One of the foremost Ethiopian washint players, Yohannes Afework, who helped to ensure the indigenous end-blown flute playing be heard and regarded as an esteemed melody instrument in the national music scene passed away at 72 in his home in Addis Ababa on February 25. He had been in frail health for the past two years because of diabetic and blood pressure, causing him memory loss, family members and friends say.
His trademark piece with bamboo cane washint made him a steadfast presence for more than half a century, developing his own sound, improvising variations on different traditional scales, Ambassel, Bati, Anchi Hoye, Tizita. The common folk instrument, typically played by country shepherds while herding cattle, has four finger-holes and blown over a thin lower age. Yohannes was one of the first to make it fashionable, with charming taste and neatness, while keeping its traditional mode and tonality. Often dressed in national costume and slight of build, he performed skilfully onstage, whether he was at private setting or performing in a large hall. Yohannes Afework played the instrument in the band first in the Ethiopian Police Band, where he was hired with 35 birr salary per month, he recalled in a 2012 interview.
His reputation was cemented two years later when he joined Orchestra Ethiopia, a folklore ensemble founded in 1963 at the Creative Arts Center of the then Haile Selassie University. Playing along with fellow members such as Tesfaye Lemma, Melaku Gelaw, Getamesay Abebe, Charles Sutton and others, here he was able to demonstrate a more refined and experimental tone blending with different scales. Orchestra Ethiopia lasted for 13 years and the results of their musical collaborations are considered among the finest in the field. In 1969, Yohannes accompanied Orchestra on a concert tour of the USA, during which they performed in twenty cities, introducing Ethiopian music to the American public. The tour proved a great success with the audience responding with a standing ovation at each venues and favourable press coverage.
After the revolution of 1974, the Orchestra was officially dissolved because of budgets issues and soon after, Yohannes joined the Hager Fikir Theatre which has become his professional address for the next three decades. He recalls his treasured souvenirs from the tour to Kenya, Nigeria, the former Soviet Union and Italy. In 1987, Yohannes also participated in the official “People to people Tour,” that toured the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.
His piece, sad and tender one, was made the opening theme to a weekly radio narration of the classic Amharic novel, Fikir Eske Mekabir (Love Unto the Grave) in the 1980’s, giving him more recognition. His later collaborations include with vocalists such as Tilahun Gessese, Alemayheu Eshete, Tsehaye Yohannes and the pioneer of Ethio jazz, Mulatu Astatke.
Asefa Beyene, a veteran actor, former colleague and long-time friend said of him: “His washint was made of bamboo yet he played it like a flute. He was tireless. His energy and enthusiasm never failed to amaze me. He had great musical ability, a well-rounded tone, breath control and mellifluous sound.”
Gabriella Ghermandi, an Italian-Ethiopian performer and head of the Atse Tewodros Project, said: “He used to treat his washint as his own offspring. He was committed to it and he had such an attachment.”
Gabriella says she has a great deal of admiration and respect for the late artist, who she credits as supporter and backer of the Atse Tewodros Project, an initiative that she formed to forge musical collaborations between Ethiopian and Italian musicians. “He was like father and brother to me and he hugely supported in launching the project and convincing other musicians to join us, free of charge. We will miss his warmth, humour and kindness. It was a privilege to have known and worked with him,” she told Ethiopia Observer.
Director of Azmari Bet Fendika and founder of Ethio-Color group, Melaku Belay says Yoahnnes has helped to bring Washint to a new phase.
“The Washint bamboo instrument was shunned and was relegated to be played solo. But he showed it was possible for the instrument to be played in ay mixed with other instruments in band” he said.
Born in Gishe Abay, near the source of Blue Nile, Yohannes was gravitated to singing early, drawing inspiration from the shepherds in the village, though his priest father strongly discouraged him as much as possible from devotion to music. He left his tiny village for the capital, telling falsely a truck driver his parents were dead. In Addis Ababa, he would start performing in the then famous Zerihun Tej Bet (Honey mead house) in Mercato for few coins, until he was spotted by an officer who take the Police Band.
Yohannes is survived by his five children.
Source (Ethiopia Observer)
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Ethiopia’s foremost washnit player, Yohannes Afework dies at 72 was last modified: March 1st, 2019 by