WHEN PEOPLE TALK about Mahmoud Ahmed, there are typically three prevailing descriptions: legendary, a national treasure, and the godfather of Ethiopian music. Yonnas Yilma breaks it down in terms any American can understand, "He's like Michael Jackson in Ethiopia."
Yilma is a 32-year-old native Ethiopian who owns Sengatera Restaurant (3833 NE MLK) and is responsible for booking Ahmed to play in Portland. I wanted to know how a small business owner decided to take on such an ambitious event, so I sat down with Yilma at his restaurant and chatted over some (amazingly named) Ethiopian Meta Beer.
Ahmed started singing in the late 1960s in Haile Sellasi's Imperial Body Guard Band, at a time when anything other than state-sponsored music was repressed. Almost 40 years later his music was released by French record label Buda Musique as part of the Ethiopiques series, which led to a surge of overdue international popularity and a BBC World Music Award.
When Yilma is asked about the huge cost of flying five band members from Ethiopia to Portland, he just shrugs. "I have to show who Mahmoud is to Americans and bring him here for all the Ethiopians who love him. Of course, I hope to break even, but if I lose money, it's okay because I just want to share this part of my culture."
Despite the recent revival, Ethiopian music doesn't have a big draw in Portland. Promotions are mostly limited word-of-mouth campaigns and posters that find themselves taped to the windows at Ethiopian restaurants. As luck would have it, Voodoo Donuts owner Tres Shannon and Karen Antunes, co-owner of Mississippi Records, are both longtime Ethiopian music fans and the pair are using their resources to help Yilma spread the word.
Antunes says the stories told through Ahmed's music speak to her even though she can't translate the lyrics (they're mostly sung in the Amharic language). I asked Yilma what the stories are about and he said, "Love, peace and tradition... but mostly love."
Antunes insists that even though Ahmed is now in his 70s, his live show remains notoriously energetic and he makes it impossible not to dance. I was already sold at that point, but Yilma underscores the point. "You won't believe it. He's passionate, he plays non-stop, he never gets tired, and everybody loves it."