Ethiopia Mourns Treasured Singer at State Funeral



Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have attended a state funeral for legendary singer Tilahun Gessesse, considered a symbol of national unity since the time of Emperor Haile Selassie. Many of Tilahun's songs were considered anthems, binding together a country through war and famine, monarchy and dictatorship.

Mourners wailed in the streets and security forces struggled to control massive crowds as a nation said farewell to a man many call 'the father of Ethiopian music'. Radio stations interrupted regular programming for a live broadcast of the memorial service.

Hours before the service began, tens of thousands of fans, many with tear streaked faces, gathered  under a blazing sun in Addis Ababa's main square, chanting and singing along with Tilahun Gessesse's songs.

Fifty-year-old Antene Gizachew said nobody will replace him in Ethiopia's heart.

"He's a legend for Africa," said Antene Gizachew. "He was motivator, humanitarian, so the United States has legends, as a young man I remember Elvis was a legend. He's like our Elvis. He lives in each Ethiopians hearts and minds forever."

Tilahun's golden voice captivated a struggling nation, transcending politics and time. He was a favorite of Emperor Haile Selassie, and served in the Imperial Guards.

His fame grew through the years of Marxist dictatorship known as the Dergue, under Mengistu Haile Mariam. His songs about starvation raised millions of dollars for a famine-stricken nation. He traveled abroad, thanking the world for its support during the famed "We are the world" campaign.

But unlike many who fled the terror of the Dergue, he overlooked politics and kept on singing to his adoring public.  

He won over the current government a decade ago during Ethiopia's war with Eritrea when he went to the front to entertain the troops.

The front row of seats at the memorial service was dotted with the faces of top government officials.

Also prominent at the service was a massive floral bouquet sent by the young singing sensation Teddy Afro, whose songs were adopted by the opposition during the violent anti-government protests following the 2005 elections. Afro is currently serving a prison sentence for a fatal hit-and-run traffic accident.

Famed artist Sileshi Demisse says even though Tilahun's music sometimes had a political edge, politicians of all stripes embraced him.

"He was not anti any government personally, but through his music he expressed his feelings during all these three regimes, and all these governments were going to give him a hard time," said Sileshi Demisse. "But he wasn't that politically hard, but he was saying what he wants to say."

Prominent actor Abdullah Balcha, who also served as Tilahun's personal attorney, says the singer not only had a knack for expressing the people's feelings, but could do it in several languages.

"There was some operation in every form at the time of the emperor, at the time of the dergue, there was that feeling of expressing, and he was always the voice of the people," said Abdullah Balcha. "He used to sing perfectly and eloquently in Amharic and Oromifa and in Sudanese, Arabic as well."

Tilahun had been in poor health in recent years, suffering from diabetes. He died Sunday, hours after returning to Ethiopia from the United States. He was 68-years-old.

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