Ali Kaifa: the man who built Ethiopia’s Motown

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When we hear a great music, the trend here is that to think of the record as having solely originated from the imagination of the musician. But that obviously ignores the role of the producer, who transforms the musician’s effort into the sound we experience. The contributions that Ali Abdela Kaifa (better known as Ali Tango), has made to the modern Ethiopian music is significant, a fact that has been acknowledged, for instance, by an Ethiopian music expert Francis Falceto, who included many of Ali’s records on the compilation series of Ethiopiques CDS. Many of the musician’s greatest songs owe their sound and character to the highly influential and longs-serving Ali Tango’s behind-the-scenes work.
A pillar of the Addis Ababa music scene in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, Ali Kaifa’s prodigious output was the result of his skill at organization and self-discipline. His label, Kaifa has become a successful independent record label in Ethiopia, producing some of the greatest, most uplifting and most enduring popular music in history. Ali, who was born in Jimma, located at 335 kilometers south west of Addis Ababa, to an Ethiopian mother and Yemeni father, started out assisting his father in the coffee trade in his teen years, going to school for a half day. A football fan and enthusiast since his school days, Ali played for St. George along with the then prominent players such as Netsere Wolde Selassie and Mengistu Worku. He also encouraged his younger brother Ahmed Buker to play for St. George, who a few years later proved to be one of the team’s best players, representing the Ethiopian National Team.
Ali’s father inculcated in his children the values of strong family and hard work. Ali’s siblings followed in their father’s footsteps as strivers and entrepreneurs. The younger brother Mohammed was on his way to becoming a successful businessman, importing the fashionable Seiko watch, and taking the name Mohammed Seiko along the way, associated with the product. For Ali, when the coffee trade declined, in later effort to carve out his livelihood, he became an agent for Sony, distributing radio and television.
After a fateful encounter of listening to the captivating sound of Getachew Kassa’s a Tizita song, Ali was hooked to the sound of local music. He decided to venture into the world of music business, eventually transforming Calypso Music shop that his mother bought into Tango Music shop in the early 70’s, a shop which would become his professional address for more than three decades “Coincidentally, my shop was located in the centre of Piazza in front of Amha’s Harambe shop and I used to sell many of Amah’s records, which gave me insight into the potential of the music business,” Ali recalls. This sharpened his urge to record and produce music albums in reel, thus adding to the budding music recording industry, then dominated by Amha Eshete and Phillips Ethiopia.
When Ali decided to record music he first thought of Getachew Kassa who made an impression on him and he has remained a reference point to whom Ali could turn on. But that was not to be as he would learn that Getachew already made a deal with Harambe Music, but all the same he went on securing legal license and recording for others. He launched his label proper, Kaifa Records would alter become an integral force in the development of the modern music recording.
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One of the first artists he recorded on vinyl was Alemayehu Borobor’s Belaya Belaya, after watching the artist’s performance on TV. Alemayehu was a backing vocalist with the Ibex Band, and his work had a moderate success. “It had modest reception, not as much as I expected to,” Ali says. He continued all the same releasing other vinyl records by prominent musicians such as Ayalew Mesfin, Alemayehu Eshete, Bizunesh Bekele, Tamrat Ferenji, Muluken Melesse and Atselefetch Ashene.
Some of these vinyl dating to 1976-78 were reissued with an altered track listing as Ethiopiques 13, Ethiopian Grooves, the Golden Seventies in 2002. (Danny A. Mekonnen in his paper “ETHIO-GROOVE ON THE WORLD STAGE Music, Mobility, Mediation” Callaloo 33.1 (2010) points out that the compilation Ethiopian Groove: The Golden Seventis, produced by Falceto, consists of reissued material from the 1970s, including two tracks by pop diva Aster Aweke. The compilation Ethiopian Groove was followed in 1997 by Ethiopiques 1: The Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music.)
After the 1974 revolution, the pioneering Amha Records was closed and its owner, Amha Eshete relocated to the US.
However, the demand for fresh recordings continued and Kaifa records thrived on to fulfill the demand to accompany the clandestine lock-in parties that replaced the night scenes of years earlier. From the 1978 onwards, Kaifa switched its attention from vinyl to the cheaper medium of cassettes, a technology that started making a massive impact on music distribution in the country. Ali understood the accelerating importance of popular culture, felt that he was in the right place at the right time to take up the torch for the music recording. Since then, Ali recorded and produced a number of artists and launched the careers of acts as Ali Birra, Neway Debebe, Hamalmal Abate, Kiros Alemayehu, and Sofia Atsebeha.
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(The Walias band)
Among those successful artists whose career was launched by Kaifa records was Aster Aweke. “The idea of finding women to act as chorus for the Walias band whose record that I was producing in 1974 occurred to the band members. (The Walias Band was an active band from the early 1970s, until the beginning of the 1990s, comprising a collection of the finest young music talents of the country). Accordingly, they asked around and they brought three girls with them. One of those girls were none other than Aster Aweke,” Ali recalls. “I thought she had a lot of promise and I asked her if she was interested to work with me. As I came to learn she was then working temporarily for Hager Fikir theatre. She welcomed the idea and I recorded her songs on vinyl,” Ali continues. “It was not that much successful because people complained her voice wouldn’t come out. I proposed she team up with the late Woubishet Fisseha and I gave them a space in my house so that they could rehearse together, which they did for a year. I recorded an original cassette for her, finally getting satisfactory versions of the songs. Since I really believed that she was destined to be a star, I did a lot to promote her works through radio and TV commercials. I gave her lots of advice about stage manners,” he says. Aster Aweke’s and Woubishet Fiseha’s albums were printed in 1975. Aster’s development was gradual rather than revolutionary and Ali carried on making her records and recorded four more cassettes and two singles of heraster-aweke-woubishet-fisseha
(Aster later found herself in great demand, being asked to sing at parties and at clubs around the capital. She eventually immigrated to the United States in 1982, first settling in California and then in Washington, D.C., where one of the largest Ethiopian expat communities existed. Aster became the first Ethiopian whose recordings were distributed internationally by a major record label, with her album released by Iain Scott at Triple Earth Records in UK in 1989.)
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(Among the greatest productions of Ali Tango, Mahmoud Ahmed’s LP “Ere mela mela” (KF 20) became the very first recording of modern Ethiopian music released outside of Ethiopia and worldwide in 1986.)
Another musician who generated excitement almost immediately recording with Kaifa Records was Oromo singer Ali Birra. Ali Birra, who joined the Imperial Body Guard Band in 1966, first recorded with Kaifa Records in 1977. The recordings made him one of the best known artists in the town, kick-starting his long and prolific career. ali-birra
“When I first met Ali Birra, his fame was restricted to his native town Dire Dawa. Initially I was not willing to take a chance by recording him. But he insisted that I record him and I gave in. To my surprise, it became an instant hit in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in the country. He started working in a night club,” Ali recalls. Ali would depart for the United States, joining the growing refuge artists in the United States.
Another musician who emerged in the period and whose instrumental music Ali recorded in 1977 was a keyboardist Hailu Mergia, who was accompanied by the famous Walias’ band and Mulatu Astake. Ali first noticed Hailu’s development when he spent hours in the audience during the band engagement and the participation of the arranger and pianist Girme Beyene would bring the work critical and popular acclaim. Three decades later and the tape was rediscovered by producer Brian Shimkovitz, founder of a small record label called Awesome Tapes from Africa, and reissued it, generating newer interest in the work. (In 1981, Hailu Mergia travelled to the United States where he was booked to play with the Walias band and then settled in Washington. For about 20 years in Washington, Hailu made money playing with another band and managing a nightclub. When those jobs ended, he became a taxi driver.)
Another relative new comer whom Ali met in the early 85 was Neway Debebe, who was working at Cinema Ras as a songwriter and stage vocalist. “I got in touch with him. I came to learn that it was him who wrote the lyrics and composed the melody for Tsehay Yohannes’s ‘Yaz Yaz’ which was a hit then. The other music producers turned him down. Your voice is forceful, and is more suited to revolutionary songs than romantic and love songs, they would tell him. When I recorded Neway debut album, he became an idol,” Ali says. The recognition for Neway came quickly. “Tracks such as Eshete Belahu, Ye Tikimt Abeba brought the recognition that I could hardly imagine,” Ali says. In a month’s time, the sales reached greater than 100,000 copies, which was a far cry from the Vinyal copies that sold around 3,000 copies.
Neway Debebe, 57, who is currently based in Addis Ababa after years of stay in the US gives his account. He said he was composing lyrics for different singers, exasperated for a while because it took him long to get recording exposure. “I was going around asking music labels, showing my compositions. Finally Tango was willing to record me, which opened for me the path for recognition” said Neway. “This was a really exciting time in my life, and I am indebted to Tango music shop, its owner Ali Kaifa and studio engineer Mensur Abdurahaman for inducting me into the world of music records and making my music accessible to the wider public. I have tremendous respect for people like Ali Kaifa who not only loved the music, but put their money where their mouth was,” Neway says.
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(Ali Kaifa with his children at a party in Addis Ababa 70’s)
Over the years Ali Kaifa produced a significant body of cassettes, releasing 53 records between 1973 and 1977. He helped many of the young artist’s transition from amateur performers to best-selling recording artist. He earned a reputation for being honest and generous with musicians when it came to earnings and thus inspired decent loyalty. However, despite his efforts Ali was under no such illusion about the poor and raw quality of the production. He said there were no professional or semi-professional studios to record. “We didn’t have enough equipment for recording. This was why the quality of the recording was poor,” he said.
Ali said that the military government didn’t grant them licenses to import better equipment. The government said they had more important priorities when allocating scare foreign exchange. Equally worrying for Ali was the problem of piracy, which he found was appalling and made the industry precarious. With the opening of newer music shops, he felt, the problem was getting bigger and bigger. Numerous local recording firms started to mushroom in the printing process. As result, large number of cassettes were produced, though most of were not original. “The others shops, when I released a new cassette, they made unauthorized copies of the cassettes and sold them in their shops,” Very little of the profit ended up in the pockets of the recording artists and record label.
“The level of piracy was such that it forced me out of the recording business for four years. There were a few music recordings who were engaged in uncompetitive and unethical practice of unlawfully reproducing the records by my label. I decided to play the same card, copying their own production and selling it through my shop. I wanted them to know what it meant to be at the receiving end of such illegal act. Angered by my action, two of the labels approached me through my lawyer. (We had the same lawyer). I had trick up my sleeve and sent my agent to buy my records from one of those shops. He came along with my records illegally copied with their seal upon it. What more evidence could I produce than such this? I told the lawyer that I was willing to pay for their four year’s loss if they would pay for my fifteen years’. The lawyer had no more to say,”
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(Francis Falceto, Mahmoud Ahmed, Ali Tango Addis Ababa Jan. 1986, photo courtesy of Franics Falceto.)
Ali’s dexterity has extended into the new concept of music and video shop during the peak time of the military regime. Francis Falceto who was in Addis Ababa during those days and befriended Ali Tango remembers that, “People were queuing every day at his shop, renting videos (mostly films or TV programs from American and English TVs), as they were fed up with the socialist propaganda on the state-run television and radio,”
Ali is warm in his praise for Francis Falceto, who later reissued some of his works and made them available in the international market. He said the French national has done more than most to uncover a seam of excellent music from the country, who have remained wholly obscure in the west. Ali said they still keep their friendship and communicate frequently.
Ali also gives credit to the former Roha Band, a band that he said was his long-time associate, and particularly two of the memebers, Selam Seyoum and Giovanni Rico.
Ali Tango, now 74, leads a quieter life in Seattle, Washington. He has lived there for the past eight years. His label and music shop, Tango no longer exists. The last cassette he recorded was in 1990, featuring Getachew Gadissisa’s ‘Yifeal buna, yifela sahi’, which was the hit of the year. After Ali’s departure first to Yemen and then the US, his son Adil tried to keep the flame by running the music shop in Atikilt Tera’s area. He managed to do that for about five years, finally giving it up five years ago. Ali is father to 13 children biologically, and to hundreds musically. Ali says he is following the recent trends in Ethiopian music and appreciates the fact that a new generation of musicians are introducing newer elements to the melodies of the past, and traditional and modern styles are mixed in an array of regional and ethnic varieties.

(The article was based on skype interview with Ali Kaifa and email communication with Francis Falceto.I have also extensively used the following sources. A conversation with Mr. Ali Kaifa- Seattle Community Media and an award for Ethiopia’s legendary musician Mahmoud Ahmed by Ethio Youth Media)

Arefayné Fantahun
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5 Discussion to this post

  1. Tenagne Haile-Mariam says:

    What an incredible story. thank you for reminding us and teaching us about incredible Ethiopians.

  2. Alem says:

    Aref,
    You are a class apart. Thanks.

  3. Tomas Bayu says:

    Key to Ethiopia music man Ali kafa

  4. Sirack Hailu says:

    Excellent research.

  5. tekeleweini berhane says:

    Ali Keifa, the maker of Ethiopian modern day songs. I born to hear the songs I used to hear when I was a young boy grown up in Addis Ababa .YOU were my hero. LOVE and RESPECT you dear brother we respect your input in our lives now and then.W’LL NOT FORGET YOU. May God the Almighty blesses your life and family.

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