The illustrious musician, and a driving force behind Addis Ababa’s thriving music scene.
Whether in a hip new lounge or a crumbling Italian-era building, chances are high that somewhere in Addis a crowd can be found nodding its collective head to the sound of a passionately played sax or marveling at the intricate movements of fingers flying across a keyboard.
Indeed, the Ethiopian capital is often hailed for having one of the most vibrant and dynamic music scenes in Africa, where crowds are pulled by the prospect of listening to anything from traditional Azmari beats to reggae and Ethio-jazz. And standing quietly amid it all, confidently strumming his guitar, is Girum Mezmur — a musician credited with reviving live music and Ethiopian jazz in the ever-expanding city.
During a career spanning more than two decades, the 42-year-old musician has effortlessly experimented with an array of different styles, mastered a number of diverse instruments, and played with some of Ethiopia’s most renowned musicians.
“I don’t believe in sticking exclusively to one thing,” says Girum. “I think it is important to always challenge yourself, to keep learning and seeking out new opportunities.”
His deep passion for music is apparent in the way he talks: stringing together a fast stream of words, enriched by animated examples of musical arrangements and a wealth of facts about Ethiopian tradition.
Girum’s career began when as a child he came across an accordion, an old Italian Crucianelli that had been in his family for 50 years. “Although at the time the accordion was not considered a ‘cool’ instrument, it has had a big part in shaping my musical career,” says Girum, referring to his passion for Ethiopia’s popular music of the mid-20th century, when acoustic instruments were woven together to create captivating, evocative melodies.
In recent years, Girum’s artistic identity has become increasingly fused with the sounds of this earlier era. Addis Acoustic Project, a band Girum put together in 2008 with some of the country’s finest musicians, resurrects popular tracks from the 1950s and ‘60s and, through Girum’s skillful arrangement, makes them accessible to listeners of all ages and backgrounds.
“The concept of the project is to capture and preserve the instrumentation of those days, but give it a new twist,” he says of the band’s blend of East African, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban sounds layered into classic melodies.
Girum graduated from Addis Ababa University’s Yared School of Music in 1997 with a minor in Krar, the traditional Ethiopian string instrument, and a major in piano. “I wanted to study the guitar, but the only music school in the country didn’t have a guitar department,” he recalls, so he went on to teach himself how to play the instrument. It is his passion for the guitar that has boosted him into the limelight as one of the most prolific and well-respected musicians in Ethiopia.
“Girum is one of the best guitarists in Addis, as well as a very honest and hardworking musician,” says Henock Temesgen, himself a highly regarded bassist. The pair has played and collaborated together for more than a decade.
Girum’s love for music, his thirst for learning and his spirit of ingenuity have led him to be involved in a myriad of different projects: “I define myself as a performer, instructor and producer, but I also arrange and compose,” he says, reeling off documentaries, films and radio programs for which he has written jingles and soundtracks.
Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is that Girum is known to have played a central role in the resurgence of live music and Ethiopian jazz in a city now known internationally for both. Many credit the famous Thursday Jam sessions at Coffee House — one of Addis Ababa’s oldest jazz houses — for the rebirth of this vibrant live-music culture, which had taken a hit under the communist regime.
“I believe the jam sessions left a tangible mark on the music scene,” says Girum, who ran Coffee House for 10 years. “People were not really used to listening to live instrumental music anymore,” agrees Henock, “but simply giving students a place to come and jam made a very big difference. Thanks to that, the music scene is now thriving, and the caliber of musicianship has grown immensely.”
It would be impossible to talk about the revival of Ethio-jazz without also mentioning Jazzamba Lounge, the iconic club that offered nightly jazz concerts before a fire tragically destroyed it in 2015. Founded by Girum, Henock and three other musicians four years prior, the bar was the first in Addis to play jazz every night of the week, and it helped boost Ethio-jazz’s popularity as a music genre across the globe. Concerts by well-known Ethiopian musicians such as Alemayehu Eshete, Ali Birra and Mahmoud Ahmed were a frequent occurrence at Jazzamba, and upcoming musicians were also encouraged to come jam with more experienced artists. The club also funded scholarships for students of the Jazzamba School of Music, which was established by the same musicians in 2009 to support a musical education for talented young Ethiopians. Though a local winery now funds the school, both Henock and Girum continue to teach dozens of students, many of who are now successful musicians in their own right.
“I believe that I learn a lot through teaching,” says Girum, who also runs the first course for students majoring in guitar at the Yared School of Music — the very one where years previously he had been unable to study the instrument. “A defining moment of my life was when I started to teach jazz guitar,” he says, adding with pride that his first batch of students will soon graduate.
Always the dedicated academic, Girum has been working since 2013 to develop an African music curriculum for the Music Global Academy — a Berlin-based music school that celebrates non-Western music cultures. In September 2016, Girum also collaborated with the Music Academy to host the first full East African Music Campus in Addis, with the aim of preserving and promoting African music. The campus was attended by over 20 music teachers from around the region.
Over the last 20 years, Girum’s growth as a musician, producer and instructor seems equaled only by that of the city’s music scene. As more music schools and new venues pop up around Addis, and Ethio-jazz continues to enjoy global popularity, Girum’s contribution to the capital’s lively cultural wealth is undeniable. As for him, it seems unlikely that he will be resting on his laurels any time soon. As well as continuing to teach, play locally and tour internationally, Girum’s latest project has him producing an album featuring two blind singers. “I like the fact that I had to engage in every aspect of the production,” he says, ever looking to improve his many talents. And there is no doubt that as Girum’s horizons continue to expand, those of this musically rich city will flourish alongside them.
Megan Iacobini de Fazio is a freelance writer based in East Africa. Her love of music, for which she has no talent but an almost obsessive passion, is paralleled only by her love of writing.