during a music show for Peace Corps trainees and staff members at the University of Utah, September 7, 1966.

“Nothing wrong with crying?”

“You see, Charles, you will learn when you get to know us better that we Ethiopians have a tendency to conceal our deepest feelings, to keep them locked up inside us. And Tilahun is proclaiming that when we suffer the worst anguish of all, separation from or loss of someone we love, we must express our sorrow and let it come out, for that is the only way of easing it, if only just a little.”

Mengesha taught me the words to “Oo-oota Ayaskeffam”. I worked out arrangements of it on my guitar and accordion. We formed a vocal group and performed the song in a concert of Ethiopian music at the end of the training program.

So began my appreciation of the artistry of Tilahun Gessesse, which grew over the next four decades into reverence and love. I was actually fortunate enough to meet and get to know Tilahun the man, as I will explain when my tribute continues.

Perhaps along with everyone else, I never imagined the day when Tilahun would leave us. But now it has come. Oo-oota Ayaskeffam.

Charles Sutton
Old Saybrook, Connecticut
May 10, 2009