Girum Mezmur is often labeled as a pioneer and a positive driving force in the Ethiopian music industry. During a career that extends over two decades, the musician has been known to experiment and explore uncharted territories. He is credited with reviving live music and the Ethio-Jazz genre. In addition, he has mastered a diverse set of traditional and non-traditional instruments. He currently teaches at Yared Music School and Jazzamba Music School.
Before he became a distinguished member of Ethiopia’s music industry, Girum developed a passion for music when he discovered an old accordion that had been in his family for more than 50 years. The instrument was his gateway to the world of music.
“Although at the time it was not considered trendy to play the accordion, it played a big part in shaping my musical career,” he said of the instrument in an interview with Selamta Magazine.
Girum continued teaching himself through the instruments he found in his house and started playing in his high school band. Upon graduating at the age of 17, he joined the Axumite Band and played at weddings, clubs, and different functions. He learnt as much as he could on the job. Wanting to explore the guitar, he enrolled at Yared Music School in 1994 but much to his disappointment, the school didn’t have a program for guitar in their curriculum at the time and he made due as a piano major instead.
Even though he started his journey as a self-taught artist, he describes himself as a professional whose career was formed by this hybrid experience of formal education and self-study.
“Going to a music school helped me become a teacher. Even though I majored in piano, I taught myself the guitar. I was interested in becoming a jazz guitarist and I taught myself through books and VHS tapes. It was easy for me to grasp these concepts and apply them,” he said.
It’s his passion for the guitar and jazz music that fueled his journey and pushed him to establish important institutions such as Jazzamba Music School with other musicians, and even develop a guitar/jazz curriculum for schools within the country and others in Africa in the context of the Global Music Academy (GMA).
Yared Music School’s major curriculum is focused on western classical music. According to Girum, it’s because western music has a backing of 200 years of tradition in formal education as opposed to local music traditions that have younger roots. However, this puts graduates at a disadvantage. Being trained exclusively in classical music, some find it hard to capture trends, styles and keep up with the times.
“The school needs to further diversify to meet the needs of the industry and develop flexible curricula and specializations such as Ethiopian pop music and traditional music in addition to the jazz department introduced ten years ago. This will help graduates become responsive to change and create new sounds,” says Girum.
Joining the music industry wasn’t easy when Girum graduated.
“In the 90s and early 2000s, it was a different reality and opportunities were scarce. You had few options to even teach. Presently, we have more students and that created the need for private schools, you have the option to buy a computer to compose your own music and experiment. When I graduated, you didn’t have these options. Things have improved but what remains is that there is still work expected from you. Once students graduate, they can’t expect a job or opportunities straight away. You need to work and create those opportunities for yourself…schools aren’t just for learning, these grounds are also networking grounds,” he said.
Girum is known for creating opportunities for himself and others around him. In 2008, he formed the Addis Acoustic Project, a band composed of himself and other prominent musicians. This band revived the 50s-60s era Ethio-Jazz songs for present-day audiences. If one mentions the importance of performance spaces and bands, the Ethio-Jazz scene can be an apt example to show what those spaces mean for artists.
Girum used to hold a weekly jam session at The Coffee House; a prominent space for the music industry that has been around for over 40 years, and he says that these spaces are important for experimentation. The Coffee House is where he first aggressively promoted live jazz and held jam sessions for 10 consecutive years between 1998 and 2008. The consistency of this weekly jam session during its tenure is one of the reasons other venues initially started believing in live jazz.
“When hosting a jam session, I simply followed my heart. I performed what I thought was best and people were accepting. I wasn’t stressed even if only two people showed up. We chose Thursdays to perform. We jammed and experimented. Instrument only sessions weren’t commonplace at the time, jam sessions happened before a singer performed as a warmup to the event. When we did it, I noticed that there was demand for these sessions as gradually people started coming in, and eventually we barely had enough seats.”
“The tenure of the weekly jam session at the Coffee house inspired other venue owners to consider their options. They saw that they could fill spaces and provide alternative forms of entertainment for their customers. Students would also regularly attend jam sessions to watch and to participate, in a way these spaces also served as an extension to music education,” he said.
Girum is passionate about what he does. Every milestone in his career has clearly been pushed by a love and respect for music and an understanding of the local industry.He understands that the success of a work of music lies in how the creators respond to their audience and how they can package their music to suit their audience. Nevertheless, new approaches to making music and new sounds often face friction in Ethiopia.
“When Teddy Afro released his Abugida album, the young audience back then loved it! However, it was not as easily digestible for the older generation. If you think about Lij Michael and Rophnan, they weren’t as easily welcomed by older generations as they were by their own.
It is almost certain that there will be generational friction where music is concerned, and that’s okay. Most successful musicians more than likely have an audience that grows and ages with them. It’s safe to say that if you want to do something new, there will always be friction, but it’s a road worth taking as it results in new approaches and new sounds,” says Girum.
More than two decades into his career, Girum is still a big believer in the local music industry. He observes the hidden potential for success both domestically and on the international stage. However, he notes it has to be adjusted and strengthened to reach that level. This starts with viewing the industry as an industry and not just as a cultural product.
“We have a vast history, rich with several musical styles and visual cultural elements, So vast that we must be wary of trying to include everything at once when we are presented with the opportunity to take our music to the global stage. By trying to fit our entire culture and its epic history in one go, we often end up with a jumbled mess of a performance that the audience can’t easily digest. We would be much better served by learning from the experiences of other multicultural countries and conveying our culture in a more meticulously planned and relatable way.
For instance if we were able to agree on a standardized way to represent all our cultural elements to be more subtle and easily digestible at events like international forums and expos, we would leave our international audience with a more memorable experience that anyone can connect to.” Said Girum
Ethiopian music including Traditional, Pop, and Ethio-Jazz has made Ethiopia stand out on the global stage. For instance, Ethio-Jazz being one of the most unique fusions of jazz with traditional music has been adopted by several countries around the world. There are currently over 15 Ethio-jazz bands throughout Europe, predominantly in the Francophone countries and the number is growing. Like Girum said, as a nation we have multiple opportunities that have yet to be exploited and efforts must go beyond individuals and towards collaboration in order to grow and thrive as an industry.